Confronting Environmental Injustice: A Look at State Approaches

Solar panels, transmission towers, and a foggy sky.

One of the prin­ci­ples of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice is that pub­lic pol­i­cy be based on mutu­al respect and jus­tice for all peo­ples, free from any form of dis­crim­i­na­tion or bias.” More and more states are adopt­ing this prin­ci­ple and are mak­ing clear that equi­table imple­men­ta­tion and enforce­ment of envi­ron­men­tal laws, reg­u­la­tions and poli­cies is a pri­or­i­ty for them. Just recent­ly, the gov­er­nor of North Car­oli­na signed an exec­u­tive orderincor­po­rat­ing envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and equi­ty con­sid­er­a­tions and ben­e­fits” into the state’s work to cut green­house gas emis­sions. Penn­syl­va­nia cre­at­ed an Office of Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice in order to, among oth­er things, min­i­mize envi­ron­men­tal impacts in EJ com­mu­ni­ties and empow­er those com­mu­ni­ties. And Michigan’s gov­er­nor cre­at­ed the Office of the Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Pub­lic Advo­cate by exec­u­tive order. 

Details have also start­ed com­ing out about how fed­er­al agen­cies and depart­ments will be imple­ment­ing the Biden Administration’s exec­u­tive order estab­lish­ing a whole of gov­ern­ment approach to cen­ter­ing envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice in deci­sion mak­ing. This includ­ed cre­at­ing the White House Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Advi­so­ry Coun­cil, a 26-mem­ber fed­er­al advi­so­ry com­mit­tee, to pro­vide rec­om­men­da­tions on how to pri­or­i­tize their work in a just and equi­table way. Last sum­mer, the admin­is­tra­tion released inter­im guid­ance on imple­men­ta­tion of the order. In Octo­ber, EPA released its draft strate­gic plan which includ­ed the explic­it goal of tak­ing action to advance envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. EPA also recent­ly released a Draft Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Action Plan for EPA’s Land Pro­tec­tion and Cleanup Pro­grams for com­ment. Envi­ron­men­tal advo­cates, how­ev­er, con­tin­ue to push the admin­is­tra­tion to make sure the talk is aligned with the walk.”

What does it mean to prac­tice envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice? And what does it mean to do that work at a law enforce­ment agency? For the Cal­i­for­nia AG’s office it has meant stand­ing by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers orga­niz­ing to stop a cement plant from being built in South Valle­jo where res­i­dents already face high lev­els of pol­lu­tion. For the Wash­ing­ton AG’s office it has meant a dia­logue that cen­ters on dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed com­mu­ni­ties.” For the New Jer­sey AG’s office it has meant enforc­ing exist­ing pol­lu­tion laws in com­mu­ni­ties that have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly bur­dened by pol­lu­tion. For the Illi­nois AG’s office it means hold­ing a met­al shred­ding and recy­cling facil­i­ty account­able for emis­sions of volatile organ­ic com­pounds in the Lit­tle Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood of Chica­go as well as enhanc­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion with com­mu­ni­ties about local envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns. In some states, AGs have new EJ-focused statutes to enforce. Across the board, it has meant lawyer­ing with an atten­tion to deep injustice. 

With a new resource focused on EJ work at AG offices, the Cen­ter, in part­ner­ship with WE ACT for Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice, will be track­ing work in this space. This resource is designed to sup­port AG offices build­ing up EJ prac­tices. It also shines a light on the roots of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­ca­cy as well as impor­tant vic­to­ries, chal­lenges, and lessons for advo­cates in this space. Stay tuned.