Environmental Justice

:: Site Contents

1. Definition of Environmental Justice
2. History of the Environmental Justice Movement
3. Sample of Environmental Injustice in Ohio
4. Proposed Environmental Justice Legislation
5. Call for Action!
6. More Information - Selected Links





:: Definition of Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice is a big term for an even bigger concept. It is both social justice and environmentalism-two movements that were born separately but whose goals are conjoined. The US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) defines Environmental Justice as "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." The key terms here are fair treatment and meaningful involvement. Essentially, minority and low-income populations tend to share an unfairly large portion of the burden we collectively place on our environment, and affected or potentially affected communities should have a place at the decision making table.


:: History of the Environmental Justice Movement

Like many social movements, the formal name "Environmental Justice" is younger than the cause itself. The author and advocate Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest:

"All social justice organizations can trace their roots back some 220 years when three-fourths of the world was enslaved in one form or another. In 1787 a dozen people began meeting in a small print shop in London to abolish the lucrative slave trade. They were reviled and dismissed by businessmen and politicians. It was argued that their crackpot ideas would bring down the English economy, eliminate growth and jobs, cost too much money, and lower the standard of living." (p. 24)

Though the cause for Environmental Justice (EJ) is modern, criticisms of the attempts to correct injustice have not changed in centuries.

Most people start the clock for the American EJ movement with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act was a triumph for the social justice movement, officially confirming 14th Amendment rights guaranteeing "equal protection of the laws" to any person. But earlier, in 1962, the scientist Rachel Carson sparked the modern environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, drawing attention to the damage the pesticide DDT was wreaking on the environment and on human health. The toxin, after being sprayed on crops, was turning up in alarming places like human breast milk. In 1969, a lawsuit filed on behalf of six disadvantaged migrant farm workers, who were also nursing mothers, led to a ban on DDT in the U.S. and an early victory for Environmental Justice. The same year saw the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catch on fire.

A decade later, residents of a middle class suburb of Houston sued Southern Waste Management, Inc. for its decision to place a new waste facility in their community. The unsuccessful charge was racial discrimination, citing, among other facts, that their mostly minority community had 15% of the solid waste sites in Houston but only 7% of the area population. In 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice issued a report, "Toxic Wastes and Race," finding that the strongest variable related to hazardous waste facility citing is race--an even stronger factor than the average income level or the average education level of surrounding communities. A 2007 update of the report, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," finds that the disparity has grown.

A pivotal milestone for the EJ movement came in the form of an Executive Order issued in 1994 by President Clinton. It directed all federal agencies to make the achievement of Environmental Justice part of their mission. The order created the Interagency Working Group for idea sharing and built on the efforts that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had already undertaken by founding the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council in 1992.

But for all the legislative and bureaucratic progress toward a comprehensive Environmental Justice policy, the implementation at the federal level has suffered from a deficit of management, funding, and priority. In 2006, the Office of the Inspector General of the EPA issued the report "EPA Needs to Conduct Environmental Justice Reviews of its Programs, Policies, and Activities" to highlight the agency's failure to implement the goals of the 1994 executive order. The report also gave recommendations for improvement. Environmental Justice legislation at the state level in Ohio will help fill the void left by the national EPA as well as to more effectively address local issues.




:: Sample of Environmental Injustice in Ohio

:: Waste Technologies Industries, East Liverpool, Ohio

Everybody knows the story of Erin Brockovich, made famous by the Hollywood movie that bears her name, for her role in seeking Environmental Justice for a community in California that had suffered for decades with health problems related to illegal groundwater contamination. Less obvious are other stories like it, even here in Ohio, which are every bit as serious but don't make good movies. The town of East Liverpool, set on a bluff above the Ohio River, is known as the pottery capital of the world and was once a favorite summer retreat for the millionaire mogul Andrew Carnegie. Today it is home to the highest cancer rate in Ohio. One of the nation's largest toxic waste incinerators, Waste Technologies Industries, sits on a floodplain below the town so that the tops of its smokestacks are level with area homes and businesses. Without input from the town residents, the incinerator received a special variance to build within 1,000 feet of an elementary school. The plant emits a cocktail of toxins including dioxin, a known cancer-causing agent, and mercury, a neurotoxin, which becomes concentrated in fish and can cause health problems in the people who eat them. (See the Earth Day Coalition's Mercury and Fish Consumption Advisory page.) Most of East Liverpool's residents have incomes near the poverty line, and few can afford to move, and most of the town's small minority population lives in the immediate vicinity of the plant. Unlike in the factory in the Erin Brockovich story, this waste incinerator is 100% legal, having received all necessary permits and variances without the input of the people who breathe its exhaust. More information can be found in this University of Michigan study.

:: Air pollution in NE Ohio

Air pollution in Ohio is bad. EPA data and an Associated Press investigation show that 26 of the 200 communities whose members are most at-risk for long-term health damage from industrial air pollution are in Ohio, including the single most at-risk community. In 2000, Cleveland's own Lincoln Electric Co. was ranked tenth in the country for the high level of risk the factory's pollution posed to the health of the surrounding community.

The Cleveland news channel WKYC recently reported on a USA Today study that found 24 schools in Northeast Ohio that are in the top 1% nationally for air high in carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and other toxic chemicals. As they write: "A dozen local schools scored worse than a suburban Cincinnati school that was closed three years ago after the Ohio EPA found airborne carcinogens at more than 50 times acceptable levels." The schools with the unhealthiest air are in Euclid, Brook Park, Cleveland, Akron, and Canton--cities with higher than usual minority and low-income populations.

Air Quality Links:
NOACA Air Quality Program
EDC Clean Air Program
Cleveland Department of Public Health, Division of Air Quality

:: Water in Coal Run, Ohio

In July of 2008, residents of the mostly black community of Coal Run in rural Southeast Ohio won a rare victory for Environmental Justice when a jury awarded them compensation for having been denied public water service because of their race for nearly 50 years. The local water table is contaminated from coal mining, so until water lines were finally installed in 2003, some residents collected rain, some trucked in water from elsewhere, and some were forced to use water from contaminated wells. The court found that two local water authorities and the city of Zanesville, Ohio were guilty of violating state and federal civil rights laws, as surrounding white communities were provided water service.

:: First Energy, Cleveland, Ohio

The First Energy power plant at E 72 St. and the Shoreway in Cleveland applied at the end of 2008 for a variance to allow the plant to maintain and possibly increase its mercury output ahead of a 2010 deadline that would decrease the allowable discharge limit. In a perfect world, mercury pollution would be zero, as mercury is a neurotoxin that impairs brain function in humans even in small amounts. The new discharge limit after 2010 established by the Great Lakes Initiative was calculated to prevent further deterioration of current ecological standards, and it was set at 1.3 parts per trillion (ppt). First Energy currently averages 2.9 ppt in its discharge, but rather than work to meet the new standard, it applied for a new limit of 8 to 13 ppt--well in excess of its current need. The First Energy plant is in an Environmental Justice community, made up of minority and low-income populations, but the plant lacks the official designation by the Ohio EPA that would require greater transparency in the regulatory process. The Ohio EPA met their legal requirement to give 45 days of notice before the one and only meeting for public input on the proposed pollution variance by posting it in the Plain Dealer. However, interested parties were not contacted until just days before the meeting and were left with little time to prepare or spread the word throughout the community that could soon be breathing more toxic air and eating fish with higher levels of mercury. An Environmental Justice public policy in Ohio could help prevent communities such as this from being ignored.


:: Proposed Environmental Justice Legislation for Ohio

There is an exciting opportunity in the State of Ohio to advance the cause of Environmental Justice by improving the flow of information between communities, regulators, and polluters. A proposed bill will help give socially and economically disadvantaged communities a fair voice in the decision-making processes that affect their environment and their health.

In 2007, the group Ohioans for Health, Environment, and Justice (OHEJ) and a coalition of local organizations including the Earth Day Coalition held listening forums in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Athens about Environmental Justice in Ohio and possible solutions to address injustice. As a result of these meetings, legislation was drafted that will soon be introduced as a bill in the Ohio General Assembly by Rep. Tracy Maxwell Heard (District 26, Columbus). The proposed legislation would create a statewide Environmental Justice Task Force, an Environmental Justice Advisory Commission, and an official Advocate for Environmental Justice.

The Task Force will develop and implement a statewide Environmental Justice strategy. The Commission will be a popular forum with representatives from businesses, civil rights groups, faith and academic institutions, community groups, non-profits, and others from all across the state that will advise the Task Force. The Advocate will be a link between communities, companies, and your state government. Similar structures have already been created in New York, Pennsylvania, and California. Find the summary of the proposed bill for Ohio here.

This EJ policy, when enacted, will help to ensure safer, healthier, and better-informed communities. Healthier communities can, in turn, lead to long-term economic growth as the state sheds its reputation as an unhealthy place to live and to do business. Rather than decrease the quality of life, as opponents to the abolition of slavery once warned and critics of Environmental Justice still argue, Ohio may one day find its place among the pioneers of a newer, healthier, and more stable economy.


:: Call for Action!

A coalition of organizations (listed below) is working in Ohio and in the Cleveland area to help secure Environmental Justice now. Achieving Environmental Justice is an important task for the health and wellbeing of the state, and it is up to us as citizens to make this a priority at the Statehouse. Please call or write your State Representative and your State Senator to express your support for this important Environmental Justice legislation. We will need all the voices we can get!

Find your Ohio State Representative and State Senator and their contact information here. In your letter or phone call, mention the Environmental Justice bill to be introduced in the House by Rep. Tracy Heard.



On March 7, 2009, the Earth Day Coalition with the other Cleveland parners for Environmental Justice hosted the Northeast Ohio Environmental Justice Town Hall Meeting at Cleveland State University. Photographs on this page show some of the speakers at the event that drew nearly 60 concerned citizens as well as Cleveland City Councilman Zachary Reed (pictured below) and State Representative Kenny Yuko, who promised to give his support to the citizen-drafted Environmental Justice bill!




:: More Information - Selected Links

Cleveland partners for Environmental Justice
• Buckeye Environmental Network
Center for Health, Environment, and Justice
Earth Day Coalition
Environmental Health Watch
• Lee-Seville-Miles Citizen Council
NAACP, Cleveland Chapter and Ohio Conference
Neighborhood Leadership Institute
Ohio Student Environmental Coalition
Ohioans for Health, Environment, and Justice

Environmental Justice Resources
• US EPA Environmental Justice Policy and Guidance
• US EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC)
• Clark Atlanta University Environmental Justice Resource Center
MapCruzin index of academic organizations and research about Environmental Justice

Environmental Facts for Your Area
• US EPA Envirofacts for your area
• US EPA Toxic Release Inventory Program (TRI)
• US EPA Enforcement and Compliance History Online
Right to Know Network: free access to environmental databases
• Environmental Justice summary report for Cuyahoga County, Ohio by Scorecard
Corp Watch search engine for personal investigations of corporations, pollution, and environmental racism

Environmental Justice News
• US EPA "EJ Quarterly" newsletter archive
Great Lakes Information Network

Earth Day Coalition Fact Sheets
• Fact sheet: Environmental Justice
• Fact sheet: Sustainable Development
• Fact sheet: The Triple Bottom Line

Environmental Justice for Cleveland's Neighbors
GUARD: Girard United Against Ruinous Dumping (member Gordon Byrne pictured below)
Ecology Center of Ann Arbor and Southeast Michigan
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice
• Environmental Racism in Chester, Pennsylvania

Taking an Active Role
Center for Health, Environment, and Justice
Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative
Women's Voices for the Earth
Redefining Progress: "shifting public policy to achieve a sustainable economy, a healthy environment, and a just society"
Organic Consumers' Association