Evaluating the Environmental Justice Movement

By Melissa Maki
Christopher Foreman

Christopher Foreman
Photo by Melissa Maki

Prior to the late 1980s, the environmental movement and the civil rights movement existed as distinct entities, forging very separate battles.  A growing awareness of the disproportionate exposure of low-income and minority communities to toxins developed into the environmental justice movement.  Christopher Foreman, professor of public policy and director of the Social Policy Program at the University of Maryland, spoke recently at the University of Virginia about the successes and challenges of this unique movement.

Foreman initiated his talk "The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice," with a brief history of the evolution of the environmental justice movement, noting that it began with local controversies over the siting of toxic waste landfills and incinerators.  Foreman cited an early case in North Carolina, where polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were illegally dumped along roadways.  When this hazard was discovered, the PCBs were cleaned up and moved to a landfill in Warren County, NC—whose population happened to be largely black and poor. 

The public outcry over the Warren County landfill siting decision led to a closer examination of the demographics of communities residing near toxic landfills.  Subsequent studies demonstrated a pattern of hazardous waste being more frequently dumped in poor and minority communities.  These findings galvanized civil rights groups, churches, unions, environmentalists and other unlikely allies to work together towards what eventually became known as environmental justice.

In 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which instructs government agencies to figure out a way to address environmental justice within their existing structures.  Up until that point, there was no federal legislation to specifically address concerns of environmental justice. Foreman commented that this attempt to “retrofit policy” has not been practical.  The Environmental Protection Agency has invited claims related to environmental justice based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title VI prohibits agencies from receiving federal money if they have been found to discriminate on the basis of race.  But as Foreman pointed out, it is very difficult to prove that waste sites within minority or poor communities are intentionally chosen. “Inherently, that’s a very awkward fit,” Foreman commented.

Foreman also critiqued the movement for its inability to establish key priorities and sustain the motivation and collaboration to see them through.  “There’s a political imperative—you need to maintain the coalition,” he said.   

Foreman noted that the environmental justice movement has been successful on two major fronts.  First, it has created wide discourse about the issues—a sort of “environmental populism”—and second, it has effectively mobilized and empowered people to fight specific problems, such as toxic waste facilities in their communities, sometimes successfully.  “At the local level we can engage and empower people,” said Foreman. 

The Class, Race, and the Environment lecture sponsors: Environmental Thought and Practice Program; Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies; Institute for Practical Ethics; Law School; Department of Politics; Department of Science, Technology, and Society; and Department of Environmental Sciences.