Environmental Justice: An Emerging State Issue

By: - August 2, 2004 12:00 am

People who live in north and northeast Portland, Ore., are nestled in a perfect storm of blight, with commercial railroads and heavily-used highways scything through their neighborhoods, industrial plants scattered around and the Superfund-listed Willamette River just to the west.

Like many areas burdened with environmental problems, these neighborhoods also have high rates of unemployment and poverty and include a large proportion of Portland’s minority population.

“We have 16 air pollutants in our community that are more than 30 times over the benchmark,” Jeri Sundvall, the executive director of Environmental Justice Action Group, said. “There’s an industrial zone around us. We have a 14 percent asthma rate, double the country’s average.”

Spurred on by environmental and civil rights groups, Washington Gov. Gary Locke and then-Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, both of whom are Democrats, approved a plan in 2002 that allocates 1 percent of their states’ Interstate 5 transportation spending to go toward a community enhancement fund to ameliorate the impact in affected neighborhoods.

Oregon and Washington are among a growing number of states that have taken some action to make sure that less fortunate neighborhoods don’t bear more than their fair share of environmental impacts. Currently, a minority or low-income neighborhood is more likely to have toxic waste dumps, municipal landfills and incinerators, high levels of air pollution and a greater percentage of children with lead poisoning, a Clark Atlanta University study shows.

Twenty two states have created policies on environmental justice, and all but 13Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and Wyominghave enacted formal policy or programs that aim to fight discrimination in the placement of landfills, highways and industrial facilities, according to a survey completed by the University of California Hastings College of Law, updated in July by Stateline.org.

But New York City Environmental Justice Alliance director ShaKing Alston said much more effort is needed. “States have a way to go when it comes to environmental justice, and the strongest efforts could be and should be made at the state level,” he said.

The 22 states with policies that address the issue are generally on record favoring increased community participation and awareness during planning and construction of projects with an environmental impact. But the policies don’t always come with clear guidelines for implementation.

California, for example, created a working group on environmental justice and has passed eight laws in the last three years concerning the subject. Despite the legislative activity, environmental justice advocates in that state point to disparities between the enacted laws and their execution.

“We’d like to see the state of California actually follow the laws it creates,” Susan Bassain of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice in California, said. “Most of our issues with the states are that they violate the law on a regular basis. So most of our work involves making states do their jobs.”

Maryland established an environmental justice advisory panel in 1997 and former Gov. Parris Glendening (D) created the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities in 2001. But state Sen. Lisa Gladden (D) said there’s not enough action.

“The state of Maryland doesn’t have any clue about what’s going on. I don’t think we have a good grip on what environmental justice issues are, and there isn’t a coordinated effort in this state to make things happen,” Gladden said.

In March, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (D) signed an environmental justice executive order, but in early July he signed a “fast track” bill that the NJ Environmental Coalition said violated his order, and “ensures that those communities that have been most burdened by pollution and contamination in the past will continue to bear that burden in the future.”

This much is clear: whatever the facts on implementation, environmental justice is getting more political attention. The number of state officials who track environmental justice issues has grown significantly in recent years. States such as Arizona, California, South Carolina and West Virginia have staffers who work exclusively on such matters. Connecticut has established an environmental justice complaint contact and investigator who answers complaints and whose jurisdiction covers local, state and federal agencies.

Dr. Paul Mohai, a University of Michigan professor whose research has helped promote governmental focus on environmental justice, believes the current situation is a mixed bag.

“There have been some remarkable strides in the field, but in terms of on-the-ground results and making some laws with teeth in them, we still have a long way to go,” Mohai said. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.