One of the greatest tragedies of “economic progress” is the wildly disproportionate burden of environmental hazards suffered by low-income communities, especially those of color. Certain communities suffer staggering health problems simply because they lack the power to fight back against polluting industries.
Most Americans would immediately recognize this as unfair. Unfortunately, these communities also lack access to the mainstream media that could help them tell their stories. Even in the rare instances when these stories are told, complacency on the part of the media and the broader public preclude actions to rectify the discrimination.
The focus of the environmental justice movement isn’t on inequality. It does not seek merely to redistribute environmental harms fairly, but is committed to eliminating those harms completely.
Example of action that advances the cause of environmental justice:
Unfortunately, victories for environmental justice are far too rare. However, in a triumph for a predominantly Hispanic, African-American and low-income neighborhood in Clovis, NM, three groups — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and Concerned Citizens of Curry County (CCCC) — successfully defeated the building of an ethanol plant near their neighborhood. Residents were understandably concerned about severe health threats from air emissions, as well as diesel exhaust from delivery trucks and trains. After the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) successfully argued on behalf of the three groups that prior notice to the community was inadequate, the Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) reversed the permit decision in early 2008. Afterwards, the giant ConAgra Trade Group withdrew its application for the plant.
Example of action that perpetuates environmental injustice:
The devastating health and environmental impacts of uranium mining and milling are well-established, and many communities throughout New Mexico are still suffering from the uranium boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, those impacts are concentrated in Native American communities, on and around the land and sacred sites of New Mexico’s pueblos and the Navajo nation. Worse, pressure is intensifying to greatly expand new uranium mining operations, threatening drinking water and jeopardizing the health of families and communities. It’s a travesty that old mine and mill sites have never been cleaned up. Of 259 mines that produced uranium in New Mexico, fewer than half have any record whatsoever of reclamation activities.