Environmental Injustice: Roots, Impacts, and Urgent Solutions

Gray’s Ferry, Philadelphia, where an oil refinery adversely impacted residents’ health


After 19 years, I am finally questioning why my own and other predominantly white, middle and upper class families live in safe neighborhoods with plenty of green space and few factories or major polluters, while other communities are structured around industrial facilities and power plants emitting toxic waste. I had not heard the term “environmental injustice” or understood why it is such a pervasive problem in our nation until just a few months ago.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, revitalized Black Lives Matter movement, and my own increased self-education about climate change and systemic racism have brought intertwined crises and injustices to the forefront of my mind. Due to disproportionate suffering from pollution-induced asthma and heart disease, Black Americans are suffering from a mortality rate from COVID-19 that is twice as high as that of white Americans. Why? Environmental racism is a key reason why people of color living in low-income communities are so much more vulnerable to this virus. 

People of color suffer from exceptional environmental burdens that cause health hazards for many members of their communities. For example, African Americans are 75% more likely than other groups to live near sites that emit hazardous waste. These locations include neighborhoods in close proximity to an oil refinery in Philadelphia, PA; polluted water in Flint, Michigan; and toxic chemicals in “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana. As Casey Berkovitz of The Century Foundation writes, “Residential segregation… means that people of color are often concentrated in neighborhoods that have frequently been disempowered, both politically and financially.” Their unjust suffering from the current environmental crisis is clearly connected to systemic racism, which has produced unfair housing policies and disinvestment in communities of color. The public health threats faced by low income communities of color were brought to public attention during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Since then, actions to combat injustice have increased, including the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike demanding fair pay and improving working conditions for garbage workers and the 1982 sit-in protest against the construction of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, NC. Among many other notable achievements of the movement, the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in DC created the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. Though, almost 20 years later, significant action is still necessary to reach the goals outlined during that conference. 

Impoverished neighborhoods of color have historically been located in areas with lower property values, where factories and other industrial establishments are constructed cheaply. Since the 1930s, streets where people of color lived have been deemed “hazardous,” which designates them as locations for toxic facilities. This redlining has historically denied residents of these communities access to basic public and private services such as healthcare and parks. As a result, these neighborhoods experience greater pollution levels and are often more vulnerable to storms and other natural disasters. Proximity to higher pollution levels, including increased exposure to particulate matter, is linked to health hazards such as asthma, cancer, heart disease, and increased mortality from COVID-19. Furthermore, extreme heat waves, which have been increasing in frequency since 1950, unequally impact Black communities. Urban heat islands, which arise from insufficient green space and plentiful asphalt and housing projects, can be up to 12.6°F hotter in redlined neighborhoods than other communities in the same city. For a visual of the connection between redlined neighborhoods and disproportionate exposure to heat, explore the photographs in this New York Times article. Tragically, exposure to higher levels of heat and pollution is also related to pregnancy complications such as low birth rate, stillbirth, or premature birth. The dangerous environmental circumstances that pose health risks to so many communities of color across America are a symptom of many unjust, historically racist systems that prey upon the most vulnerable.

Systemic racism, segregation, and majority white political institutions are the reasons why environmental injustices are taking such a devastating toll on communities of color. The current administration’s weakening of environmental rules and regulations—68 rollbacks completed and 32 in progress—have most severely affected communities of color (Popovich et al.). They are afflicted by the Trump administration’s insufficient enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act, inadequate version of the Clean Power Plan, weakened regulations regarding coal ash dumping near groundwater, deregulation of petroleum refineries, refusal to ban the brain-damaging pesticide chlorpyrifos, and reduced funding for disaster relief, among several other damaging environmental rule reversals. In particular, the deregulation of petroleum refineries is extremely hazardous for communities of color as 6.7 million African Americans live in counties with petroleum and oil refineries emitting toxins connected to cancer. Essentially, the Trump administration’s failure to act on climate change and to control polluting industries is worsening enduring racial and economic inequalities. People of color are being harmed again and again by policies that further an intolerable legacy of racism.

We must take action toward true equality for our fellow human beings. We must work to achieve environmental justice, which is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 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.”  Every person should have equal protection from environmental risks to their health, and these hazards should be minimized and phased out as we transition to renewable energy, a critical shift to fight climate change. 

As we move toward environmental justice, the upcoming election is of utmost importance. Climate action is urgent right now to sustain our planet, and Joe Biden’s climate plan promises to achieve net-zero emissions and a completely clean energy economy by 2050. He also plans to invest in resilient infrastructure, recommit the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, and, most crucially, to take action against polluters—like fossil fuel companies—that disproportionately harm poor communities of color. To prevent additional environmental rollbacks and further harm to the most vulnerable, Biden’s election is necessary and getting out the vote must be a massive effort.

Furthermore, we must collectively acknowledge the destruction caused by centuries of systemic racism. As Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the father of the environmental justice movement, asserted during the July 2020 Climate Reality Global Training, we must recognize that some communities have historically been seen as expendable “sacrifice zones” taken advantage of by polluters. To eliminate the health risks they face, communities susceptible to environmental harms should have the power to advocate for themselves and the solutions they prefer. Climate activists and policymakers should engage directly with communities affected by environmental racism, not just scientists and other experts. More funds should be invested in organizations run by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) who work to alleviate environmental injustices in their neighborhoods. Finally, those who are privileged should continually educate themselves about the disproportionate impacts of the environmental crisis, recognize the harm done to the most vulnerable, and amplify their voices as we work towards fair solutions for all. 

Many people are waking up to the intersection of several crises right now, and I hope that their new feelings of profound discomfort and anger will fuel change. For real action to occur, however, we must continue to deepen our understanding of the structures that have allowed injustice to take root in our society for so long and intensify our work to destroy them.

Caroline Weiss is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh double majoring in Environmental Studies and Political Science, with an interest in environmental law. Caroline’s work with the Climate Center aims to raise community awareness about climate news and to promote ways to move toward a more just, sustainable future.


Works Cited

Berkovitz, Casey. "Environmental Racism Has Left Black Communities Especially Vulnerable to COVID-19." The Century Foundation, 19 May 2020, tcf.org/content/commentary/environmental-racism-left-black-communities-especially-vulnerable-covid-19/?session=1.

"The Biden Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity in a Clean Energy Future." Joe Biden, Biden for President, 2020, joebiden.com/climate-plan/#.

"Environmental Justice." Environmental Protection Agency, 9 July 2020, www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice.

Lakhani, Nina. "Killer Heat: US Racial Injustices Will Worsen as Climate Crisis Escalates." The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/28/us-racial-injustices-will-worsen....

McDermott, Donna. "Climate Change, Structural Racism Pose Double Threat To Black Parents. Birth Workers Can Help." WESA, 28 July 2020, www.wesa.fm/post/climate-change-structural-racism-pose-double-threat-bla....

Patronella, Amy, and Saharra Griffin. "Communities of Color Bear the Brunt of Trump's Anti-Environmental Agenda." Center for American Progress, 27 Feb. 2020, www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/02/27/480820/communities....

Plumer, Brad, and Nadja Popovich. "How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering." The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/24/climate/racism-redlining-cities-g....

Popovich, Nadia, et al. "The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules. Here's the Full List." The New York Times, 15 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html.

Villarosa, Linda. "Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back." The New York Times, 28 July 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/magazine/pollution-philadelphia-black-america....

Worland, Justin. "Why the Larger Climate Movement Is Finally Embracing the Fight Against Environmental Racism." Time, Time USA, 9 July 2020, time.com/5864704/environmental-racism-climate-change/.