ENVS203 Study Guide

Unit 4: Environmental Justice

4a. Define environmental justice

  • What is the EPA's definition of environmental justice?
  • What do environmentalists mean by fair treatment and meaningful involvement?
  • How did Plato's ideas about the state and the soul shape what we understand of justice?

Proponents of environmental justice believe that every individual has a right to be protected from environmental degradation. Environment justice includes maintaining a clean and healthy environment for everyone who lives, works, and plays in areas that are closest to sources of pollution. Activists call for equal access to information, participation in decision-making, and justice in environment-related matters.

Environmental justice advocates note that environmental protections are often overshadowed when business leaders and politicians value profit incentives, in the name of progress and development, more than the need to protect poor and underrepresented populations from negative health consequences. Some call this attitude "environmental racism", "toxic imperialism", or "toxic colonialism". They complain that political and business leaders often target impoverished and minority communities when they seek to dispose of trash and hazardous materials or conduct experiments that create environmental hazards.

To review, see:

4b. Explain the factors that drive environmental prejudice

  • What is environmental prejudice?
  • What are four drivers of environmental prejudice?
  • Why is environmental justice a social justice issue?
  • What groups are most impacted by exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins and why?
  • What sparked the environmental movement to address inequity?

Minority and impoverished communities frequently face higher levels of environmental risk due to environmental prejudice and racism. Some activists argue these occurrences are deliberate and note that race has become a useful metric that scientists can use to assess exposure to environmental risk.

For example, many communities build landfills and incinerators near minority communities that put these populations at risk. They often fail to properly warn new homebuyers about the accompanying health risks when they move there. Native Americans face water pollution problems that create health problems and put their cultural traditions, which are tied to water resources on and off their reservations, at risk. Minority communities often lack sufficient representation among corporate decision-makers, regulatory bodies at all levels of government, and even among the leadership of environmental and natural resource advocacy organizations.

To review, see:

4c. Examine examples of environmental injustice from different parts of the world

  • Why does environmental justice represent a shift in thinking among world governments?
  • What is the relationship between economic development and environmental health?
  • What are four examples of environmental injustice and describe their impact on communities throughout the world?
  • What environmental injustices occurred in the fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California?

When segments of the local, regional, and global community suffer from the unhealthy side-effects of pollution, industrial waste, and other contaminants, they can no longer contribute to the economic success of their communities. They fall further and further behind, while their wealthier and healthier neighbors move on with their lives.

The chemicalization of our everyday environment, where toxic chemicals contaminate our bodies via the food we eat, air we breathe, water we drink, and personal care products we use. These chemical toxins harm our health by exposing us to carcinogens that cause many forms of cancer, neurotoxins which damage our neurological systems, and chemicals that promote birth defects.

Environmental ethicists argue that companies tend to build their incinerators and dispose of their chemical waste in low-income communities that are less politically organized and have fewer political and economic resources to defend themselves. In some cases the communities that are most impacted by the pollution are located in a different political district from the offending company – the people who suffer the effects of the pollution have fewer political avenues to oppose the company that is disposing of the waste.

Meanwhile, pollution and poor land management practices cause further destruction and economic decline when they restrict the community from engaging in healthy farming, fishing, and the efficient use of natural resources. Proponents of environmental justice argue that everyone (without exception) should have the opportunity to be involved in the effort to help develop, implement, and enforce environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

To review, see Environmental JusticeThe Chevron Oil Refinery Fire, and Greening the Ghetto.


4d. Formulate links between the human rights movement and environmental justice

  • What is the relationship between human rights and social justice?
  • What role has the World Health Organization played in the environmental rights movement?
  • What is the significance of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment?
  • What historic event took place during the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991 in Washington, DC?

Environmental justice advocates argue that a healthy environment should not be restricted to some segments of the community, and not others. However, research shows that certain groups disproportionately suffer environmental harms and/or are disproportionately denied environmental benefits and protections due to discriminatory practices. Those most affected include certain impoverished people and communities, minority and ethnic groups, and segments of the population who have achieved lower levels of education.

Members of the international community have proclaimed that environmental justice is a fundamental human right.

For example, Principle 1 of the Stockholm Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held on June 16, 1972, establishes a foundation that links human rights, health, and environmental protection when it declares that "Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being".

In her paper, Dinah Shelton notes "Procedural human rights are emphasized in environmental agreements. Several dozen international treaties adopted since the Stockholm Conference call upon states to take specific measures to ensure that the public is adequately informed about environmental risks, including health risks, posed by specific activities. In addition to the right to information, the public is also given broad rights of participation in decision-making and access to remedies for environmental harm. The protections afforded have increased in scope and number since the adoption of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development".

International organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, offer valuable information about the global environmental risks our communities face. These organizations research these global challenges and document their work in comprehensive annual reports.

To review, see Human Rights, Health, and Environmental Protection, UN Conference on the Human Environment, and Principles of Environmental Justice.


4e. Identify major changes brought about by environmental rights litigation

  • What is a toxic tort lawsuit?
  • What do you need to prove to successfully bring a toxic tort lawsuit?
  • What are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) five top areas of environmental concern?
  • What are the main objectives of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Environmental Quality Improvement Act?

Environmental rights litigation has helped countries maintain regulatory compliance, reduce negative environmental impacts, and integrate environmental programs into their public policy. Additionally, this litigation has created mechanisms for monitoring environmental performance, identifying root causes of environmental degradation, and conducting corrective and preventive actions.

A toxic tort lawsuit is a type of personal injury lawsuit individuals and groups bring against the manufacturer or supplier of a chemical product that causes a toxic injury. In addition, the U.S. Congress has passed the following legislation that authorizes various federal agencies to promote, regulate, and enforce environmental sustainability in the United States.

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) (1976) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to: 1. assess and regulate new commercial chemicals before they enter the market, 2. regulate chemicals already existing in 1976 that posed an "unreasonable risk to health or to the environment", such as PCBs, lead, mercury and radon, and 3. regulate the distribution and use of these harmful, toxic chemicals.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) (1980), also known as the Superfund, authorizes federal natural resource agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, and Native American tribes to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants. Sites managed under this program are referred to as "Superfund Sites".

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (1970) requires "all executive Federal agencies to prepare environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs). These reports state the potential environmental effects of proposed Federal agency actions. In addition, the U.S. Congress formally recognized that each person has a responsibility to preserve and enhance the environment as trustees for succeeding generations".

The Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970) created the Office of Environmental Quality whose role is to "assure that each Federal department and agency conducting or supporting public works activities which affect the environment shall implement the policies under existing law".

Review toxic tort lawsuits, environmental rights litigation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Environmental Quality Improvement Act, and the National Environmental Education Act in the following resources.

To review, see Environmental Law and Modern Environmental Management.

4f. Examine environmental management strategies

  • What are brownfields?
  • Why do brownfields present a great concern for environmental agencies?
  • What are the components of an integrated waste management strategy?
  • What are four characteristics that define hazardous waste?
  • What regulations govern the management of solid and hazardous wastes, radioactive waste, and medical waste?

Environmental management systems bring together the people, policies, plans, review mechanisms, and procedures used to manage environmental issues to create strategies that facilitate environmental compliance, address environmental impacts, broaden environmental responsibilities to all whose work has a significant impact on the environment, and contributes the necessary technical expertise.

To review, see Environmental LawModern Environmental Management, and Greening the Ghetto.


4g. Identify the goals of the environmental rights movement

  • What legislation has the U.S. government passed to protect our environment?

The environmental rights movement argues that the earth's resources are limited and risk being completely depleted. As our population grows, many factors contribute to environmental health hazards and inequities, including habitat destruction, deforestation, overhunting, overfishing, and an increasingly negative impact on each individual.

The environmental movement emerged due to the public's increased concern for the apparent rise in air and water pollution, radiation, pesticide poisoning, and other problems. It became increasingly clear that environmental pollution was a health hazard. Consequently, protective regulations and ethical management of the environment became a priority for the environmental rights movement. Advocates demanded the federal government accept responsibility for the degradation and take appropriate action to resolve it. 

To review, see Environmental LawModern Environmental Management, and Greening the Ghetto.


Unit 4 Vocabulary

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA)
  • deforestation
  • environmental degradation
  • environmental health hazards 
  • environmental management systems
  • environmental prejudice
  • environmental justice
  • Environmental Quality Improvement Act
  • habitat destruction
  • human rights
  • incinerators 
  • landfills
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • National Environmental Education Act
  • overfishing
  • overhunting
  • toxic tort lawsuit
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • United Nations (UN)