Environmental Justice Protest

6 Cases of Environmental Justice Issues Across America

Jane Marsh - January 8, 2024

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The term “environmental justice” was first coined over five decades ago when people of color began protesting unfair exposure to environmental hazards, pollution, chemicals and waste. Today, the movement is as prevalent as ever before, as more people of color and low-income households find themselves living in unsafe and sometimes deadly conditions.

You’re likely more aware of environmental justice than you think. From those living near fracking wells in Pennsylvania to contaminated drinking water in the Cape Fear River, North Carolina, unjust environmental dangers are everywhere. Let’s look more closely at environmental justice and a few critical incidents across the United States.

What Is Environmental Justice?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “environmental justice” as being fairly treated and involved in creating and executing environmental policies and regulations, no matter your race, income level or nationality. 

According to the Public Interest Research Group, one in six Americans resides within three miles of a Superfund site, where mismanaged toxic wastes end up. Those individuals risk reducing their life span by 1.22 years due to the health implications. 

Nearly 75% of Black Americans disproportionately live near these hazardous locations. One study even suggests Blacks and Hispanics are exposed to 56% and 63% more pollution than they consume, respectively. 

Low-income and indigenous people are also affected by environmental inequality. For instance, the XL Keystone Pipeline runs through protected Sioux tribal land, of which degradation is of grave concern. For one thing, extending the pipeline obstructs Sioux authority over the land while also impeding their Indigenous connection to nature. 

People should not have to live with adverse environmental and health outcomes due to corporate, industrial and federal activities. Likewise, Americans must be allowed to partake in decision-making and protest whatever hinders their surroundings and well-being.

6 Case Studies of Environmental Racism

Sadly, environmental justice issues are prevalent across the U.S. Every state cities where specific demographics are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Throughout the years, some incidents have stood out more than others — although all are dire and worthy of consideration. Here are six examples of environmental racism in America.

1. Flint, Michigan

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, garnered a nationwide outcry in 2014 after experts discovered lead and bacteria contamination in people’s drinking water. The incident caused 12 deaths and 90 cases of Legionnaires disease, lead poisoning and other sicknesses. 

Likewise, Michigan government officials — including then-Governor Rick Snyder — faced 42 criminal charges, such as perjury, misconduct, extortion and involuntary manslaughter, among others.

Flint’s 2022 population was 79,854 — about 56.7% of the city is Black, while 35.5% are below the poverty line. The water crisis was a blatant incidence of environmental racism in which the residents had little say in community decision-making. At the same time, officials displayed little concern for anyone’s health and well-being.

2. Warren County, North Carolina

Many say Warren County, North Carolina, is the birthplace of environmental justice. In the 1970s, the state decided to illegally dispose of 6,000 trucks worth of contaminated soil with cancer-inducing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in a low-income, Black community. 

Fearing water contamination and future waste dumping, Warren County residents rallied together and protested the government. They lay in the streets to prevent the trucks from entering the landfill, while over 500 were arrested within six weeks.

Their efforts were null and void, as North Carolina dumped the waste anyway. However, the movement inspired other communities of color across the U.S. to fight for their surroundings and health.

3. Detroit, Michigan

The Detroit neighborhood of Boynton is Michigan’s most polluted district. With 71% of the population being Black, the area is known for significant environmental justice issues. 

Boyton is home to a Marathon oil refinery, having expanded from two tankers in the 1960s to 250 tanks. Over the years, the Michigan Department of Environment has cited the refinery for 20 emissions violations, of which Marathon denies doing anything wrong. 

Studies show historically Black neighborhoods in Detroit have a 12.1% higher concentration of diesel particulate matter and 32.2% higher traffic flow. They also live near 1.7 times more toxic waste sites than non-Black communities. As a result, these individuals have a 3.9% higher risk of respiratory illnesses.

4. Cancer Alley, Louisiana

There is a 130-mile stretch in Louisiana dubbed “Cancer Alley,” where over 200 plastics manufacturing plants, chemical facilities and oil refineries plague residents with hazardous emissions. 

Cancer Alley — between the Mississippi River and Baton Rouge — is a predominantly Black community. In a recent study, scientists discovered a seven to 21 times higher concentration of industrial emissions in Louisiana’s communities of color. 

St. John Parish, in particular, has the highest rate of pollution-related cancer risk at 1,501.1 per million than anywhere in the U.S. This is because a nearby facility emits carcinogenic chloroprene — the only facility in the country that does so. 

It’s not unusual to wonder why people simply don’t pack their belongings and move. The heavily industrialized communities along Cancer Alley are also historically Black, with many living there for several generations. Those who earn a higher salary tend to spend less time in the area and live in better-sealed homes. 

5. Belle Glade, Florida

Florida may be the ultimate destination for a tropical vacation, but residents of Belle Glade might disagree. Those living just south of Lake Okeechobee have dealt with “black snow” — dense ash from burning sugar crops — for decades.

Prescribed burns occur from October to May, spanning thousands of acres, affecting Belle Glade’s mostly Black, Hispanic and impoverished community. 

According to Florida State University researchers, crop burning produces fine particulate matter, leading to respiratory problems, asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. People who live just outside these fields have a 10 times higher mortality risk than those outside the burn zones. 

6. Bronx, New York

The Bronx — one of New York City’s five boroughs — is among the most polluted and environmentally unjust cities in the U.S. 

Air pollution is so harmful that South Bronx neighborhoods are nicknamed “Asthma Alley.” There, children under 18 visited the emergency room for particulate matter-induced asthma six times more than children from the other boroughs between 2015 and 2017. 

According to the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, 300 diesel trucks cross the Cross-Bronx Expressway hourly. About 15,000 trucks also enter and leave the Hunts Point Distribution Center daily — the second-largest U.S. distribution facility. Years ago, these highways and buildings were strategically placed in low-income neighborhoods, leading to a critical environmental injustice.

Environmental Justice Is Coming to a Head

Ideally, every demographic and neighborhood would receive fair, safe treatment and participate in environmental decisions. This isn’t the case in the U.S., but more recent incidences have awakened many to the movement. Could communities of color be making headway? This may be the start.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.