Environmental justice (EJ) is defined by California law as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws and policies.” The United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Justice says EJ “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
Advocates for environmental justice point to the overwhelming evidence that communities of color and poor communities face a disproportionate burden of environmental risks, and simultaneously reap fewer benefits of environmental laws than other populations. A frequently-cited example of environmental injustice is that stationary toxic and polluting sites are concentrated in areas where large numbers of poor and communities of color live, contributing to higher rates of chronic health problems such as asthma and cancer. Environmental justice issues have particular significance in California, where approximately 53% of its residents are African American, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, and other non-white groups, and where the number of poor neighborhoods increased by more than 26% between 1990 and 2000, according to the Brookings Institution.
Over the last two decades, the state’s environmental justice movement has claimed victories on issues including air quality, toxics, transportation, housing, worker safety and employment, economic development, open space and parks; more specifically, these efforts “have won significant advances in protecting the overall health of communities by preventing the siting of polluting industries and unwanted land uses, ensuring equal regulatory protection, and demanding that communities be involved in the policy-making that affects them (http://www.cbecal.org/pdf/healthy-communities.pdf).”
Examples of actions that help achieve environmental justice: The California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) released an Environmental Justice Action Plan in October 2004 to develop guidance on precautionary approaches, develop guidance on cumulative impacts analysis; improve tools for public participation and community capacity-building; and ensure EJ considerations within the state’s Environmental Action Plan.
Examples of actions that harm efforts to achieve environmental justice: The state’s massive ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles, and Oakland are a major source of air pollution, especially particulate emissions from diesel fuel. These emissions disproportionately impact the health of overwhelmingly low-income people of color living in the shadow of the state’s ports. State Senator Alan Lowenthal, backed by EJ advocates and other environmental groups, has fought for years to impose “polluter pays” fees that would help clean up the ports. However, former Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed Senator Lowenthal’s important port legislation for several years running—in 2004, 2006, and 2008.