chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
October 01, 2003

Environmental Justice and the Intersection of Health and Economic Development

by James E. Clyburn

Three of the most important issues confronting Americans in this new century, aside from national security, are health, economic development, and the environment. All of these find a nexus and confluence in the area of national concern referred to today as environmental justice. The environmental justice movement seeks to remedy a legacy of environmental racism and economic disparity by promoting the fair treatment of people of all races, incomes, and cultures with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment implies that no person or group of people should shoulder a disproportionate share of the negative environmental impacts resulting from the execution of this nation's domestic and foreign policy programs. Fair treatment implies that no business, industry, or other entity be allowed to pollute marginalized or economically disadvantaged communities.

My work with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has built on a long-standing commitment to environmental justice among the members of this organization. At the 1996, 1997, and 1999 CBC annual conferences, I chaired a series of panel discussions focusing on environmental justice and the plight of environmental justice communities. From these discussions, it became clear to me that there was a great need for a national forum and dialogue among all stakeholders, a dialogue in which communities, industry, government, tribes, and academia could speak clearly in their own voices. After becoming the chairman of the CBC, I convened leaders in those communities in a four-day conference held in Hilton Head, South Carolina, in June 1999. Entitled "Environmental Justice: Strengthening the Bridge between Economic Development and Sustainable Communities," the conference attracted more than 200 stakeholders who discussed and debated the complex issues underlying environmental justice. The conference was a striking success and helped to develop an ongoing national dialogue on the issue.

In September 1999, based on the success of the Hilton Head conference and the resulting outpouring of interest, the CBC created the Environmental Justice Braintrust. CBC members promote braintrust positions and policies in their work in the Congress. As chair of the new braintrust, I asked the organizers of the Hilton Head conference to develop a panel of leaders from all of the stakeholder groups to conduct a series of public "listening sessions" to gather information, complaints, and recommendations from the American public on environmental justice issues. The distinguished fifteen-member panel became the National Environmental Policy Commission (Commission).

The Commission devoted a year to conducting five listening sessions across the nation, and long hours of deliberation to evaluating testimonies, materials, and recommendations. In the resulting September 21, 2001, report to the CBC Environmental Justice Braintrust (available at, the Commission identified four cornerstones of a comprehensive national environmental policy: human health and safety, environmental protection, environmental justice, and economic development. The group also recommended that a new Commission, with a broader charter and expanded membership, should be established to continue work on a national environmental policy focusing on the intersection of environmental justice, health, and economic opportunity.

Acting on that recommendation, the CBC Braintrust on Environmental Justice coordinated with the CBC Braintrust on Health to develop a second report compiled from listening sessions held in Albuquerque, Charleston, Detroit, Seattle, the Virgin Islands, and other locations. The second report addressed equal access to health care and equal protection from health impairment.

The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine found striking disparities in health and medical care among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. According to the National Institutes of Health, heart disease mortality is 40 percent higher for African Americans than Caucasians. Cancer death rates are 44 percent higher for African Americans than whites. Such statistics dramatize the importance of the NEPC's inquiry into the impacts of pollution on health and the impacts of disproportionate locations of polluting facilities and activities in communities of concern.

The Commission's second report (available at, which was officially unveiled at the September 2003 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference, offers several recommendations to resolve the concerns through oversight of federal agency programs, legislation, or use of appropriations to provide resources to the affected communities. The recommendations focus on the key topics addressed during the listening sessions: preservation of health for all, justice in environmental regulations and community quality of life, and sound sustainable economic development. Communities should not have to choose between clean water, good health, or good jobs.

As a result of the Commission's two reports, Congress now has comprehensive recommendations of proposed action dealing with environmental justice issues that come straight from the stakeholders in this issue. The Congressional Black Caucus plans to seek implementation of these recommendations through legislative initiatives. We will continue to lend our voice and our platform to addressing this fundamental civil rights issue.

The Commission's new consensus recommendations for congressional action on environmental justice are as follows:

  1. Congress should launch an initiative to eliminate disparities in health care and health outcomes according to race and income.
  2. Congress should leverage newly devoted homeland security resources to provide improved health information and services to communities of concern.
  3. Congress should pursue avenues for federal, state, local, and tribal governments to work together to expand the safety net of environmental control to all sources of pollution. 
  4. Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other federal agencies must find better mechanisms to involve communities in environmental decision making at all levels. 
  5. Congress should exercise its oversight and funding authorities to fully and accurately characterize and control the impacts of transportation projects on health and the environment. 
  6. Congress should create clear guidelines to correct federally owned facilities' failure to involve surrounding communities in their evaluation of environmental impacts and their failure to make timely progress on remedial obligations. 
  7. Congress, the EPA, and other federal agencies should facilitate consideration of workable mechanisms to incorporate environmental justice into land use planning. 
  8. Congress should highlight and support government and private sector gains in workplace diversity and inclusion.
  9. Congress should act to assure that transportation and economic development projects do not impair sacred sites.
  10. Congress should address the need for resources to support environmental infrastructure on tribal lands.
  11. Congress should address the need for environmental infrastructure in the U.S. territories.
  12. Congress should expand the collaborative model of the Interagency Working Group to new demonstration projects and additional governmental programs.
  13. Congress should provide support for community-based, faith-based, and traditional tribal organizations that have initiated important projects to protect community health, provide environmental and health information, and facilitate community revitalization.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.7, cont’d p.20.

James E. Clyburn

James E. Clyburn is a U.S. Representative from South Carolina. He is Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.