Environmental Justice an Overview

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have placed a local focus on the site of
the former coal to gas plant on the corner
of 5th and Hill. Under this quiet grassy
surface and beneath the white building
with peeling paint lies a Pandora’s Box.
This box reveals hazardous poisons in the form of coal tar.
The strategic location of this plant is an example of how
waste and pollution intersects with race and socioeconomic
status. A map of the site from 1892 shows how some of
the neighboring households are labeled as “Negro” to identify
the presence of African American households. .
The journey through the historical landmarks of the
environmental justice movement reveals an assortment of
curves, forks, and bumps in the road. In 1967, an African
American girl drowned in a pile of garbage and this
sparked a protest by Texas Southern University students
who questioned the location of the landfill in a predominately
black neighborhood. Sociologist Robert Bullard,
director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center,
noted this as an early example of how waste and pollution
intersects with race and socioeconomic status. According
to Bullard people of color represent 56 percent of the population
that lives within two miles of polluting industries.
The environmental justice movement is a progressive
hybrid developed from the merging of ideals from both
the civil rights movement and environmental activism.
Environmental justice activists share these three common
1. To acknowledge and stop the burdens imposed
on poor and minority people by the presence of
harmful environmental conditions.
2. To include affected individuals into the larger
dialogue within public agencies and the mainstream
environmental movement
3. To create a vision of a community that is healthy
and sustainable
The right to breathe clean air, the right to be healthy,
and the right to live in surroundings that aren’t contaminated
by smog and pollution is a concern of environmental
justice activists. In the early history of environmental
justice, activists found that established ‘mainstream’ organizations
were not inclined to embrace the cause. This
could be attributed to the roots of environmentalism being
entrenched in the conservation and preservation of
wildernesses and wildlife. When activists started to
approach organizations like the Sierra Club they were told
that their issues were a matter of public health and not
‘environmental.’ Since then both the Sierra Club and the
EPA have developed an approach to understanding and
addressing environmental justice.
In 1982 protesters gathered in Warren County, North
Carolina to block trucks carrying PCB’s (polychlorinated
biphenyls—a known carcinogen) to a hazardous waste
site. The protests in North Carolina and other locations
eventually led to the development of a report by The United
Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. When
this report was released in 1987 it showed how corporations
establish their bases in areas occupied primarily by
African Americans and other minority groups. This could
be attributed to the historical relationship between industry and government taking advantage
of racist practices in housing and
One way in which activists have started to
communicate the seriousness of environmental
justice issues is through conducting Toxic
Tours. These are tours where participants are
guided through neighborhoods that are surrounded
by pollution. Phaedra Pezzullo wrote
about her experiences as a participant/observer
in a toxic tour of Louisiana. The stretch of
land that expands from New Orleans to Baton
Rouge hosts over 125 petrochemical industries.
Areas such as this have been referred to
by Bullard as “Human Sacrifice Zones.” Pezzullo
referred to Toxic Tours as “A provocative
response to a disturbing situation.”
This overview of environmental justice
strives to generate a consciousness in
readers on what is happening in the
Champaign area. There are other parts of
the country, and even the world, where
people are suffering from the effects of
racist and classist practices of government
and industry. Being aware and getting
involved are two ways in which this issue
can be addressed.

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