What is environmental justice?

The EPA has long defined Environmental Justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

Environmental inequities have disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities for decades, if not centuries. It is well documented that these are vulnerable communities because they are often located in the most dangerous zones of our floodplains, or in regions that are exposed to toxic pollution sources: coal-fired power plants, open-air lagoons, nuclear waste facilities, megadumps and other polluting industries.

Since the groundbreaking Toxic Wastes and Race, the 1987 national report by the Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, and the seminal research by Dr. Robert Bullard leading to the publication in 1990 of the first environmental justice textbook, Dumping in Dixie, countless studies have proved time and again that race, along with but even more than income, are correlated with proximity to pollution.

Greenville's contaminated Bramlett site, near a historically low-income, African-American community

In South Carolina a long list of past and continuing environmental injustices call for remediation, reparation, and reconciliation, none of which is forthcoming without intentional engagement and diverse coalitions, backed by forceful legal advocacy.

Full protection from disproportionate environmental burdens and equitable access to environmental benefits are the ultimate outcomes of advancing the “just treatment and meaningful involvement” of all people in decision-making and activities affecting their health and environment. SCELP seeks both enforcement and improvement of environmental protection measures.

The capacity to step in as a last line of defense against specific threats and emergencies (litigation), remains a critical service, even while we work toward a systematic reduction in threats and discriminatory practices (policy). SCELP has therefore become more involved in local planning and organizing across multiple communities.

Environmental justice is a growing research area, an expanding policy focus, and expansive field of action. It can also be visualized as a big tent, with a big old wooden sign on top of it. On the one side of the sign is ENVIRONMENTAL (law, protection, health, etc.) and the other side is JUSTICE. Folks come under the tent for either, both and all sorts of related reasons. But what beckons them under the tent is not what is important. The power and the promise lie all in what is done, collaboratively, under the tent, remedying blunders and repairing rifts from the dawn of modern environmental law, in the early 1970s, but whose origins date much earlier and go much deeper.

Learn more about environmental justice on the EPA's website.

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