Environmental justice

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Environmental justice is a social movement that addresses the unequal environmental burden born by historically disadvantaged groups such as racial minorities, women, indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and developing nations. Coal is an important environmental justice issue due to the serious environmental and social impact of coal mining and coal-fired power plants, and the disproportionate effect on communities already facing inequalities. Examples include the proximity of low-income and communities of color to coal-fired plants, mountaintop removal coal mining in rural areas, coal mines and plants on indigenous lands, and the exporting of polluting industries from wealthy nations to developing countries in Africa, South America, and Asia.

Climate Change: Its Time to Tell Another Story (SmartMeme)

Not only do these communities face greater environmental burdens, they are, on average, less responsible for environmental problems, and have less representation in shaping environmental policy. For example, in the United States, African-Americans are thirteen percent of the population and responsible for twenty percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than whites per capita, yet seventy-one percent African-Americans live in counties that violate federal air pollution standards, seventy-eight percent live within thirty miles of a coal-fired plant, and are almost three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized or die from asthma and respiratory illness linked to air pollution.[1][2][3] Existing social and economic injustices are exacerbated by unequal environmental burdens, making environmental justice a matter of fundamental human rights and justice, and not simply an environmental issue.

Climate Justice

Nia Robinson and Paris Hatcher speak on Climate Justice

Climate Justice proponents consider climate change, or global warming, to be a central issue of environmental justice because it amplifies existing social and economic inequalities and disproportionately affects vulnerable groups. According to the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, "With rising temperatures, human lives—particularly in people of color, low-income, and Indigenous communities—are affected by compromised health, financial burdens, and social and cultural disruptions. These communities are the first to experience the negative impacts of climate change such as heat-related illness and death, respiratory illness, infectious diseases, unaffordable rises in energy costs, and extreme natural disasters."[1] At the global level as well, disparities in responsibility for global warming pollution and corresponding environmental burdens mirror the racial and economic inequalities within the U.S. For example, the U.S. has a pollution responsibility per capita forty-two times that of Africa, while according to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Africa is the continent most at risk from climate change.[2]

Advocates of climate justice seek the fair treatment of all people by the policies that address climate change and the systems that perpetuate it.[1]

Carbon Trading

Among environmental justice advocates, opposition to carbon trading has grown due to the belief that such approaches do little to help climate change and instead provide substantial profits for corporate greenhouse gas polluters.

In February 2008, The California Environmental Justice Movement issued a declaration against the use of carbon trading to address climate change.[4] The coalition of groups believe that market based initiatives such as carbon trading cannot adequately address climate change and are designed to benefit corporate interests rather than affected communities and the environment. They state, "[C]arbon trading is undemocratic because it allows entrenched polluters, market designers, and commodity traders to determine whether and where to reduce greenhouse gases and co-pollutant emissions without allowing impacted communities or governments to participate in those decisions."[5]The group criticized carbon trading for creating a commodity market that privatizes the disposal of greenhouse gases and pollutants into the environment and gives billions of dollars worth of credits to the biggest corporate polluters without proper monitoring and penalties. Instead of carbon trading, the group advocates policies that move away from burning fossil fuels.

On December 1, 2008, climate activists took over the Washington, DC office of Environmental Defense (ED) to protest ED's support and promotion of carbon trading. The activists awarded ED a "Corporate Greenwash Award," a three-foot tall green paintbrush, and rearranged the office furniture to demonstrate how marketing carbon is "like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."[6] Dr. Rachel Smokler, whose father was one of the founders of ED, read a statement noting the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, the European Emissions Trading Scheme and other market initiatives for reducing emissions. Leo Cerda, an indigenous activist with Rising Tide Ecuador, put the matter in terms of environmental justice: "ED wants to turn the atmosphere and forests into private property, and then give it away to the most polluting industries in the form of pollution allowances that can be bought and sold. Not only is this an ineffective way to control emissions, it is also a disaster for the poor and indigenous peoples who are not party to these markets and are most impacted by climate change." [7]

Coal mines, coal plants, and poverty

For more information, go to Coal plants near residential areas

There are 54 coal mines in the U.S. that produced more than 4 million tons of coal in 2006; these 54 mines are located in 34 counties. The median 2005 poverty rate in these 34 counties was 15.5% - 17% higher than the U.S. average of 13.3%. The median 2000 per capita income in these 34 counties was $16,246 - 25% lower than the U.S. average of $21,587.

There are 404 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. with a capacity greater than 100 MW. The median 2005 poverty rate in the counties in which these 404 plants are located was 13.4% - roughly the same as the U.S. average. Here is a graph of the distribution of these 404 plants by 2005 county poverty rate:

County Poverty Rate Range Deviation from U.S. Average # of Plants Total Capacity
3.8 - 6.6% -50% to -71% 26 20,046 MW
6.7 - 9.9% -25% to -50% 63 54,292 MW
10.0 - 13.2% 0 to -25% 106 74,001 MW
13.3 - 16.5% 0 to +25% 105 84,811 MW
16.6 - 19.9% +25% to +50% 63 52,004 MW
20.0 - 26.6% +50% to +100% 30 29,261 MW
26.6 - 41.7% +100% to +214% 11 7,329 MW

However, in 2000, the median per capita income in the counties in which these 404 plants were located was $18,465 - 15% lower than the U.S. average. Here is a graph of the distribution of these 404 plants by 2000 county per capita income:

County Per Capita Income Range Deviation from U.S. Average # of Plants Total Capacity
$8,986 - 12,952 -40% to -58% 6 4,600 MW
$12,953 - 17,270 -20% to -40% 141 127,049 MW
$17,271 - 21,587 0 to -20% 178 140,817 MW
$21,588 - 25,904 0 to +20% 59 42,844 MW
$25,905 - 30,222 +20% to +40% 15 9,063 MW
$30,223 - 38,550 +40% to +78% 5 2,492 MW

Out of the 404 coal power plants in the U.S. with capacity over 100 MW, 80.4% are in counties that have a lower per capita income than the U.S. average.[8][9][10][11]

To a certain extent, there is an inverse relationship between poverty rates and income levels: the highest income levels tend to be in cities, where poverty rates are also high; lower income levels tend to be in rural areas, where poverty rates are also low. Thus, since most existing coal power plants are in rural areas, the poverty rates are roughly average for the U.S., even though per capita income in those areas is lower than average. However, out of the 404 U.S. coal plants with capacity over 100 MW, 82 - with a total capacity of 73,769 MW, or 22% of U.S. coal power capacity - are in counties that have poverty rates that are at least 25% higher than the U.S. average, as well as per capita income levels that are at least 20% lower than the U.S. average. These 82 plants are thus in some of the most economically devastated areas in the U.S.; 49 are in the South, 23 are in Appalachia, 32 are in counties that are either more than 25% black or more than 25% Latino, and 9 are in counties that are more than 20% Native American.

Coal Plants, Pollution, and Race

The 2011 report, "Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People in Illinois" by Adrian Wilson, NAACP, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), and the Indigenous Environmental Network, notes that:

  • A total of 8.1 million Americans live within three miles of a coal power plant. Those 8.1 million people have an average per capita income of $18,594 – significantly lower than the U.S. average of $21,587. Out of those 8.1 million people, 36.3%, or 2.94 million, are people of color, who make up only 29.2% of the U.S. population as a whole.
  • African-Americans are hospitalized for asthma at three times the rate of whites, and the death rate from asthma is 172% higher for African-Americans than for whites. Asthma is closely linked to burning coal: coal power plants produce 74% of all sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution, 18% of nitrogen oxide (NOX) pollution, and 85% of direct particulate matter 2.5 emissions in the United States, which all exacerbate asthma.

The report went on to use an algorithm combining levels of SO2 and NOX emissions together with demographic factors in order to calculate an environmental justice score for the 431 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., and found that:

  • Ninety plants have a significantly disproportionate impact on people of color and low-income people, with 4.7 million people living within 3 miles of the 90 plants, with an average per capita income of $17,600 (25% lower than state average), and over half (52.5%) people of color. Ten were in Illinois, eight in Indiana, seven in Michigan, sex in Virginia, and five in South Carolina. The report notes that shutting down the 90 worst ranking plants would reduce U.S. power production by only 9.2%, but would cut back the number of Americans living within three miles of a coal plant by well over half (58.4%).
  • Twelve plants were ranked the top environmental justice offenders, producing a total of 48,582 Gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity in 2005 — only 1.2% of total U.S. electricity production, yet affecting a total of 1.78 million Americans who live within 3 miles of one of the 12 plants, with an average per capita income of $14,626 (compared with the U.S. average of $21,587), and 76.3% people of color. The plants were:
  1. Crawford Generating Station, Chicago, IL (Edison International)
  2. Hudson Generating Station, Jersey City, NJ (PSEG)
  3. Fisk Generating Station, Chicago, IL (Edison International)
  4. Valley Power Plant, Milwaukee, WI (Wisconsin Energy)
  5. State Line Plant, Hammond, IN (Dominion)
  6. Lake Shore Plant, Cleveland, OH (FirstEnergy)
  7. Gallagher Generating Station, New Albany, IN (Duke Energy)
  8. Bridgeport Harbor Station, Bridgeport, CT (PSEG)
  9. River Rouge Power Plant, River Rouge, MI (DTE Energy)
  10. Cherokee Station, Commerce City, CO (Xcel Energy)
  11. Four Corners Steam Plant, Niinahnízaad, NM (Arizona Public Service Company)
  12. Waukegan Generating Station, Waukegan, IL (Edison International)


Click here for UMass's list of the 100 companies with the highest toxic releases and the correlation with socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity.

Mercury, ozone, and Latinos

A 2000 study by the CDC found that, on average, Latino children have higher levels of mercury in their bodies compared to non-Hispanic white children. According to a 2004 study by the League of United Latin American Citizens, 39 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant. Latinos are also less likely to have health insurance than any other racial or ethnic group: nearly one in every three (32.4 percent) lack health insurance.[12]

A 2008 analysis of several studies on Latinos – based largely on previously unreleased data from the polling firm Bendixen & Amandi's 2008 National Survey of Latinos on the Environment – found that they face disproportionate risk from toxic mercury pollution because of a combination of cultural, economic and linguistic factors.

One of the biggest threats was from fishing: mercury poisoning occurs by ingesting contaminated fish and, according to the survey, 31 percent of Latinos fish regularly, with 76 percent of those eating and sharing what they catch with their families. These families include young children and women of childbearing age, the two most vulnerable population sectors to mercury poisoning. Another study conducted by the University of California-Davis titled, "Fishing for Justice or Just Fishing," revealed that Hispanic anglers fish close to their urban communities because of a lack of transportation options. The fish caught in urban areas tend to contain the highest concentrations of mercury contamination.

This exposure is already showing high levels of mercury contamination among Hispanic anglers. According to another University of California-Davis study, Hispanic anglers in California on average ingest 13.9 micrograms of mercury per day via fish they catch, mostly in local waters--almost twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe limit. The "Fishing for Justice or Just Fishing" study also found that this problem is compounded by several factors, such as fish advisories and warning signs rarely posted in Spanish.[13]

A 2011 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, the Center for American Progress and the National Wildlife Federation, "U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution," found that nearly one out of every two Latinos lives in the most ozone-polluted cities in the country.[14]

Coal waste storage

Studies have shown that solid waste landfills, which can be used to store toxic coal waste from power plants, are located disproportionately in low-wealth populations and in areas with higher percentages of people of color.

In a 2007 report, "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina,", researchers in North Carolina found that solid waste facilities were 2.8 times more likely to be located in communities with 50 percent or more non-white residents, versus communities with less than 10 percent of residents being people of color. It also found that solid waste facilities negatively impact the health of these communities.[15]

A 2010 report, "Out of Control: Mounting Damages From Coal Ash Waste Sites" by Environmental Integrity Project found that contamination from improper coal ash waste disposal is concentrated in communities with family poverty rates above the national median.[16]

TVA shipping coal ash from Tennessee disaster to poor communities in Georgia and Alabama

TVA Sends Toxic Coal Ash to Poor Black Communities

In a test case, some of the coal ash waste that spilled in TVA's Kingston plant disaster is being sent to Georgia and Alabama. TVA is loading it onto rail cars, where the company says it will be safely contained.[17] In Georgia, the coal waste is being shipped to the Veolia landfill in Taylor Count, about 100 miles south of Atlanta. Local residents have dubbed the dump site "Trash Mountain." Sierra Club representative Mark Woodall said the landfill is poorly suited to coal ash storage, because it is "located in a groundwater recharge area, and it's a danger to our groundwater resources in Georgia."[17] In Alabama, a landfill in Perry County in the west central part of the state is also receiving ash shipments.[18]

Both the Georgia and Alabama landfills are located in areas with higher rates of poverty and higher percentages of African-American residents than state averages, a situation that has raised concerns about environmental justice. In Taylor County, more than 24 percent of the population lives in poverty, and over 40 percent of the population is African-American; by contrast, the state as a whole has a 14 percent poverty rate and is 30 percent African-American. Perry County in Alabama has more than 32 percent of its residents living in poverty and a 69 percent African-American population, compared with the state as a whole, which has a poverty rate of over 16 percent and a 26 percent African-American population.[18] Perry County District Attorney Michael Jackson criticized the EPA for allowing TVA to dispose of ash at a landfill in a poor community in Alabama, calling the decision "tragic and shortsighted." He vowed to monitor the disposal site to ensure the process complies with environmental regulations.[19]

Reports show that TVA also considered moving the coal ash to two communities in eastern Tennessee, both of which have populations of well over 90 percent white residents and poverty rates of under 21 percent. The two Tennessee sites considered were Athens in McMinn County and Oneida in Scott County. However, the company sought approval from state regulators solely for the sites in Georgia and Alabama. The communities that are receiving the coal waste from TVA were not provided an opportunity for public comment on the decision.[18]

The ash will be transported from Tennessee to the out-of-state landfills through May 15, 2009. State and federal officials will evaluate whether the tests are successful, and if so whether to bring in more of the TVA coal waste.[17] Just days after news of the test shipments were announced, EPA decided to take over cleanup of the spill. The agreement between EPA and TVA, which was executed under the Superfund law, has EPA overseeing the cleanup and TVA reimbursing EPA for its oversight costs.[20]

Coal Ash and Fountain Industrial Park

In 1989, ReUse Technology, a Georgia-based company that handles coal ash produced by utilities, in cooperation with Edgecombe County Development, began using coal ash as landfill at Fountain Industrial Park near the city of Rocky Mount in Edgecombe County, N.C. The ash was from various Cogentrix plants as well as from the coal-fired cogeneration facility at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the industrial park was turned into a trailer park for about 370 eastern North Carolina families displaced by the disaster, many from Princeville, a historic African-American community. By that time, the soil covering the fill had eroded, leaving coal ash exposed.[21]

Employees of a nearby correctional facility, the organization Black Workers for Justice, and graduate students at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health, asked the Edgecombe County development officer if a study of the land had been done prior to construction of the trailer park, and found there had been no thorough testing of the site for possible health impacts before the relocation. In response to mounting worries about the site's safety, epidemiologists with the state health department collected samples from the trailer park for testing, comparing the results to EPA's standards for potential health effects. One of the samples exceeded EPA standards for two contaminants, arsenic and chromium. A N.C. Department of Health and Human Services press release, however, said only that the soil samples "showed no significant risk" for the residents, without mentioning the elevated arsenic and chromium levels.[21]

EPA Grants for Environmental Justice Issues

In March 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it is awarding $800,000 in grants to organizations working with communities that struggle with environmental justice issues. The Environmental Justice Small Grants Program will provide 40 grants, up to $20,000 each, to community organizations and local and tribal governments in 28 states for projects that address environmental and public health issues.[22]

Native American tribal lands

For more details, see Coal and Native American tribal lands.

Native Americans have been called early environmental justice activists, due to their historic struggle against over-development. Native American lands of the United States are home to large coal reserves and coal mining, making them disproportionately effected by the environmental hazards of the coal industry. The common challenges of land and resource development are exacerbated by the poor economic situation of many of the tribes, which raises questions of environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty.[23]

According to the Department of the Interior, twenty-five Native American reservations have coal reserves. Navajo, Hopi, and Crow lands all have coal mines. The Southern Ute, Uintah, Ouray, Fort Berthold, Northern Cheyenne, and Zuni have coal reserves with "potential for development."[24]

According to a 2012 Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 10 percent of all U.S. power plants operate within 20 miles of reservation land. Many of the 51 energy production centers are more than a half-century old and affect roughly 48 tribes living on 50 reservations. (Fewer than 2 percent of all people in the United States identify as Native American and only a small portion live on tribal land.)[25]

BP oil disaster

According to EJ scholar Robert Bullard, while much attention has been focused on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and clean up efforts, not much attention has been given to which communities were selected as the final resting place for BP’s oil-spill garbage.[26]

BP’s waste plan, “Recovered Oil/Waste Management Plan Houma Incident Command,” was approved on June 13, 2010. BP hired private contractors to cart away and dispose of thousands of tons of crude-coated boom and refuse that washed ashore. The nine approved Gulf Coast solid waste landfills, amount of waste disposed, and the percent minority residents living within a one-mile radius of the facilities were:[26]

  • Alabama - Chastang Landfill, Mount Vernon, AL, 6008 tons (56.2%) Magnolia Landfill, Summerdale, AL, 5,966 tons (11.5%)
  • Florida - Springhill Regional Landfill, Campbellton, FL, 14,228 ton (76.0%)
  • Louisiana - Colonial Landfill, Ascension Parish, LA, 7,729 (34.7%); Jefferson Parish Sanitary Landfill, Avondale, LA, 225 tons (51.7%); Jefferson Davis Parish Landfill, Welsh, LA, 182 tons (19.2%); River Birch Landfill, Avondale, LA, 1,406 (53.2%); Tide Water Landfill, Venice, LA, 2,204 tons (93.6%).
  • Mississippi - Pecan Grove Landfill, Harrison, MS, 1,509 tons (12.5%)

According to Bullard's analysis of BP’s Oil Spill Waste Summary, as of of July 15, more than 39,448 tons of oil garbage had been disposed at nine approved landfills in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi. More than half (five out of nine) of the landfills receiving BP oil-spill solid waste are located in communities where people of color comprise a majority of residents living near the waste facilities. In addition, a significantly large share of the BP oil-spill waste, 24,071 tons out of 39,448 tons (61 percent), is dumped in people of color communities. This is notable since people of color comprise about 26 percent of the coastal counties in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.[26]

Bullard argues that Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, requires the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard to do a better job monitoring where BP oil-spill waste ends up to ensure that minority and low-income populations do not bear an adverse and disproportionate share of the burdens and negative impacts associated with the spill.[26]

Environmental Justice Organizations




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson, "Just Climate Policy —Just Racial Policy", Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Fall 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 J. Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson, "A Climate of Change: African Americans, Global Warming, and a Just Climate Policy for the U.S." EJCC Report, July 2008.
  3. "Air of Injustice: African Americans and Power Plant Pollution" Clean Air Task Force, October 2002.
  4. "Declaration on the Use of Carbon Trading Schemes to Address Climate Change", California Environmental Justice Movement website.
  5. "Declaration on the Use of Carbon Trading Schemes to Address Climate Change", item 16, California Environmental Justice Movement website.
  6. "Climate Activists Invade DC Offices of Environmental Defense, Daughter of ED Founder Accuses NGO of Pushing False Solutions to Climate Change", Rising Tide press release, December 1, 2008.
  7. "Climate Activists Invade DC Offices of Environmental Defense, Daughter of ED Founder Accuses NGO of Pushing False Solutions to Climate Change", Rising Tide press release, December 1, 2008.
  8. Existing Electric Generating Units in the United States, 2005, Energy Information Administration, accessed April 2008.
  9. Major U.S. Coal Mines, Energy Information Administration, accessed July 2008.
  10. 2005 County-Level Poverty Rates, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, accessed July 2008.
  11. Per Capita Income in 1999, Census 2000 Summary File 3, U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder, accessed July 2008.
  12. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, the Center for American Progress and the National Wildlife Federation, "U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution," 2011 Report.
  13. "New Analysis Finds that Hispanics Face Disproportionate Health Threat from Coal Plant's Toxic Mercury Pollution " ENews, June 14, 2011.
  14. The Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, the Center for American Progress and the National Wildlife Federation, "U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution," 2011 Report.
  15. "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina," Environmental Health Perspectives, October 1, 2007. (Access to article requires free registration.)
  16. Sue Sturgis, "EPA puts off long-promised coal ash protections" ISS, March 7, 2011.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Jim Burress, "Coal Ash from Tennessee Disaster Making its Way to Georgia Landfill," WABE, May 8, 2009.
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Sue Sturgis, "Dumping in Dixie: TVA sends toxic coal ash to poor black communities in Georgia and Alabama" Facing South, May 12, 2009.
  19. "Alabama DA reviewing options on coal ash decision," WTVM, July 7, 2009.
  20. "EPA to Oversee Cleanup of TVA Kingston Fossil Fuel Plant Release," Environmental Protection Agency, May 11, 2009.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Sue Sturgis, "'Dumpsites in Disguise:' Reuse of Coal Ash Largely Unregulated by Officials" truthout, May 27, 2010.
  22. "EPA Environmental Justice Grants Fund Projects in 28 States", Environment News Service, March 24, 2009.
  23. Interview with Winona LaDuke, Grist, April 19, 2004
  24. The Direct Use of Coal: Prospects and Problems of Production and Combustion,Office of Technology Assessment, Books for Business, November 2002, p. 325
  25. Cristina Silva, "Native Americans say power plants near tribal lands cause illness," AP, July 5, 2012.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Robert Bullard, "BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns" Dissident Voices, July 29, 2010.

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