The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines “environmental justice” 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. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
That this federal agency has such a definition is not a given. The term “environmental justice” came into prominence through the work of sociologist Dr. Robert Bullard, who delivered the annual Harriet Beecher Stowe lecture at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library this week. He is the author of 18 books related to the disproportionate effect of pollution on minority communities. Bullard didn’t seek out this area of expertise. By happenstance, in 1978 he was asked to produce data in support of a court case against the city of Houston to block the placement of a landfill in an African-American neighborhood. With help from the ten students in his research methods class, he documented that 100% of city-owed landfills were located in black neighborhoods. At the time 25% of Houston’s population was African-American.
Today we take such mapping and analysis for granted, but in the pre-Internet days, it was pain-staking work to look up information in government offices and verify it in the field. Basic zoning criteria for landfills that we now assume, such as distance from schools or homes, came out of Bullard’s work. They ultimately lost the Houston court case but in the process created a new research methodology and changed civic consciousness. As Bullard emphasized in his talk, having facts is not enough to produce change. “What you need is a movement,” he said.
Bullard’s story points to the fact that movements take time and change is slow. The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice came about after President Clinton signed an executive order in 1994 requiring that environmental justice issues be considered in EPA rulemaking. Meanwhile, 20 years later, a comment period is open until July 8 on an EPA document providing technical guidance to analysts on how to evaluate environmental justice concerns associated with rulemaking. To observe the 20th anniversary of the executive order, a video series of activists from all over the country discussing their work has been created on the EPA website, illustrating the significance of local leadership for action on environmental issues.
My experience of Bullard’s talk was greatly enhanced by the environment in which I heard it. The 175-year-old Mercantile Library is a true gem of our city. Stepping off the elevator on the 11th floor of an unassuming building on Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati initially feels like a visit to the early 20th century. The shiny wood floors dotted with area rugs, old-fashioned wood tables, groupings of rocking chairs and comfy upholstered and leather easy chairs with ottomans, high ceilings and large windows, as well as shelves and shelves of actual books, create an atmosphere conducive to deep concentration and intellectual engagement. It’s a membership library, and I belonged years ago when I worked downtown. Drawn to the idea of re-joining now, I felt the need to first ask whether there is Internet access and if computers are permitted! The answer is yes to both, and a glance at the staff work areas revealed desktop computers in plain sight. I hope to visit again soon.