Environmental Health Action Guide - compiled and maintained by the Sustainable Cleveland Partnership and NeighborhoodLink




The Smith family just found out that the giant Zena Corporation is planning to set up a large factory on Detroit Street in the small town of Bartville, two blocks from where they live. The promise of new jobs is attractive to the Smiths as well as the other residents of Bartville where poverty rates run upwards of 45%. However, the Smiths and their neighbors are concerned because their predominantly minority community is already home to ten other factories, including four toxic waste handling facilities.

It was perceived that respiratory and reproductive disorders, premature deaths and cancer rates were problems for the Bartville community. Also, residents were not aware of procedures for dealing with chemical emergencies and accidents. Should the economically vulnerable Bartville residents have to choose between low-paying and potentially unsafe jobs with the Zena Corporation on the one hand, and no jobs on the other?

Learn about the environmental justice movement and what your community, when faced with such a situation, can do?



What Is Environmental Justice?

"The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, natural origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment means that no groups of people, including racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of Federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies."

- Environmental Justice as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


 Launch of the Environmental Justice Movement:

In 1982, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr., of the United Church of Christ Commission (UCC) for Racial Justice, lead a series of protests in North Carolina's predominantly low-income and African-American Warren County, against a landfill for PCB-contaminated soils. Opponents to the landfill contended that it made only political and no environmental sense and perceived the decision to site the landfill as an extension of institutional racism they had been experiencing in housing, education, employment, municipal services, and law enforcement for years. During the course of the protests, in which 500 people were arrested, the term "environmental racism" was coined. Although the landfill was constructed, this incident sparked the national environmental justice movement.

 Grass roots and national social, civil rights, and environmental organizations are leading the national environmental justice movement. These groups are working to stop the disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and resulting health and quality of life problems facing the low income and minority communities in the United States. African-American, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American communities from Maine to Louisiana and Alaska are steering the goals and activities of this multi-issue, multiracial and multi-regional movement. Diverse community-based groups have become the core of the movement, linking their struggles to racial and social justice, cultural survival, civil and human rights, land rights, sovereignty, and sustainable development.

Above all, the movement asserts that issues of economic and environmental justice need to be addressed simultaneously so that poor and economically vulnerable communities are not forced to make a false choice between "no jobs and no development" versus "low paying, risky jobs and pollution," remarks Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.


Environmental Justice - Defining Events:

In 1987, The UCC Commission on Racial Justice published "Toxic Waste and Race", a groundbreaking study revealing that people of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution across the United States. This study confirmed a 1983 General Accounting Office (GAO) report that looked at the racial and economic makeup of communities where landfills, incinerators, and deep-well injections were situated. The GAO report found that in the Southeast U.S., African-Americans comprised a majority of the population in 3 of 4 areas studied.

On October 27th, 1991, attendees of the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. established the Principles of Environmental Justice. These principles have guided environmental justice thinking and policy since their inception.

In 1993, a Federal advisory committee called the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) was established to provide independent recommendations to the Administrator of the US EPA on environmental justice issues. Members of the Council are a mix of experts from the academia, community groups, environmental groups, industry, nongovernmental organizations, state and local government, and tribal groups.

In 1994, the Center for Policy Alternatives, UCC Commission for Racial Justice, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jointly published "Toxic Waste and Race Revisited," an update of the 1987 UCC report. The report concluded that minority communities continued to dominate and grow in neighborhoods with commercial toxic waste sites.

In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, which called for all Federal agencies to make achieving environmental justice in low income and minority communities a priority.

Environmental Justice and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

In February of 1998, the US EPA issued interim guidelines under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to help resolve environmental justice complaints against development projects that unfairly cause pollution problems in communities of color. Under Title VI, if a state agency issues a permit for projects found to harm minority communities, US EPA can withhold Federal funds from that agency. Industry groups and many state governments vigorously oppose this policy claiming it will prevent economic development in urban areas. However, Title VI is one of the Federal government's most effective tools in the struggle for environmental justice and resolution of hundreds of environmental justice cases pending around the country. US EPA is currently reviewing the guidelines.

Grassroots groups have played an important role in the struggle for environmental justice. They have demanded that environmental injustices in low income and minority neighborhoods be assessed on the basis of impacts of environmental degradation and not intent. These groups have also asserted that pollution prevention should be emphasized in all government and private sector initiatives along with clean up efforts.


Community Organizing and Community Empowerment:

It is now commonly accepted that lack of representation and participation in the key decision making processes as well as a near absence of easy-access information and technical assistance have contributed, at least in part, to environmental injustices against minority and low-income communities.

The Sustainable Cleveland Partnership and the Environmental Health Action Guide are attempts to empower low income and minority communities in Cleveland with an easy-access information resource that addresses environment, health, and quality of life issues in their neighborhoods. It is a unique coalition of university professors from Cleveland State University, regulators and technical experts from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, the City of Cleveland, US Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Defense Fund, Neighborhood Centers Association, as well as grassroots social and environmental organizations, all of which have found common ground on the importance of accurate and easily-accessible information for effective action.





Contact US EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice at 202/260-2090 or access US EPA’s Environmental Justice Homepage for information on Federal environmental justice programs. 

Access the Environmental Justice Advisory Council Homepage for information on this group’s work on environmental justice. 

Access the Environmental Justice Information Page for an extensive list of environmental links and resources. 

Contact the Environmental Justice Resource Center at 404/880-6909 for general information on environmental justice work across the U.S. 

Access President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.

Full mailing addresses and phone numbers of organizations listed on this factsheet are available in this Guide's Directory of Organizations.


Read about Environmental Justice:

Bullard, Robert D., ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from The Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993. 

Bullard, Robert D., ed. People of Color Environmental Groups: 1994-95 Directory. Environmental Justice Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University. Atlanta, 1994.  

Bullard, Robert D., ed. Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994. 

Lee, Charles. Toxic Wastes and Race In The United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. United Church of Christ, Commission for Racial Justice, 1987. 

Goldman, Benjamin A., and Laura Fitton. Toxic Wastes and Race Revisited: An Update of the 1987 Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. Center for Policy Alternatives, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, 1994. 

Goldman, Benjamin A. The Truth About Where You Live: An Atlas for Action on Toxics and Mortality. New York: Times Books, 1991.




Use the Sustainable Cleveland Environmental Health Action Guide: Get information on important environment and health problems in Cleveland and take action.


Contact Your Local Elected Officials: Contact U.S. EPA Administrator Carol Browner asking the EPA to implement strong guidelines under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that help protect communities of color from unfair pollution burdens. Also, write to or call your local officials asking them to support strong policies and laws that provide equal protection from pollution for low-income communities of color.




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