The history of the environmental justice movement shows that all people must come together to ensure everyone can enjoy a clean environment.
The history of the environmental justice movement is an underdog story about people who fight a battle they know might not be won in their lifetime, yet still persevere. It is a slow-moving history because the institutions that regulate environmental law move slowly, but it demonstrates the power of individuals and organizations to help reduce the environmental harms experienced by POC and underrepresented communities. Ultimately, we may need new laws that create more dynamic and accountable processes for individuals and communities to use, but the law as it exists now can still bring transformational (and sometimes resource-intensive) changes.
Environmental justice is the civil rights battle of this century. Like all civil rights battles, the chances of winning can seem small, but history has shown us that advocates for justice can win even when the odds are stacked against them. Likewise, it is not likely that we will have laws protecting environmental justice next month, next year, or in the next decade . . . but then again, we could!
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Almost always the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better.”
If we can make that movement of people larger, and larger, until it becomes a majority, we can make tremendous progress towards achieving environmental justice. In the meantime, this resource will help you utilize the laws that exist today to make progress towards this goal.
A Brief National History of Environmental Justice
The modern environmental justice movement resulted from growing awareness of the inequitable siting of hazardous waste sites and dirty industries.
In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was among the first to work for environmental justice, organized and led the very first environmental justice mission to support garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. They suffered disproportionately from unhealthy environmental working conditions and highlighted racially disparate environmental harms.
In 1982, residents of the mostly Black and rural Warren County, North Carolina, gained national recognition for their protests against the siting of a hazardous waste landfill in their neighborhood. More than 500 people were arrested in the fight against the landfill which would be used to dispose of soils contaminated by highly toxic chemicals. The protests inspired the 1983 U.S. General Accounting Office study, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. The study surveyed eight southern states, including Georgia, and revealed that three out of every four commercial hazardous waste landfills were in predominantly Black communities.
In 1987, The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published the first national study showing that communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and waste. The Commission’s landmark report, Toxic Waste and Race, proved that race was the most important factor in predicting where these polluting facilities were located—more so than poverty, land values, and home ownership.
The term environmental racism came to be used to describe Toxic Waste and Race’s confirmation of what many people already knew.
Environmental racism refers to any environmental policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Environmental racism combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for White and wealthy people while shifting health and quality of life impacts to people of color.
We see that when land is polluted, the people who live on or near the land are harmed, and that people who live on polluted land are often marginalized.
In 1990, Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the founders of the environmental justice movement, chronicled the convergence of the social justice and environmental movements into the environmental justice movement in Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, one of the first works to analyze the economic, social, and psychological impacts of environmental racism. Like the Toxic Waste and Race report, Dr. Bullard again showed that race, and not income, is the single greatest factor in the siting of many sources of brain-damaging environmental exposures. You can listen to an interview with Dr. Bullard on Southern Environmental Law Center’s podcast, Broken Ground(under seasons, scroll to Dr. Robert Bullard: Environmental Justice is Equal Justice).
In 1991, 650 national and global grassroots leaders attended the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and broadened the mission of environmental justice advocates to go beyond their earlier anti-toxics focus to include issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment. The delegates also adopted the “17 Principles of Environmental Justice” as a guide for grassroots organizers, non-governmental organizations, and government officials seeking to secure environmental justice.
In 1993, the Clinton Administration established the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), an advisory committee formed to provide recommendations and advice to the EPA. NEJAC helps the EPA analyze environmental justice issues, strengthen partnerships regarding environmental justice, and promote collaborative decision-making with communities. For more information, read NEJAC’s 2014 report reflecting on 20 years its history and work.
In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12,898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Its ultimate goal is to achieve environmental protection for all communities. Executive Order 12,898 requires all federal agencies to identify and address the environmental and health impacts of their actions on underrepresented and low-wealth communities. It also promotes nondiscrimination in federal programs affecting human health and the environment, directs each agency to develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice, and established an Interagency Working Group on environmental justice.
On January 27, 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14,008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. This executive order created the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) and the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, both of which are charged with ensuring that government agencies coordinate to address environmental justice issues by looking for ways to improve upon Executive Order 12,898. Executive Order 14,008 also created the Justice40 Initiative which seeks to drive 40 percent of climate-related federal spending into disadvantaged communities. If you are interested in seeing the membership of WHEJAC or attending public meetings, you can find out more here. In January 2023, President Biden instructed executive departments and agencies to utilize the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) to identify communities eligible for programs under the Justice40 Initiative and programs where a statute directs resources to “disadvantaged communities.” You can use and learn more about the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool here.
These executive orders are good first steps. However, executive orders are not the same as other laws. Neither of these orders create a right to sue someone because of an environmental injustice. To win a lawsuit against a polluter, they must have violated an existing federal or state environmental law. The EJ Green Book will describe most of those laws and introduce the legal mechanisms you can use to pursue environmental justice. This includes getting involved in decision-making through providing comments and suggestions to decisionmakers.
What does fighting for environmental justice in Georgia look like?
Many Georgia communities have successfully come together to use the law to reduce pollution levels from landfills, industrial facilities, and other facilities.
Georgia Community Efforts to Tackle Environmental Challenges
The Newtown community in Gainesville, originally formed as a “new town” for Black people displaced by a 1936 tornado, was sited on an old landfill. Near the middle of the century, polluters like Cargill and Purina Mill also decided to site facilities there. Members of a community group called the Newtown Florist Club, which donated wreaths for funerals, noted a suspicious number of deaths and began to fight for environmental justice in Newtown. Over the years, the organization has established a program for girls’ improvement, built a community garden, prevented diesel trucks from idling just yards from homes, and reduced levels of harmful airborne pollutants from neighboring factories. In 1975, the Newtown Florist Club and Georgia Legal Aid successfully sued Purina Mill for violations of the Georgia Water Quality Control Act.
Other communities throughout Georgia have succeeded in organizing themselves, and in using the law to protect public health and the environment to block or close landfills in their neighborhoods.
In 2004, The South DeKalb Neighborhoods Coalition in partnership with GreenLaw, successfully closed the Live Oak Landfill. At the time it was the largest landfill in Georgia and had given off terrible odors for years.
Also in 2004, citizens of Taliaferro Countysuccessfully stopped an over 1000-acre landfill proposed by Complex Environmental Inc. from being sited in their community. Early attempts to dissuade Complex from siting the landfill failed and resulted in the brief incarceration of County Commissioners who were willing to risk criminal proceedings to stop the landfill’s siting by refusing to sign a letter stating that the project met zoning regulations. But, after community members (organized as Taliaferro Countians Against Landfill) appealed an administrative law decision holding that Complex was entitled to a permit for its project, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a final ruling stopping the landfill proposal.
Similarly, residents of Emerson in Bartow County worked with the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory to prevent Allied-BFI from locating a landfill close to the Etowah River in their neighborhood without even having to file a lawsuit.
In 2019, in Gwinnett County, a waste transfer station was to be sited on Ozora Road near a park, two schools, and some residential neighborhoods – even though the neighborhood was zoned for residential use. The waste transfer station applicants withdrew their application in response to Gwinnett County residents organizing on Facebook to stop it.
In 2020, in Forest Park, the city shut down Little Ones Learning Center’s farm stand, which teaches children about healthy food and provides healthy food to the community. A large group of supporters attended a hearing on changing the law to allow for farm stands and spoke in favor of changing the law. The city council agreed, and Little Ones was able to reopen their farm stand.
Children like the ones enrolled at Little Ones will inherit this complicated world, and these stories show that fighting for a more equitable environmental future can bear fruit and improve the world that they will be left with. You will encounter more success stories throughout the EJ Green Book.
While the law may not always provide a clear solution to a community’s environmental crisis, the successes of these communities show that political participation, and strategic use of the law can – sometimes – create positive change.
If they can do it, you can too!
The Environmental Justice Academy
If you want to learn more about environmental justice and get involved in advocating for environmental justice issues in your community, consider enrolling in EPA’s Environmental Justice Academy (EJA). EPA hosts the EJA in partnership with universities, nonprofits, and other environmental advocacy organizations. Contact EPA Region 4 to ask about the next time the EJA will be offered, and in the meantime, you can find more resources and useful information at the EJA Alumni Association website.
 Harriet Washington, A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind 117 (2019).
 The 17 Principles of Environmental Justice are provided in Appendix G.
 Robin Kemp, Forest Park farm stand ordinance passes 4-1; Antoine warns of produce-seeking pedophiles, Clayton News-Daily.com (Feb. 18, 2020), https://www.news-daily.com/news/forest-park-farm-stand-ordinance-passes—antoine-warns/article.