The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income.”
The DEP has identified over 1,000 environmental justice areas throughout the state based on population demographics: places where at least 20% of the population lives in poverty or 30% are non-white minorities. There are no added environmental regulations for those areas.
“We don’t have any sort of statutory authority that would say that we can make specific regulations just for environmental justice areas,” said Neil Shader, director of communications for the DEP.
Dr. Robert Bullard, a sociologist at Texas Southern University and one of the original researchers in the environmental justice movement, said that federal and state regulations have never reflected the priorities of the movement. It began as a response to policies that allowed environmental hazards to accumulate in predominantly Black communities.
“Environmental justice did not emerge out of EPA or government. It emerged out of struggle in communities that were fighting injustice,” Bullard said. “We don’t expect government to liberate communities that are impacted by environmental racism.”
One of the country’s longest environmental justice battles is in Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester’s predominantly Black community has been the site of several polluting facilities over decades. Chester resident Zulene Mayfield says the struggle for clean air isn’t over. In particular, residents say their health is threatened by the Covanta Delaware Valley waste incinerator.
However, community groups like Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living have succeeded in seeing the departure of some unwanted facilities from their city.
One victory for environmental justice advocates in Pennsylvania is the closure of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.
Residents had advocated against the facility for years, concerned about the health impact of the refinery’s air pollution. The refinery was closed in June 2019 after an explosion caused by a corroded pipe.
Hilco Redevelopment Partners, the new owner of the site, has promised to build a logistics development that will create jobs for local residents. However, some residents and activists say that Hilco needs to do more for those who are still suffering from the legacy of pollution.
A fire burns at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery hours after a series of early morning explosions at the 150-year-old industrial complex at 3100 W. Passyunk Ave. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
The origin of environmental justice
Environmental justice grew from a movement formed in a wave of scholarship and protest surrounding the construction of two different landfills in predominantly Black communities: one in Houston, Texas in 1979 and the other in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the term “environmental racism” in 1982 to describe a growing body of evidence that landfills and other polluting facilities in the U.S. were disproportionately sited in or near Black communities.
Advocates said that protecting the environment required protecting those who were most affected by environmental hazards. That concept was shaped into 17 Principles of Environmental Justice at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 in Washington, D.C. The Principles emphasized that all people have a right to freedom from environmental hazards, reparation for past damages, and tools for a more just future.
A 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton directed federal agencies to create strategies that mitigate environmental and health effects of their actions. However, some environmental justice advocates say that the executive order has failed to decrease the burdens on environmental justice communities.
Dr. Sacoby Wilson of the National Black Environmental Justice Network said that existing environmental legislation doesn’t support Black communities because the legislation is applied without the context of social and historical factors.
“So for example, with the Clean Air Act, when a facility is getting a permit, they don’t take into account the fact that there is a facility already there,” Wilson said. “The people who live there in the community have been devalued. And so the Clean Air Act, for example, needs to be modified so it takes into account cumulative impacts.”
Wilson said that if legislation like the Clean Air Act “fully protected the most vulnerable and most susceptible person, we would not need the environmental justice movement.”
Right now, there is no concerted effort in Pennsylvania to further empower the DEP to pursue environmental justice.
“The toxins that are being released in the air are affecting our families, are affecting our children, and that’s leading to our healthcare issues. It’s affecting our employment. It’s all interconnected,” one panelist said.