Skip to content

Six Decades of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice has a rich history in America, and governmental organizations are starting to take action.

The notion that all people deserve access to an environment free of systematic oppression and degradation has been central to the fight for social justice. Yet until recently, the need to modify practices to respect the environmental needs of underserved communities has been overlooked.

Now that federal and state standards have been set for environmental justice (EJ), it is our collective responsibility to protect vulnerable people and the planet. To make these objectives our reality, we must work together to support the needs of frontline communities—from enhancing health care to strengthening environmental compliance and enforcement.

Before taking action, it is important to understand how the concept of EJ evolved and how it is currently regulated. Below, you will find a brief overview of some of the most notable events in the history of EJ.

What is Environmental Justice?

EJ is becoming a core priority for environmental permitting and strategy. Major policy proposals, regulatory initiatives, legal actions, and growing stakeholder pressure have underscored the need to consider underserved communities in the formation of environmental policies and solutions.

EJ as a concept asserts that all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, are entitled to fair treatment and meaningful involvement in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

  • Fair treatment means no community should be disproportionally burdened by negative environmental impacts from industrial, commercial, or governmental operations or policies.
  • Meaningful involvement means an opportunity exists for all people to participate in regulatory decisions that may impact their environment and health.

How Did the Environmental Justice Movement Begin?

The origins of EJ can be traced most directly to the environmental and civil rights movements of the 1960s—when public health dangers of environmental degradation and pronounced impacts on low-income and minority communities became readily apparent and documented.

Elements of what we know today as “environmental justice” also have their roots in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike; the 1979 formation of Houston’s Northeast Community Action Group; and the 1982 sit-in protest against a polychlorinated biphenyl landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. All of these events came to a head in 1990, when the “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard, PhD, produced “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality,” which drove action at the intersection of environmental issues and social justice.

In response, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” in 1994. The order created the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice. It also directed federal agencies to develop strategies to identify and address disproportionately adverse human health and environmental effects of programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.

What Do Modern Policies on Environmental Justice Look Like?

In recent times, President Joe Biden campaigned on promises to confront EJ issues. As one of his first actions as president, he signed Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” which established several new EJ initiatives. These included a government-wide Justice40 Initiative, as well as the development of a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool.

Significant action on EJ has also occurred at the state-level. Establishment of new task forces, commissions, and offices have focused on protecting overburdened communities. In 2021, states considered at least 150 bills related to environmental justice.

Leading the way in 2020, New Jersey passed Senate Bill (SB) 232, a landmark bill that aims to address “[t]he disproportionate environmental and public health impacts of pollution” on minority, low-income, and non-English-speaking communities. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is now required to identify the state’s overburdened communities and abide by new requirements when permitting certain facilities located within their census tracts.

How Should Environmental Justice Influence Us Moving Forward?

Keep in mind that EJ has a long, multifaceted history. Recent federal and state actions have raised the profile of EJ significantly, but its relevance is deep and profound—particularly in communities that have suffered an accumulation of prolonged and inequitable burdens from environmental hazards.

Even after several decades, environmental hazards continue to disproportionately impact minority and low-income communities. As active participants in environmental permitting and strategy, it is critical for APTIM to consider how our work can promote EJ.


Tim Olson
Policy Analyst

APTIM. In Pursuit of Better.

Connect with APTIM

To learn more about our comprehensive environmental policy and consulting expertise.

    Subscribe to the APTIM Xchange Newsletter

    APTIM's newsletter, The APTIM Xchange, provides industry news flashes, regulatory updates, service spotlights, and topical columns from our subject matter experts.