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October 01, 2003

Environmental Justice: An Unalienable Right for All

by Alan Ramo

We are at a time in history when civil rights are protected by law and racial slurs are considered matters of great offense. Ironically, however, environmental attacks on people with low incomes and people of color still occur on a daily basis without condemnation or prosecution.

More than one study has determined that the strongest predictors of commercial hazardous waste activity in the United States are race and ethnicity. Blood levels of lead and byproducts of pesticides, for example, are found in significantly higher levels in Mexican Americans and African Americans than in whites. Enforcement activity against polluters in predominantly white communities is more rigorous and results in significantly higher penalties than in predominantly minority communities.

It was this disconnect between current perceptions of civil rights and the realities faced by minority and poor populations that gave rise to the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice recognizes that clean air and water, open spaces, and nontoxic living conditions must be viewed as basic civil rights, no less important than freedom of speech and the freedom to vote. In fact, the more we learn about the cumulative effects of environmental pollution on aging, fertility, and physical and intellectual development, the more fundamental the right to a healthful environment appears.

People living in environmental justice communities typically are exposed to pollutants in both their homes and their workplaces. Minor illnesses are exacerbated by a wide range of hazards including poor indoor and outdoor air quality, poor diet, and stress. Low-income families often do not have the time or money to take vacations, and they often lack refuges close to home. In many cases environmental justice communities have less open space per person than most of the country: less than one-half acre of parkland exists for every 1,000 residents in Los Angeles's poorest neighborhoods, yet in L.A. neighborhoods where the annual household income averages at least $40,000, the ratio is more than twenty-one acres per 1,000 people.

What transforms a difficult set of circumstances into a travesty of justice, however, is that people in these areas tend to lack the power of those responsible for the environmental problems. Given our present economy and the influence of money in politics, economic power and political power continue to conspire against environmental justice movements.

Nonetheless, I am continually inspired by the determination of people to organize despite these hurdles. Groups of citizens from Louisiana, New York City, and my home state of California have organized campaigns for environmental justice. Every such effort is a model and an inspiration for other communities facing similar concerns and for the large national environmental groups who are coming to realize that protecting the health of the poorest Americans is as important as protecting pristine lands in Alaska and rainforests in South America.

First Steps

Many of us who are active in the environmental justice movement were victims of environmental injustice early in our lives. My own experience growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, a part of the California district I now represent, undoubtedly forged my interest in environmental justice. Made up primarily of hard-working immigrants from Mexico and Asia, the area suffers from poor air quality due to freeways and gravel pits, industrial toxic waste in the water supply, and few public parks. The health of the community has been compromised-incidences of asthma, cancer, and other environmentally related diseases exceed common norms.

My political efforts have attempted to redress these injustices. In 1999, as a California legislator, I introduced the first statewide bill to address environmental justice, SB 115, which required the California EPA to incorporate environmental justice concerns into all its programs. More than thirty states followed California's lead by adopting environmental justice laws. In my current role as a U.S. congresswoman, I work to make environmental justice a priority in all public affairs. With Congressman Mark Udall of Colorado, I introduced the Environmental Justice Act of 2003, which would require all federal agencies to consider environmental justice when making decisions affecting communities already disproportionately affected by poor environmental conditions. I also attempt to protect access to open space, yet another environmental justice issue. The San Gabriel River Watershed Study Act, the first bill I introduced as a U.S. representative, took effect in July 2003. The law authorizes the U.S. Department of Interior to study ways to protect and restore the San Gabriel River and its watershed. Federal designation of parts of the area as parkland, wildlife refuges, scenic trails, and historical sites will provide accessible open space to two million people who live in close proximity to the river.

Environmental justice ultimately affects people and their communities. While governmental assistance in the legal, scientific, and financial realms can help, local citizens must initiate action at the grassroots level. To this end, I organized interactive training sessions in my district with the assistance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These sessions can be an effective way to link federal financial and legal power with local concern and engagement.

The Journey

To ensure the inclusion of environmental justice as an inalienable right within our society, we must consider a multitude of positive steps.

We must continue to increase our understanding of the threats to human health of multiple and cumulative exposures to environmental hazards. I am hopeful about a recently announced grant program from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that will connect people from environmental justice communities with scientific and medical experts. Environmental health organizations and state and regional environmental agencies in California also have begun studying such risks.

We must enact stronger pollution control measures and defeat recent attempts to weaken our Clean Air Act and other environmental laws. We must adequately enforce existing environmental laws-and these efforts should be redoubled in communities that already face an undue burden of pollution. Unfortunately, enforcement budgets, personnel, and actions within the federal EPA were drastically slashed during the past three years. A recently leaked internal EPA study revealed a shocking lack of investigation, enforcement, and punishment of Clean Water Act violators: half the serious offenders exceeded pollution limits by 100 percent or more, and fewer than half of all disciplinary actions resulted in a fine (of those that did, the average was a mere $6,000).

We must make a renewed commitment to the fundamental fairness of the "polluter pays" principle, so that poor communities are not left with the dual burden of environmental illness and the costs of cleaning up past pollution. Since 1995 Congress has failed to reauthorize the Superfund tax on polluting industries. Without this revenue, the Superfund Trust Fund, used to clean up the worst polluted areas in the country, has dwindled from more than $3 billion in 1995 to only $28 million in 2003. At the same time, the share contributed by taxpayers has increased dramatically. In 1995 citizens paid 18 percent of costs to clean up Superfund sites; in 2003 taxpayers will be responsible for a whopping 54 percent. Thus, ordinary people now pay more to get less protection and cleanup from toxic waste.

We must look beyond the regulation and restriction of harmful activities to the creation and encouragement of beneficial actions, such as the creation and revitalization of green spaces. Many of these activities can be win-win situations in which environmental improvement and community economic development will go hand in hand. I favor the creation of "green zones," specially designated areas of the country that receive incentives for residents and businesses to work together toward cleaner, healthier communities. This approach recognizes that corporations and small businesses can be major players in finding solutions to environmental justice problems.

Environmental justice is environmentalism focused directly on people and families. From rural areas in Middle America to the chemical alleys of Louisiana to the most densely populated urban areas of California and the Northeast, the message is becoming clearer: a clean, healthful environment must be a fundamental right of all Americans.

Hilda L. Solis was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 2000. She is presently serving her second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. She represents the 32nd Congressional District of California, which encompasses the San Gabriel Valley and parts of East Los Angeles.

The Environmental Justice Clinic at the Golden Gate University School of Law: Profile of Environmental Justice Activism

A global independent energy producer applies to add a third fossil fuel power plant in a predominantly low-income African American community in San Francisco. The Port of Oakland proposes to expand its operations, doubling the number of diesel truck trips through a similar neighborhood in West Oakland. The U.S. Navy shuts down military bases without properly containing and cleaning up the accumulated toxic wastes flowing into San Francisco Bay. Government agencies permit gas stations, auto paint shops, waste recyclers, and waste incinerators to flourish in communities of color without adequate pollution controls. These assaults on local communities are the daily grist of Golden Gate University School of Law's Environmental Law and Justice Clinic.

Golden Gate, an ABA-approved law school, established the clinic in 1994 to teach law students how to practice law skillfully and ethically. Taking its cue from the U.S. environmental justice movement, the clinic seeks to address the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards in communities of color. Clinic seminars stress the socioeconomic underpinnings of environmental problems in addition to traditional lawyering skills and substantive law. Because the lack of power often is one seed of environmental racism and injustice, faculty emphasize client empowerment in all interactions with community organizations and select clinic cases only after close consultation with clients.

California's flawed experiment with electricity deregulation spawned a major area of clinic work, because independent companies sought to build new power plants in those communities already overburdened with fossil-fuel pollution-in many cases the very companies charged with creating the energy crisis by withholding energy from their existing plants. Air pollution, which causes the most diseases and ravages those in low-income communities who are most exposed to diesel buses and factory wastes, also is a clinic focus. The Clean Air Accountability Project clinic seeks to enforce permits and government promises to clean up airborne pollutants touted in required state implementation plans.

The clinic seeks to provide communities the tools they need to ensure compliance. For example, the clinic successfully sued the federal government to post all federally enforceable air pollution laws on the Internet. Another successful project now requires the local air district to inform the public about ongoing violations by polluters. The clinic's ultimate goal is that the students who work on our cases now will become, as lawyers, resources for these communities in the future.

Alan Ramo

Alan Ramo is presently a professor of law at Golden Gate University School of Law, where he directs the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic and the LLM in Environmental Law graduate program.