FACES of Environmental Justice
“The modern Environmental Justice Movement would not be what it is today if it were not for the African Americans who helped shape it. African Americans have been fighting for decades, from sparking the modern Environmental Justice Movement, to conducting key research on environmental pollution, to founding countless grassroots organizations, their legacy is undeniable” Eddie Junsay -350.org — The Environmental Justice Movement is Rooted in Black History.
Civil rights attorney Abre’ Conner and the Moms Clean Air Force explain why environmental protections are important to Black History Month in the Huffington Post. “If Black history is indeed American history, the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency as it relates to Black people should resonate to all people.”
The first major study of segregation and pollution in America was conducted in 1987 by the Commission for Racial Justice. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States showed race is the major variable in where toxic waste facilities are sited. People of color comprise 57% of residents living within a two mile radius of hazardous waste sites and 60% of residents living near polluting industries.
The national mapping conducted by the Commission for Racial Justice on file with the National Research Council clearly identifies southeast San Francisco to be one of the worst regions in the nation!
“It was so easy for her to fight for people who didn’t have a voice. She might have been the littlest person in the room but she was the loudest.” Arieann Marie Harrison — Founder Marie Harrison Foundation
In 1992, civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act in environmental decision making — the federal mandate that environmental laws and policies should not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin or income.
President Barack Obama codified the White House commitment to fighting environmental racism in 2011, building on Bill Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order on Environmental Justice that mandated federal agencies direct attention and investigation into federal actions that discriminate against people of color and low income communities.
The Father of Environmental Justice
The Environmental Justice Movement rose “like a Phoenix” from the embers of a quiescent civil rights movement in 1978, when Attorney Linda Bullard recruited her husband as an expert witness in the trailblazing civil rights case Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management. The injunction charged racial discrimination by the city of Houston’s decision to site a garbage dump in an affluent African American suburb. Bullard produced maps and statistical evidence proving race was the decisive factor in the proposed siting of the toxic waste facility.
Bullard’s 1987 book, Invisible Houston, revealed the cities municipal authorities disproportionately sited environmental hazards, such as garbage dumps and incinerators, in neighborhoods where people of color lived.
Bullard went on to author books advocating environmental justice including The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution. Director of the Environmental Justice Center at Clark Atlanta University, Bullard is considered the foremost authority on Environmental Justice in the United States. In a 2018 Guardian interview, Bullard defined environmental justice as “the right to live, work and play in a clean environment” and identified the roots of environmental injustice as racial discrimination in housing, land use planning and zoning. “Lines of demarcation on race and class are used to confine and segregate individuals and communities. This historical pattern stands to this day.”
As a direct result of Dr. Bullards pioneering research and life’s work, the Environmental Protection Agency advanced Environmental Justice across the federal government in rulemaking to eliminate the disproportionate impact of industrial activities on environmental justice communities.
On January 27, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an Executive Order to establish a White House Interagency Council on Environmental Justice, forming an office of Health and Climate Equity at DHHS and an Office of Environmental Justice within the Department of Justice. Biden grew up in a fenceline community adjacent to a Delaware oil refinery and in the historic October 22, 2020 Presidential Debate recalled, “That’s why so many people were dying and getting cancer. The fact is in those front line communities, it’s not a matter of what you’re paying them. It matters how you keep them safe. What do you do? You impose restrictions on the pollutants coming out of those fence line communities.”
“They share my belief we have no time to waste to confront the climate crisis, protect our air and drinking water and deliver justice to communities that have long shouldered the burdens of environmental harms.” President Joe Biden
The Washington Post announced the historic picks Biden made to “put environmental justice front and center” that include Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) — the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary and head of the Interior Department, North Carolina environmental regulator Michael S. Regan to become the first Black man to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Brenda Mallory to serve as the first Black chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
“It’s 6 miles as the crow flies from the childhood home of Michael Regan to the shuttered coal plant that helped light up the city of 35,000 people. During the 1980s, the plant’s three coal-fired generators were industrial monoliths on the edge of Goldsboro, North Carolina.”
During that time Michael Regan, the first Black man nominated to lead the EPA, experienced his first asthma attack. Regan recalled memories of airway constriction, shallow breathing and the reflexive gasp from a bronchial inhaler as a young boy growing up in eastern North Carolina. “I developed a deep love for the outdoors and our natural resources, but I experienced respiratory issues that required me to use an inhaler on days when pollutants and allergens were especially bad.” Climatewire, Dec. 21, 2020
On Tuesday February 9, 2021, the Republican dominated Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the nomination of Michael S. Regan as EPA administrator in a 14–6 bipartisan vote. Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del) called Regan “the right person to lead the EPA at this time.” The full Senate must now vote to confirm him. As part of the confirmation process, Regan responded masterfully to 271 questions and received a standing ovation and a big hug from his proud and equally handsome son, Matthew.
If confirmed, the 44 year old who currently heads the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, would be responsible for setting fuel efficiency standards for American automobiles, reducing emissions from power plants and cleaning up the country’s most polluted sites. Regan is credited with working “across the aisle” with community activists, corporations and Republican legislators. In a high profile case, Regan forged a multibillion-dollar settlement over cleanups of coal waste with Duke Energy and established an environmental justice advisory board.