On June 2, 2017, in an act that the left and the right, as well as the global community, cautioned against and strongly criticized, President Donald Trump determined that the United States would no longer be party to the Paris Climate Accord (Paris Agreement). Immediately, cities across the country, from Pittsburgh to Portland, reacted. Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, an initiative of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, immediately responded by adopting the provisions of the Paris Agreement. A similar group organized by Michael Bloomberg and supported by 30 cities, 3 states, more than 80 university presidents, and 180 representatives from cities across the country, also pledged to defy the administration and uphold the Paris Agreement by intensifying efforts to reach climate goals. Hiroko Tabuchi & Henry Fountain, Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord, N.Y. Times (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/american-cities-climate-standards.html. In an open letter to the president regarding his then-pending decision to withdraw, a third group, the Mayors National Climate Action group, noted that as public servants “we also cannot ignore the costs of inaction. That is why we are also standing up for our constituents and all Americans harmed by climate change, including those most vulnerable among us.” Letter from Climate Mayors to Donald Trump on Roll Back of U.S. Climate Actions (Mar. 28, 2017), available at http://climatemayors.org/actions/letters-and-statements. As of this writing, 350 mayors have joined the Climate Mayors in their pledge to uphold the Agreement and protect their constituents from the impacts of climate change. See Members, Climate Mayors, http://climatemayors.org/about/members. And, in a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami in June 2017, leaders from more than 250 cities voted on resolutions committing their cities to running entirely on renewable resources by 2035. Associated Press, Hundreds of US Mayors Endorse Switch to 100% Renewable Energy by 2035, The Guardian (June 26, 2017).
It has been well established that poor people and people of color already are impacted disproportionately by climate change, as they are by nearly all other poor environmental practices. See, e.g., Stephanie Hallegatte, et al., Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, Climate Change and Development Series, World Bank Group (2014), available at https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/22787.
As the Flint water crisis and the Water Protectors’ fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) unfold, the battle to protect vulnerable populations from environmental harm has gone largely without recognition. Communities across the country are unjustifiably burdened with disproportionate levels of toxic air pollution, crumbling (or nonexistent) water and sewer infrastructure, contaminated drinking water, brownfield and Superfund sites, and other hazardous waste sites and sources of exposure. From the water contamination caused by antiquated urban infrastructure to the onslaught of climate refugees, environmental justice is becoming rapidly one of the major civil rights issues of the twenty-first century. It is a matter of concern at all levels—local to global, rural to urban.
Some strides toward improving the federal approach to environmental justice have been made. During the Obama administration, for example, movement was made to incorporate equity issues into decision-making. In 2011, the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG) (initially created by President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order 12898) signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898, creating a formal agreement among federal agencies to recommit to addressing the issue through a more collaborative and comprehensive process, incorporating more agencies into the IWG and articulating additional concerns. Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898 (2011). Additionally, a long-term strategy for environmental justice was adopted in the EJ 2020 Action Agenda of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EJ 2020 Action Agenda: EPA’s Environmental Justice Strategy, EPA (2017), available at https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/ej-2020-action-agenda-epas-environmental-justice-strategy. Nonetheless, the administration was still criticized for failing to address the environmental concerns of low-income and minority populations sufficiently. What lies ahead for federal action is at best uncertain, as any progress is threatened to be delayed or undone under the current administration.
Despite campaign promises made to the urban core and Appalachia and commitments to fix the drinking water in Flint, since January 20, 2017, the new administration has given no indication that it is remotely interested in helping vulnerable communities. The resignation of Mustafa Ali, a senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at EPA, was a harbinger of the problems in the federal approach toward environmental justice. Ali spent nearly a quarter of a century working to alleviate the impact of air, water, and industrial pollution on poverty stricken towns and neighborhoods. He also helped to start the Environmental Equity Office under President George H. W. Bush in 1992. Upon his resignation, Ali reminded then-incoming EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that “[c]ommunities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law . . . the choices we make on regulations . . . are interconnected with the lives of our vulnerable communities and tribal populations.” Letter from Mustafa Santiago Ali, Assistant Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice and Senior Advisor for Environmental Justice and Community Revitalization, to Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator (Mar. 8, 2017), available at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3514958-Final-Resignation-Letter-for-Administrator.html.
Ali’s concerns clearly were warranted. Only days into office, President Trump signed an executive order that pushed through the DAPL project and, with it, the potential for negative impacts to thousands of Native Americans’ drinking water. Further, the dollar value attached to environmental justice made was clear in the proposed 2018 EPA budget in which funding allocated to programs impacting environmental justice was zeroed out. U.S. EPA, Office of the Chief Financial Officer, FY 2018 EPA Budget in Brief, EPA-190-K-17-001 (May 2017), available at www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-05/documents/fy-2018-budget-in-brief.pdf. Dozens of programs are set to be eliminated, specifically including the EPA’s environmental justice program. The budget assured, however, that “Environmental Justice will continue to be supported in the work done at the EPA, when applicable.” Id. at 62. Further, numerous programs that intersect with environmental justice issues, from addressing the health risks of consuming contaminated fish to researching endocrine disruptors in pesticides, as well as numerous sources of funding for Tribal governments and Native Alaskans, are slotted for elimination. Deep funding cuts for programs like Sustainable and Healthy Communities, Safe and Sustainable Water Resources, the Tribal General Assistance Programs, and others addressing environmental issues that disproportionately impact low-income, minority, and Native American populations have been proposed.
As stated by the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, “Mayors understand first-hand the threats to security and public health that families are facing across the country.” Mayors for 100% Clean Energy, Sierra Club (2017), www.sierraclub.org/ready-for-100/mayors-for-clean-energy. Further, the actions of the hundreds of local officials opposed to the Paris Agreement withdrawal clearly demonstrated that addressing environmental justice falls to those operating at the local level. The mantle of protecting vulnerable communities from environmental harm has been taken up already to some degree at the state level; however, the tools available to protect these populations are far more promising in cities. This article will briegfly address the insufficient existing strategies for addressing environmental justice at the federal and state levels and will then detail how cities have sought to make up for these failures using traditional land-use laws and more directly thorough implementing new justice-specific ones.
What Is “Environmental Justice”?
The disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and economics all point to the role of self-interest in motivating human action. These fields would find a treasure trove of evidence in cases arising under environmental justice, where the concept of NIMBYism (“not-in-my-backyard”) underlies the lion’s share of environmental decision-making. Consider the cases generally attributed to starting the environmental justice movement.
In the first, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation, residents of Houston’s Northwood Manor alleged that a decision to site a garbage dump in their neighborhood was racially motivated and therefore in violation of section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. 482 F. Supp. 673 (1979). Although intentional discrimination was not established (despite the court’s recognition that the project would “affect the entire nature of the community, its land values, its tax base, its aesthetics, the health and safety of its inhabitants”), Bean prompted the use of the courts as a tool for environmental justice.
A similar conflict arose over North Carolina’s decision to site a highly toxic landfill for the burial of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Afton, an African American neighborhood in Warren County. Opponents charged that the site choice was racially and financially motivated, with indications that the site was not even “scientifically the most suitable” for the materials. See Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (3d ed. 2000). In response to the state’s decision, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, other African American civil rights activists, political leaders, area residents, and others staged a massive protest. Dr. Charles E. Cobb, then director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, asserted that “[t]he depositing of toxic wastes within the black community is no less than attempted genocide.” See Urban Environment Conference, Inc., Taking Back Our Health: An Institute on Surviving the Toxic Threat to Minority Communities (Wash., D.C.: Urban Env’t Conference, Inc., 1985). More than 500 protesters were arrested. Although the siting decisions remained unchanged, Bean and the Warren County protests exposed the common practice and feeling that communities were being targeted based on their demographics. Since that time, dozens of studies conducted by EPA alone have established that minorities, low-income communities, and indigenous people are exposed disproportionately to environmental harms and risks. See Barry Hill, Director, Office of Environmental Justice, EPA, Testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Feb. 8, 2002). Other federal agencies and offices, from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to the National Institutes of Environmental Health as well as countless academics, have offered the same conclusions. See, e.g., U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Environmental Justice: Examining the Environmental Protection Agency’s Compliance and Enforcement of Title VI and Executive Order 12898 (Sept. 2016) [hereinafer Examining EPA’s Compliance], available at www.usccr.gov/pubs/Statutory_Enforcement_Report2016.pdf; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Advancing Environmental Justice: Annotated Bibliography, available at https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/assets/docs/a_c/advancing_environmental_justice_annotated_bibliography_508.pdf; and Robin Turner & Diana Pei Wu, Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism: An Annotated Bibliography and General Overview, Focusing on U.S. Literature, 1996–2002, Berkeley Workshop on Environmental Politics, available at http://digitalcommons.butler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1576&context=facsch_papers.
Although much of environmental justice has addressed distributional disparities like those in East Houston and Warren County, on a larger scale the idea that unequal social, economic, and political power relationships make certain communities more vulnerable applies to threats to health and environment on a much larger scale than the siting of toxic waste facilities. Further, while race plays a significant role in these problems, it is by no means exclusive to minority communities. Low-income white communities across the country, such as those in Appalachia or throughout the Rust Belt, face similar injustices.
EPA has defined environmental justice as the “fair treatment of people of all races, income, and cultures with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies, and their meaningful involvement in the decision-making processes of the government.” Memorandum from Christine Todd Whitman, EPA Adm’r, to Assistant EPA Adm’rs, et al., EPA’s Commitment to Environmental Justice (Aug. 9, 2001). Environmental justice in this context seeks to achieve the fair treatment and the meaningful involvement of affected citizens in the creation, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, particularly for those bearing disproportionate burdens. It further requires the provision of the necessary resources and assistance needed to clean up and protect vulnerable communities. Finally, environmental justice is not just pushing for sustainable practices; it is also a matter of linking environmental rights to economic justice. Laws at the federal, state, and local levels have been used to address the issues with varying degrees of success.
Federal and State Actions for Environmental Justice
Numerous federal and state laws either directly or tangentially address environmental injustices with varying degrees of impact. Although the movement began in the early 1980s, the law of environmental justice took a decade to become official. The first step occurred in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush created EPA’s Office of Environmental Equity tasked with investigating discrimination complaints against state and local agencies receiving EPA funds. Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation, U.S. EPA, Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities (1992). President Clinton later renamed it the Office of Environmental Justice and, in 1994, issued Executive Order 12898 on Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations in 1994. Exec. Order No, 12898, 59 Fed. Reg. 7629 (Feb. 16, 1994).
Clinton’s order was the first major federal action on environmental justice, requiring each federal agency to “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” Id. Although a landmark accomplishment, the order lacks teeth. It does not require that environmental justice considerations be a determining factor in siting, rulemaking, or permitting decisions, only that directed agencies adopt and implement an environmental justice strategy. Despite its limitations, the order recognized, and thus brought attention to, the environmental justice movement. It also inspired several state regulatory and policy actions that similarly required certain agencies to consider environmental justice in their decision-making process.
Affected communities also have the option of filing an administrative complaint with EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. Although predominantly applied to civil rights struggles until the 1990s, Title VI has been used more recently to fight against the actions of the government and polluters. Title VI prohibits exclusion from participation in, denial of benefits for, and discrimination under federally assisted programs on ground of race, color, or national origin by institutions receiving federal funding. See 42 U.S.C §§ 2000d–2000d-7; see also Guardians Ass’n v. Civil Serv. Comm’n, 463 U.S. 582, 598–99 (1983). Two Title VI sections have been relevant to environmental justice causes of action. Section 601 provides the act’s antidiscrimination provision, as described above. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000d. While this section clearly delineates the antidiscriminatory intent of the statute, section 601 has been ineffectual in preventing environmental inequities, requiring the extraordinary proof of discriminatory intent. Plaintiffs have thus far found it next to impossible to show that government or industry practices consciously discriminated. Wyatt Sassman, Environmental Justice as Civil Rights, 18 Rich. J.L. & Pub. Int., 441–460 (2015).
Title VI further authorizes agencies to promulgate their own implementing regulations to clarify the processes for determining whether grant applicants or recipients are engaging in discriminatory behavior and to provide a process for investigating and reviewing complaints. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1. The pertinent section also authorizes agencies to terminate funding for failure to comply with the statute’s provisions, after first seeking voluntary compliance. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d-1. EPA adopted its own Title VI implementing regulations in 1973, later amending them for clarification in 1981 and 1984. 38 Fed. Reg. 17,968, 17,969 (1973). Under these regulations, federal funding recipients are prohibited from engaging in practices that would create a discriminatory effect (or a disparate impact) or from locating facilities where they will have discriminatory effects; this includes state agencies granting environmental permits. 40 C.F.R. 7.35(b).
EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has almost never made a formal finding of discrimination. At the time of a 2016 publication reviewing agencies’ environmental justice efforts, no such finding had ever been made, nor had the agency ever denied or withdrawn financial assistance from a recipient. There is no mandate demanding accountability within EPA. See Examining EPA’s Compliance, supra. Since the release of the report, EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office has made a rare finding of discrimination, stating the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality treated African American residents of Flint unfairly when permitting a power plant more than two decades ago. Letter from Lilian S. Dorka, Director of External Civil Rights Compliance Office, Office of General Counsel, to Father Phil Schmitter, St. Francis Prayer Center (Jan. 19, 2017).
Federal laws are limited by content and enforcement. Executive Order 12898 is arguably toothless, in that it places no mandates on agencies to act in keeping with principles of environmental justice. It requires only the establishment of policies to consider the concept. An even more substantial hurdle, from the Equal Protection Clause to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, is that laws impose the nearly impossible hurdle of proving the intent to discriminate rather than a showing of discriminatory impact or effect. These limitations, in combination with recent disinterest from the executive branch, create a void that may and must be filled by cities.
Tip O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.” Though the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was referring to election strategies, the notion is easily transferrable to environmental justice. Local governments are well suited to address environmental justice as many of the decisions impacting vulnerable communities are made at the local level. Further, for individuals and communities that are often ignored at the national level, grassroots efforts may gain more attention from local lawmakers, ordinances may be more specifically tailored for a community’s needs, and enforcement may be better where the pollution is in a neighbor’s backyard. Many cities across the country have already sought to address actions impacting environmental justice through specific laws as well as by employing local land-use planning and zoning ordinances.
In 2009, Cincinnati became the first city to enact an environmental justice ordinance. Title X, Chapter 1041, Envtl. Justice, Ordinance 210-2009. The ordinance requires an environmental justice permit to be issued by the Office of Environmental Quality for any expansion or construction of hazardous waste facilities or hazardous air pollution point sources within city limits. The permit application must be reviewed by an Environmental Justice Board composed of health experts and community members. The ordinance also requires the permit process to follow all accepted procedures of good governance, including the allowance of public input (through public commenting), transparency, and community empowerment. Touted by many as groundbreaking, Cincinnati’s environmental justice ordinance has not yet taken effect. By its terms, the law becomes effective only after the city council provides funding for implementation. To date, the council has yet to do that.
Despite the lackluster outcome of its environmental justice ordinance, Cincinnati has been successful in utilizing Title X, Chapter 1001 on Air Quality, a provision controlling odors and air pollution that is grounded in nuisance law. The city has not been required to utilize this aspect of the ordinance recently; however, it has proved an effective tool in helping to modify the behavior of at least some industrial facilities near residential neighborhoods. Although the city suspended the enforcement of the law when the Office of Environmental Management fell victim to financial limitations, in 2004 the city council enlisted the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services to enforce the provisions of the ordinance after numerous complaints were registered by individuals clustered near industrial facilities and waste sites. Matt Leingang, This Air Stinks, The Cincinnati Enquirer (Mar. 26, 2004); Kevin Aldridge, City’s Clean Air Act Targets Polluters, The Cincinnati Enquirer (May 6, 2004).
Los Angeles’s city council, in April 2016, unanimously approved special land-use restrictions for some of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods to improve air quality and residential quality of life in areas with high concentrations of industrial uses. Los Angeles, CA, Ordinance No. 184246 (2016). The new requirements impose additional, more rigorous citywide codes and create new development standards in what are known as “Clean Up Green Up” (CUGU) Supplemental Use Districts. The CUGU initiative designated three of these special districts in predominantly Latino communities (Boyle Heights, Wilmington, and Pacoima).
Los Angeles’s ordinance subjects all industrial businesses in CUGU districts to very specific site-planning requirements, ranging from lighting and enclosures to setback prescriptions. To better mitigate the impacts of proximity to industrial land uses, the CUGU district standards also place site-planning requirements on the publicly habitable spaces adjacent to industrial operations. The ordinance showcases the ability of localized approaches to environmental justice to target areas of concern. Specifically, it includes a citywide conditional use permit requirement for asphalt manufacturing and refinery facilities as well as citywide mandates for higher-rated air filters in new developments built near freeways. The ordinance also pushes for greater enforcement for existing regulations.
Los Angeles’s city attorneys have also taken up the environmental justice cause by creating the Environmental Justice and Protection Unit of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, which has been charged with enforcing state and city environmental statutes through criminal and civil actions. Environmental Justice and Protection, Office of Los Angeles City Attorney, www.lacityattorney.org/environmental-justice-and-protection. The special unit prosecutes matters from environmental crimes like illegal disposal of hazardous waste and toxic materials to civil actions for matters like lead paint abatement. The city attorney’s office also frequently partners with other government agencies tasked with protecting the environment.
In New Jersey, the Camden City Sustainability Ordinance requires that all applicants for new development or modifications of existing developments submit an Environmental Impact and Benefits Assessment (EIBA) to the city’s planning department. See Ordinance Approving Sustainability Requirements for the City of Camden (Jan. 13, 2015), available at http://ecode360.com/documents/CA1078/source/567423.pdf. The ordinance, developed and advocated for by the Camden Green Team, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Environmental Justice, the City Planning Department, and community stakeholders, requires that the EIBA attest to the fact that the development will not adversely affect the air and water quality of proximate neighborhoods and, additionally, that quality of life issues are addressed. Applicants are also “encouraged” to adopt best management practices. Although the guidance documents for drafting an EIBA have not been finalized, a preliminary draft indicates that developers must consider, among other things, whether disadvantaged populations are at greater risk of exposure to environmental hazards, whether residents have been involved in the planning process, and whether negative externalities are minimized. City of Camden, Dept. of Planning and Dev., Draft Environmental Impact and Benefit Assessment Guidance Document, (Feb. 10, 2015).
North of Camden, Newark, a city suffering from environmental pollution from its dense transit network, industry, and waste and sewer treatment facilities, enacted its own law. The new ordinance mandates that developers request environmental permits to inform the city of environmental impacts. Ordinance of the City of Newark, N.J., 6PSF-e (2016). Pursuant to the ordinance, Newark’s Environmental Commission, which is responsible for reviewing the developer’s initial site-plan application, advises the Central Planning Board, Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the public of potential cumulative pollution impacts. The ordinance also directs the Environmental Commission to establish a baseline for environmental conditions to help establish and address the environmental injustices that have led to unhealthy, concentrated levels of pollution in the city’s poorest communities. The law requires industrial and commercial development proposals with environmental permit requirements to submit specific information about cumulative environmental impacts and gives decision-makers and the public critical information to encourage better decisions regarding sustainable development. See id.
More recently, on April 25, 2017, New York City passed two bills to protect low-income New Yorkers and communities of color through the creation of a comprehensive legislative strategy to address environmental justice, the Environmental Justice Study Bill and the Environmental Justice Policy Bill. The former amends the city’s administrative code to require a citywide study of potential environmental justice communities. 2017 N.Y.C. Local Law No. 60. The latter requires agencies to develop plans to address injustices in communities of color and low-income communities in consultation with these communities. 2017 N.Y.C. Local Law No. 64. It also establishes an environmental justice advisory body staffed with advocates to collaborate with the city to identify and address problems. This was the first such local law passed since President Trump’s inauguration. Council Member Costa Constantinides of Queens Council District 22 and primary sponsor of the bills noted that “[i]t’s up to cities to make combating climate change and reducing pollution a top priority.” Press Release, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, While Trump Moves Backwards, NYC Passes Bills to Protect Environmental Justice Communities (Apr. 5, 2017).
Not all cities have been as receptive to enacting environmental justice ordinances. For example, New Bedford, Massachusetts, rejected a proposed ordinance that would have required any building project that triggers certain state and federal environmental reviews to also obtain a city environmental justice permit. Proposed General Ordinance of the City of New Bedford, Art. 1, §12-11 (2016). The ordinance would have required public notice and mandated that the city employ an environmental justice examiner to ensure that facilities would not pose an excessive risk to public health or a safety risk nor create a public nuisance. Unfortunately, opponents called the law a job killer, and ultimately the town council voted 4–7 against the proposed ordinance. Jeanette Barnes, Environmental Justice Ordinance Blocked in Council, Southcoast Today (Dec. 9, 2016).
Fortunately, environmental justice is an issue that cities can and already do address through local land-use planning and zoning. Many communities are dealing with environmental concerns that result from a failure to plan or to enforce proper zoning laws. Local land-use decisions, such as selecting sites for locally unwanted land uses as well as the process for making these decisions (e.g., the consideration of sociological and demographic factors, the role of political power, and the necessity of public input), are central to addressing environmental justice. Although property regulations, planning, and zoning policies as they currently exist or are applied have the potential to impact vulnerable communities negatively, cities could utilize these tools as more proactive measures to prevent environmental injustices from occurring. After the fact, local actions may establish remedies more effectively and efficiently.
Zoning, for example, can serve as the “gatekeeper” for siting noxious uses. Juliana Maantay, Zoning Law, Health, and Environmental Justice: What’s the Connection?, 4 J. of Law, Medicine and Ethics 572 (Dec. 2002). A panel for the National Academy for Public Administration for EPA went so far as to suggest that local and state agencies should exert their police powers and zoning authority to address these concerns. Panel of the National Academy of Public Administration for EPA, Addressing Community Concerns: How Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use Planning and Zoning (July 2003). One study shows that zoning plays a substantial role in promoting environmental justice. Among other things, the authors established that, in the absence of zoning, environmental injustice emerges and minorities experience lower than average environmental quality; however, with proactive zoning that restricts polluting firms to designated zones, environmental justice problems are less severe. Heather E. Campbell, et al., Local Zoning and Environmental Justice, An Agent-based Model Analysis, Urban Affairs Review, Oct. 30, 2013.
Identification of Problems, Application of Solutions
There are numerous advantages to pursuing environmental justice: healthier children, fewer school days lost to illness and asthma, a more productive workforce, and a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Statement from Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, State of California, Environmental Justice at the Local and Regional Level Legal Background (July 10, 2012). The proposed elimination of federal funding for the cause is devastating to federal environmental justice efforts, particularly because of the substantial role enforcement plays in ensuring that all communities are protected. Federal policy decisions eliminating environmental regulation and funding will have disproportionate negative impacts on communities that have historically shouldered the burden of environmental harms. In the wake of this breakdown in federal protection, communities; state, local, and tribal governments; business and industry; and other stakeholders must find collaborative solutions to environmental and public health issues and concerns.
Environmental justice requires a commitment to the ongoing identification of existing and potential problems and the development and application of solutions. Adopting generalized policies and goals for environmental justice will not stem the tide of increasing acts of environmental injustice. Cites, with their ability to structure new ordinances and programs that specifically address environmental justice, as well as the power to utilize existing tools like zoning, are well suited to take up the mantle of protecting vulnerable populations.