Article in Science / Environment / Pollutants & Toxics
Former President Bill Clinton's Environmental Justice Executive Order of 1994 has gone largely ignored over the past 16-years which has had ongoing negative impacts on poverty-stricken people nationwide, most especially people of color who bear a heavy burden of health problems wrought by pollution.

Clark Atlanta University’s Dr. Robert Bullard, the father of the environmental-justice (EJ) movement has defined the word “environment” as the place “…where we live work, play, worship, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world” in which we live (Bullard, 2009). The EJ movement is predicated upon the fact that every American is entitled to equal protection under our country’s civil rights, employment, transportation, facilities access, housing, health, and environmental laws, rules, and regulations.

In spite of the de-jure reality of these laws and regulations, the de-facto reality is very different. In a word, in the words of Dr. Bullard, “all communities are not created equal” (Bullard, 2009), nor in practice are they regarded as equal. In a landmark study published by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice in 1987, it was found that Latino and African-American communities have a disproportionate share of toxic-waste facilities built in their neighborhoods. The Commission established very clear linkages between ethnicity i.e. poverty-stricken people of color and the presence of an unduly high number of toxic-waste sites in their communities nationwide. In short, the geography of environmental and health risk is clearly tied to ethnicity and poverty.

To begin redressing the problem of environmental injustice, President Clinton signed into law, on February 11, 1994, Executive Order 12898: “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations” (Bullard, 2009). This law mandates that every federal agency incorporate environmental-justice (EJ) practices into all their work and programs. More than 15-years have passed since President Clinton signed this Executive Order into law, but federal entities have failed to implement these EJ precepts and practices (Bullard, 2009). Poverty-stricken and low-income people of color continue to be unduly exposed to environmental and health hazards

The hazards are growing in frequency and severity and reflect a deeply embedded injustice in our society. A short list of the threats posed to poor people is detailed below.

Lead poisoning.

A. Children of color are inordinately exposed to lead poisoning, about 22% of whom are African-American children, with 13% of Mexican-American children, living in pre-1946 housing, being subjected to lead poisoning. This compares with 6% of white children living in pre-1946 housing being lead poisoned. Heightened exposure to lead poisoning contributes to a lower rate of high-school graduation and to a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency (Bullard, 2009).

B. Toxic school localesIn excess of 600,000 pupils in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Yorkattend about 1,200 schools that are located within about 800-yards of federally designated Superfund toxic-waste sites or state-classified toxic sites. Very notably, a high percentage of these students are poverty-stricken and persons of color.

C. Ozone pollutionShockingly, 25% of all American children live in areas that often violate federal-ozone standards (Bullard, 2009).About two-thirds of all poverty-stricken African-American, Asian, and Latino children live in such hazardous areas and are prone to high rates of asthma, with Latino and African-American children 3-5 times more likely to perish from the affliction than white children.

D. Toxic wastes and race—The 2007 report Toxic Wastes and Race at 20 notes that persons of color constitute 56% of the people living in neighborhoods that lie within two miles of a commercially-owned hazardous waste facility and that people of color comprise nearly 70% of all denizens in neighborhoods with clustered facilities (Bullard, 2009). Industrial pollution. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than Whites to reside in communities where industrial pollution is regarded as the greatest threat to people’s health and welfare. Additionally, Hispanics in 12 states and Afro-Americans in 19 states are 50% more likely to dwell in areas where air pollution poses the greatest health risk than are their white counterparts (Bullard, 2009).

E. Poisoned public housing—Nearly 900,000 of the 1.9 million housing units inhabited by the poor and low-income people, most of whom are Latinos and Afro-Americans, are located within a mile, or so, of factories that have reported toxic emissions to the EPA Bullard, 2009).

F. Workplace Safety—Starkly, and tragically, many workers who perform the dirty, difficult, and dangerous (“3-D”) jobs so essential to our health and welfare as a nation are disproportionately exposed to high levels of pollution, toxicity, and job-related risks. Many of these laborers are undocumented Latino and indigenous people, who because of their tenuous legal stance, have no voice and have little or no power to bring about safer working conditions. Many have to choose between a paltry paycheck each week, while working under very hazardous conditions, and being dismissed and/or deported. Other people of color, including African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asians, are unduly exposed to hazardous working-environment conditions as they diligently work in the following occupations: garment-industry jobs, hazardous-waste cleanup positions, janitorial/custodial occupations, hotel/motel cleanup/maintenance jobs, construction-crew laborers, agricultural laborers, factory employees, and sanitation workers, among others. Many of these positions are low paying and have no benefits whatsoever, with migrant-farm-workers often being paid no overtime whatsoever with hourly wages of only $4.00-$7.50 per hour.

G. Air Pollution—Blacks and Latinos often live in metro areas that have the highest concentrations of air pollution in the nation. More than 80% of Latinos, for example, and 65% of all African-Americans reside in 437 counties which have unclean air. 57% of America’s white population, on the other hand, lives in those same counties (Bullard, 2009).

H. Foul electric-power generation plants—In excess of 60% of America’s African-American population lives within 30-miles of coal-fired plants within which the most devastating health effects occur. Moreover, 56% of America’s white and 39% of our country’s Latino populations live within 30-miles of such smokestack plants (Bullard, 2009).

I. Abandoned Waste Sites—An estimated 130,000-450,000 hazardous- waste sites, or Brownfields, dot the U.S. urban landscape, many of which are located in close proximity to working-class Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (Bullard, 2009).

J. Remediation of Superfund Toxic-Waste Sites (Brownfields)—The remediation, cleanup, and restoration of toxic-waste sites can play a vital role in the renaissance and transformation of surrounding neighborhoods and communities. Given adequate voice and ways of participating in the public-policy decision-making process, previously marginalized poverty-stricken people of color in neighborhoods near Brownfields could collaborate with city entities and private businesses to bring vitally needed jobs and environmentally friendly sustainable growth to what had previously been deteriorating residential areas (Bullard, 2009). To this end, however, the EPA should very strictly adhere to the strictures of President Clinton’s Executive Order of February 1994 which is entitled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Federal Agencies, including the EPA, have fallen very short in implementing the EJ policies and practices mandated by this Executive Order which has been the law of the land for more than 16-years. This is a very grave injustice and is something that should be rectified with alacrity.

Source: Bullard, Robert D. (2009).Working Paper--The National Black Latino Summit—Blacks and Latinos on the Frontline for Environmental Justice: Strengthening Alliances to Build Healthy and Sustainable Communities.

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Dave S Morse
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