Environmental Justice as a Growing Movement: A Look at United States Domestic Policies and Efforts to Address Environmental Burdens on Lower-Income Communities

Environmental Justice as a Growing Movement: A Look at United States Domestic Policies and Efforts to Address Environmental Burdens on Lower-Income Communities

By Christopher Ibrahim, Staff Contributor


An oft-overlooked aspect of the modern environmental law is the continuing development of a field known as “environmental justice.” Recognizing that low-income, minority communities regularly shoulder the burden of environmental downfalls, entities have begun taking a variety of efforts to mitigate this affliction. In addition to this, the UN has recently “recognized the link between human rights and the environment,”[1] noting that “‘[a]ll persons have the right to a secure healthy and ecologically sound environment.”[2]

However, efforts to address this issue have progressed little in the United States. Since President Clinton’s Executive Order 12,898 directing federal agencies to make “achieving environmental justice part of its mission,”[3] few substantive efforts have been implemented by the relevant agencies outside of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ). Even the OEJ, however, has recently hit troubled waters, as funding slash of President Trump’s 2017 budget proposal led to the resignation of the Office’s longtime director, Mustafa Ali.[4] Efforts have been made to enshrine the goals of Executive Order 12,898 in official legislation, but Congress has yet to pass a bill accomplishing this end. However, in late 2017, Representative Raul Ruiz and Senator Cory Booker announced environmental justice bills in their respective houses that gained significant support but did not officially pass into law[5]. While unsuccessful, the popularity of these bills foretells the potential for such legislation to pass in the near future.

On the other hand, a handful of states have taken the problem of environmental justice seriously. For example, Oregon established an “Environmental Justice Task Force,” seeking to identify environmental justice issues and determine how best to address them.[6] Similarly, Illinois has implemented a “Commission on Environmental Justice,” which takes a more direct approach in “advising State entities on environmental justice and related community issues.”[7] Other states such as Florida[8], Connecticut[9], Maryland[10], and California[11] have also instituted their own environmental justice legislation, all employing similar organizations or strategies to those in Oregon and Illinois. These efforts demonstrate that the environmental justice movement continues to gain traction in legislative circles.

While still a relatively unfamiliar topic in American political conversation, environmental justice and its goals continue to gain steam in both popularity and notoriety. A significant number of states have already begun to address the fact that low-income communities often bear the brunt of negative environmental impacts, and the chances of Congressional efforts to pass corresponding legislation continue to rise. Whether these communities are aided adequately remains to be seen.


[1] Barry Hill, Steve Wolfson, and Nicholas Targ, Human Rights and the Environment: A Synopsis and Some Predictions, 16 Geo. Int. Envtl. L. Rev. 359 (2004).

[2] Draft Declaration of Principles on Human Rights and the Environment, U.N. Hum. Rts. Comm. (May 16, 1994), available at http://www.worldpolicy.org/globalrights/environment/envright.html

[3] Exec. Order No. 12898, § 1-101, 3. C.F.R. § 859, reprinted in 42 U.S.C. § 4321 (1994).

[4] Brady Dennis, EPA Environmental justice leader resigns, amid White House plans to dismantle program, Washington Post, Mar. 9, 2017, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/03/09/epas-environmental-justice-leader-steps-down-amid-white-house-plans-to-dismantle-program/?utm_term=.ef04c981015a

[5] Environmental Justice Act of 2017, H.R. 4114, 115th Cong. (2017); Environmental Justice Act of 2017, S. 1996, 115th Cong. (2017).

[6] Or. Rev. Stat. § 182.542 (2008)

[7] 415 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 155/10 (West 2011)

[8] Fla. Stat. Ann. § 760.854 (West 2011)

[9] Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 22a-20a (West 2011)

[10] MD. Code Ann., Environment § 1-701 (West 2017)

[11] Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 71113 (West 2002)