It would cause outrage if a polluting battery manufacturer opened a plant in the affluent neighborhood of Beverly Hills. Yet, this hypothetical was a dark reality faced by Vernon, a lower-income neighborhood only a 30-minute drive away. Indeed, it is an environmental injustice that hazardous waste centers are frequently placed near lower-income, minority communities. This injustice is largely attributed to the systematic, institutionalized discrimination and racism that continue to exist today. While there have been many cases taken to court by the impacted populations, the government has yet to implement specific measures that guarantee justice by directly addressing this glaring issue. By failing to do so, the federal and state governments ignore their moral and constitutional obligation of ensuring equality to all citizens. Instead, the impacted citizens have historically relied and should continue to rely on community engagement as an extrajudicial solution to resolving the environmental injustice inflicted by industrial waste facilities.
Guaranteeing environmental justice is a complex issue that involves the interests of the impacted minority/low-income populations but also those of large corporations who pollute in the process of contributing to the economy. These corporations benefit from the inexpensive labor and lower property values offered by the areas inhabited by impacted populations. Therefore, establishing environmentally hazardous centers in these areas is also done for capitalistic objectives, not necessarily just racist and/or discriminatory objectives. Because of these varying possible motives, it is often difficult for impacted groups to prove that discrimination was the sole factor involved in a particular case of environmental injustice in court. These groups can then either prepare the strongest case possible for legal action in a currently inadequate system or resort to community engagement and other such extrajudicial measures. Community engagement is defined as the collaboration between community members to “address issues affecting the wellbeing of those people” (“Chapter 1”). This collaboration can take the form of research, policy-making, and raising awareness. Other effective extrajudicial measures covered by community/civic engagement include protesting, raising media attention, boycotting, and civil disobedience: non-violent resistance to certain judicial laws.
Additionally, the issue is further complicated because environmental injustice and racism are broad and ambiguous terms. In her paper, Laura Pulido argues that environmental justice can’t be confined to just the relation of environmental hazards to various “community demographics” (Pulido 12-40). Urban researchers have conducted past geographical studies solely to prove the existence of this relationship that would ideally prove that environmental injustice also exists. However, this simplified path of research upon which conclusions are drawn are limited and fail to consider all aspects of the issue. Ryan Holifield’s paper supports this view that claims environmental racism and justice have “never been simple descriptive terms”. Instead, Holifield believes that urban scholars and researchers should shift their attention to addressing the “diversity of issues that grassroots activists and federal agencies include within their interpretations of environmental justice”. To understand what this entails, one can look at examples of how different governmental groups handle “environmental justice” issues. For one, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focuses on areas facing waste and pollution concerns. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development additionally considers “lead-based paint in inner-city housing projects” and “infrastructural needs” within reservations, migrant worker camps, and low-income/slum areas along the U.S.-Mexico border. Finally, the Federal Transit Association ensures that transportation projects equally benefit minority and low-income groups (Holifield). Due to the umbrella term of “environmental justice” covering these multiple subdivisions, it becomes complicated for the government to assign responsibility and handle individual cases of reported environmental injustice; this further proves the inadequacy of the current system.
To narrow down this problem, it is crucial to analyze it in the context of the placement of environmentally hazardous centers in racially categorized and lower-income areas as debated in the case of Warren County, North Carolina and Exide in Vernon, California. Firstly, Warren County’s case in 1982 is imperative to the current state of discussion as it pioneered and unified the movement of environmental justice in the U.S. with the movement for civil rights. The situation culminated when the state proceeded to settle on this county for the site of a
PCB-contaminated soil landfill after considering other potential sites. Despite multiple protests and historic civil disobedience from the community, these efforts to prevent the landfill’s establishment were in vain (Skelton and Miller). While Warren County’s civic efforts failed, it ironically succeeded in rallying similar efforts around the country. It also succeeded in inspiring community engagement through numerous studies and empirical research into the existence of environmental injustice.
Warren County’s primary achievement was the influence and pressure it placed on the government to take action through its civic engagement. In response, President Clinton passed Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, in 1992. This executive order was key in demonstrating that the government was actively considering the environmental justice movement in federal decisions, laws, and strategies to protect human health and the environment (“Environmental Justice
History”). However, while this order still stands, it has no legislative weight and is unable to
“create legally enforceable rights”; it only has the authority to direct federal agencies like the EPA to prioritize environmental justice in their missions. The only current legislation that holds legal authority in conflicts regarding environmental injustice is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin (“Chapter 1: Introduction”). As described earlier, it is difficult for impacted groups to prove discrimination in cases of environmental injustice because of other potential causes. Yet, current legislation is also at fault because it is not specific to environmental injustice. Social and governmental initiatives have taken the right steps to resolve and prevent future cases of environmental injustice. In spite of this, the issue persists partly because only broad legislation like Title VI exists upon which impacted populations can legally demand justice.
Exide’s plant in Vernon further illustrates not only the multidimensional nature of this problem but also the sustained failure of legal authorities to devise necessary measures. Despite multiple hazardous waste violations detailed by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) agency, Exide continued polluting and releasing toxic lead and arsenic emissions into the air and soil of areas in and around Vernon from 1989 to 1992; these areas were inhabited by predominantly Latino, working-class populations. This lack of acknowledgment of government-dictated charges and the DTSC’s lack of urgency in enforcing environmental regulations allowed Exide to keep operating from 2000 to 2013 with a total of 41 citations for excessive lead emissions ((Pulido, Kohl, and Cotton). Exide finally closed the plant and paid to avoid legal charges only after multiple lawsuits, years of community activism, and media attention. The Los Angeles Court previously defended Exide by stating that the corporation was within the hazardous emission limits and that the DTSC was “acting under public and political pressure” when it finally did try to take action (ib.). This defense from a judicial agency undoubtedly posed the issue of blatant environmental injustice being ignored. Yet, the issue arose again when Vernon’s plant was compared to a similar Exide plant shut down much faster by local authorities in Frisco, Texas. However, this impacted community was predominantly white and situated in a prospering neighborhood (“[Press Release]”). Another serious, local incident that also inspired conversation over possible environmental racism was the Porter Ranch gas leak in 2015. This case merited an immediate reaction and clean-up process from state authorities potentially because it impacted affluent, non-minority dominant L.A. neighborhoods. California’s Representative, Jimmy Gomez, reacted to the two differently handled situations of Vernon and Porter Ranch by stating that the latter “put a spotlight on how different parts of the state are treated” (Favot). This perspective from an influential political figure demonstrates that differential treatment and discrimination are present today, yet they often go unnoticed by higher authorities.
Since these cases only consider the moral and social aspects of environmental justice, the issue overall appears to be a simple binary between “good”, the impacted populations and activists, and “evil”, the government and polluting companies. Yet, when economic and historical factors are introduced, the issue becomes more complicated and ambiguous. In Laura Pulido’s paper, she explores how urban development in Southern California in the 20th century was centered around the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles and the rapidly growing population. She then introduces the idea of suburbanization being a solution for the Anglo population of L.A. to distance themselves from other minorities into cleaner areas; these areas also offered better housing opportunities outside of the clustered, industrial city space. In turn, African-Americans, Latino, Asians (such as the Japanese following their release from internment after World War II) settled within clusters in the city where industrial hotspots were plentiful. This systematic urban development based on institutionalized racism and inspired by the belief in a racial hierarchy set the foundation for environmental injustice in lower-income, minority areas. Today, these same inner-city areas reflect lower property costs due to such origins as well as inexpensive labor provided by the working class minorities who have historically been forced into these areas over multiple generations. Despite this, opponents to environmental justice also propose the valid point that low-income populations also move into areas surrounding industrial, hazardous centers due to the lower property costs and job opportunities available at the cost of their quality of lifestyle. These financial benefits are then exploited by polluting corporations that operate solely to return high profits. Additionally, in the situation of Exide plants in Vernon as compared to the gas leak in Porter Ranch, Representative Gomez presented an alternative perspective to the issue:
the clean-up in Porter Ranch was possibly more immediate because the effects of a gas leak themselves were immediate on the impacted population when compared to the “long-term illnesses associated with lead exposure” in Vernon (Favot). Similarly, the state government in Texas shut down the Exide plant quickly as it claimed to be an urgent move protecting public health. However, a major financial motivation for the state was the inexpensive land the plant closure offered near the Dallas Tollway (“When Frisco”). Given these alternative, possible perspectives and origins, it becomes clearer to understand why environmental injustice, as a diversely defined issue, is also heavily inspired by capitalist interests and can’t always be blindly blamed solely on racism and discrimination. Combined with systematic racism in historical urban development, it persists as a complex problem for the government to resolve.
For current impacted populations around the country, it is then important to keep relying on the extrajudicial solution of community engagement as the strongest resort simply because it has proven itself through historical precedents. Warren County’s campaign did “fail” but only in the sense that the protests couldn’t prevent the PCB landfill from being placed in the community. Nonetheless, the protests and civil disobedience demonstrated as a united community garnered national attention towards the targeted racism of the state’s decision. This singlehandedly unified similar movements with the modern environmental justice movement we have today.
Community engagement and strength in numbers also proved to be effective in Vernon, California’s situation. Here, relentless social activism for civil rights and justice over two decades kept Exide’s hazardous plant in national media attention despite the government’s lack of urgency when given evidence. A more recent example of the government overlooking environmental injustice occurred in 2018 when the “EPA said there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that authorities in Alabama had breached the Civil Rights Act by allowing an enormous landfill site containing 4 million tons of coal ash to operate near residents in Uniontown” (Milman). This situation, where legal action failed outright despite the presence of evidence for environmental racism, perfectly describes the current state of law which takes advantage of the ambiguity of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to quickly determine the outcome of cases like Uniontown.
Therefore, this only leaves community engagement in the form of protests, boycotts, media attention, and civil disobedience as viable extrajudicial solutions that easily develop immense public and political pressure over time. This can ultimately achieve the same results as successful legal action: environmental justice and equality in one’s quality of life regardless of race, income, or national origin.
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