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Basic Information

Background

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies. Meaningful involvement means that: (1) people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; (2) the publics contribution can influence the regulatory agency's decision; (3) their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and (4) the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.

How Did the Environmental Justice Movement Arise? The environmental justice movement was started by individuals, primarily people of color, who sought to address the inequity of environmental protection in their communities. Grounded in the struggles of the 1960's Civil Rights Movement, this movement sounded the alarm about the public health dangers for their families, their communities and themselves.

Early in 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of academic, social scientists and political activists met with EPA officials to discuss their findings that environmental risk was higher for minority and low-income populations. They alleged that EPA's inspections were not addressing their communities' needs. In response, the EPA Administrator created the Environmental Equity Workgroup in July 1990 to address the allegation that "racial minority and low-income populations bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population."

The Workgroup produced a report, "Reducing Risk in All Communities", in June 1992 that supported the allegation and made ten recommendations for addressing the problem. One of the recommendations was to create an office to address these inequities. Thus, the Office of Environmental Equity was established November 1992. The name was changed to Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1994.

On Feb 11, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations", to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions of minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities. The Order directed federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies to help federal agencies address disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs on minority and low-income populations. The order is also intended to promote nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment. It aims to provide minority and low-income communities access to public information and public participation in matters relating to human health and the environment. The Presidential Memorandum accompanying the order underscores certain provisions of existing law that can help ensure that all communities and persons across the nation live in a safe and healthy environment.

The executive order established an Interagency Working Group (IWG) on environmental justice chaired by the EPA Administrator and comprised of the heads of 11 departments or agencies and several White House offices. These include the EPA, the Departments of Justice, Defense, Energy, Labor, Interior, Transportation, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, and Health and Human Services, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Domestic Policy Council, and the Council of Economic Advisors. The IWG meets on a monthly basis to continue the collaborative projects. Fifteen demonstration projects, along with additional projects to be selected each year, have been chosen to depict the provision.

The statutes that EPA implements provide the Agency with authority to consider and address environmental justice concerns. These laws encompass the breadth of the Agency's activities including setting standards, permitting facilities, making grants, issuing licenses or regulations, and reviewing proposed actions of other federal agencies. These laws often require the Agency to consider a variety of factors that generally include one or more of the following: public health; cumulative impacts; social costs; and welfare impacts. Moreover, some statutory provisions, such as under theToxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), explicitly direct the Agency to target low-income populations for assistance. Other statutes direct the Agency to consider vulnerable populations in setting standards. In all cases, the way in which the Agency chooses to implement and enforce its authority can have substantial effects on the achievement of environmental justice for all communities.

Since OEJ was created, there have been significant efforts across EPA to integrate environmental justice into the Agency's day-to-day operations. Information on these activities can be found throughout the Agency. Every regional and headquarter office has an environmental justice coordinator to serve as a focal point within the organization. This network of individuals provides outreach and educational opportunities to external as well as internal individuals and organizations.

To find out more about environmental justice, use the navigation links on the left side of the page.

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