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Environmental Injustice

People who live, work and play in America's most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor. Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts -- say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls "environmental racism." Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.

(Renee Skeleton and Vernice Miller, Natural Resources Defense Council, 2016)


What is Toxic Waste?


Toxic waste refers to discarded material or substances that threaten human health and/or the environment because it is poisonous, dangerously chemical reactive, corrosive, or flammable. Examples include industrial solvents, hospital medical waste, car batteries (containing lead and acids), household pesticide products, dry-cell batteries (containing mercury and cadmium), and ash and sludge from incinerators and coal-burning power and industrial plants. Radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is extremely hazardous. More developed countries of the world produce 80 percent of toxic waste, and the United States is the leading producer (although China is rapidly catching up) (Miller and Spoolman, 2016).


Toxic materials are poisonous byproducts as a result of industries such as manufacturing, farming, construction, automotive, laboratories, and hospitals which may contain heavy metals, radiation, dangerous pathogens, or other toxins. Toxic waste has become more abundant since the industrial  revolution, causing serious global health issues. Disposing of such waste has become even more critical with the addition of numerous technological advances containing toxic chemical components. Products such as cellular telephones, computers, televisions, and solar panels contain toxic chemicals that can harm the environment if not disposed of properly to prevent the pollution of the air and contamination of soils and water. A material is considered toxic when it causes death or harm by being

inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin (Wikipedia, 2017).


What are the key substances that pose a risk to human health? They are:

  • Arsenic: used in making electrical circuits, as an ingredient in pesticides, and as a wood preservative. It is classified as a carcinogen.

  • Asbestos: a material that was once used for the insulation of buildings; some businesses are still using this material to manufacture roofing materials and brakes. Inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to lung cancer and asbestosis.

  • Cadmium: is found in batteries and plastics. It can be inhaled through cigarette smoke, or digested when included as a pigment in food; exposure leads to lung damage, irritation of the digestive track, and kidney disease.

  • Chromium: is used as brick lining for high-temperature industrial furnaces, as a solid metal used for making steel, and in chrome plating, manufacturing dyes and pigments, wood preserving, and leather tanning; known to cause cancer, and prolonged exposure can cause chronic bronchitis and damage lung tissue.

  • Clinical wastes: such as syringes and medication bottles can spread pathogens and harmful microorganisms, leading to a variety of illnesses.

  • Cyanide: a poison found in some pesticides and rodenticides; in large doses it can lead to paralysis, convulsions, and respiratory distress.

  • Lead: is found in batteries, paints, and ammunition; when ingested or inhaled can cause harm to the nervous and reproductive systems, and kidneys.

  • Mercury: used for dental fillings and batteries; also used in the production of chlorine gas. Exposure can lead to birth defects and kidney and brain damage.

  • PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls:  are used in many manufacturing processes, by the utility industry, and in paints and sealants; damage can occur through exposure, affecting the nervous, reproductive, and immune systems, as well as the liver.

  • POPs, persistent organic pollutants: are found in chemicals and pesticides, and may lead to nervous and reproductive system defects; can bio-accumulate in the food chain or persist in the environment and be moved great distances through the atmosphere.

  • Strong acids and alkalis:  used in manufacturing and industrial production; they can destroy tissue and cause internal damage to the body.


With increasing worldwide technology there are more substances that are being considered toxic and harmful to human health. Some of this technology includes cell phones and computers. They have been given the name e-waste or EEE, which stands for Electrical and Electronic Equipment. This term is also used for goods such as refrigerators, toys, and washing machines. These items can contain toxic components inside which can break down into our water systems when discarded. The reduction in the cost of these goods has allowed for these items to be distributed globally without thought or consideration to managing the goods once they become ineffective or broken (Wikipedia, 2017).

The Dangers to Health

Toxic wastes often contain carcinogens, and exposure to these by some route, such as leakage or evaporation from the storage, causes cancer to appear at increased frequency in exposed individuals. Heart disease, serious respiratory conditions such as emphysema, and other health problems also have been documented as outcomes of exposure to hazardous wastes.The agriculture industry uses over 800,000 tons of pesticides worldwide annually that contaminate soils, and eventually infiltrates into groundwater, which can contaminate drinking water supplies. The oceans can be polluted from the stormwater runoff of these chemicals as well. Toxic waste in the form of petroleum oil can either spill into the oceans from pipe leaks or large ships, but it can also enter the oceans from everyday citizens dumping car oil into the rainstorm sewer systems. Disposal is the placement of waste into or on the land. Disposal facilities are usually designed to permanently contain the waste and prevent the release of harmful pollutants to the environment.

The Environmental Justice Movement

There are several points that could be cited as the beginning of an environmental justice movement. Some identify the work of Cesar Chavez in the 1960s in leading California farm workers' fight for the implementation of workplace protections, including protection from toxic pesticides. In 1967, African-American students took to the streets of Houston to oppose a city garbage dump in their community that had claimed the lives of two children. In 1968, residents of West Harlem, in New York City, fought unsuccessfully against the siting of a sewage treatment plant in their community.


Many believe the early 1980s protest in Afton (Warren County), North Carolina, a rural, low-income, and primarily African-American town in which PCBs (see above) had been illegally dumped over time. When it was proposed placing a hazardous waste landfill nearby and then disposing of 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic chemicals at the landfill, the town united in nonviolent protest and marches. They sat on roads leading into the landfill, and more than 500 persons were arrested – the first arrests in United States history over the siting of a landfill. The community lost the battle against the state, but their fight drew national attention and is considered by some as the first major milestone in the national environmental justice movement by environmental justice advocates.

Protestors block the delivery of toxic PCB waste to a landfill in Afton, North Carolina, 1982. Photo: Ricky Stilley.

In the wake of the Afton protests, environmental justice activists looked around the nation and saw a pattern: Pollution-producing facilities are often sited in poor communities of color. No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities. Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests. Often they could not afford to hire the technical and legal expertise they'd need to fight a siting. They often lacked access to information about how their new "neighbor's" pollution would affect people's health. And in the case of Latino communities, important information in English-only documents was out of reach for affected residents who spoke only Spanish (National Resources Defense Council, 2017).


The environmental justice movement brought to light the concept of environmental racism in which environmentally hazardous sites are located closer in proximity to low-income and racial minority communities than the general population. Several studies in the 1980s revealed race as a factor in the siting of hazardous waste facilities and toxics-producing facilities in primarily poor, African-American and Latino communities.


In 1987, the United Church of Christ commissioned a study (Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States) to study the correlation between hazardous waste facilities and racial groups in the United States. Two of the key research techniques used were: (a) statistical analysis of the correlation between race (and other socioeconomic factors) and the siting of hazardous waste facilities in the United States, and (b) a demographics-based description of the communities that contain “uncontrolled toxic waste sites,” which are closed or abandoned sites that may pose a health risk to surrounding communities (today known as brownfields).

The report found that race was by far the most significant variable for determining the location of hazardous waste facilities, and communities with the largest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had very high levels of racial and ethnic minorities.

To begin addressing environmental justice issues, the Environmental Protection Agency established the Environmental Equity Workgroup in 1990, which produced the report Reducing Risk in All Communities that provided recommendations for addressing inequities that racial minority and low-income populations face in bearing a higher environmental risk burden than the general population. One recommendation included creating the Office of Environmental Equity (now the Office of Environmental Justice), which was established in 1992. In 1991, two foundational documents of the environmental justice movement, the Principles of Environmental Justice and the Call to Action, were produced at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The summit, which met in Washington, D.C., brought together environmental justice leaders from the United States and other nations for the first time and demonstrated that environmental justice issues were being recognized by the United States (CalRecycle, 2017).

In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, directing federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies that address human health and environmental impacts in minority and low-income communities. President Clinton identified Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as one of several federal laws that can help prevent minority and low-income communities from being disproportionately burdened by pollution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, proposed by John F. Kennedy, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and is foundational federal legislation that can help address environmental justice issues (CalRecycle, 2017).


In 1999 California became the first state in the nation to put environmental justice considerations into law when Governor Gray Davis signed SB 115. It provided the procedural framework for environmental justice in California and directed CalEPA to conduct its programs, policies, and activities with consideration to environmental justice. Additional bills were later enacted developing a strategy for identifying and addressing gaps in existing programs, policies, or activities that may hinder the achievement of environmental justice in the state (CalRecycle, 2017).

Did these efforts solve this inequity? In 2007, the United Church of Christ commissioned a follow-up study to answer this question. The study was conducted by scholars at Clark Atlanta University, the University of Michigan, the University of Montana and Dillard University. A final report, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, 1987-2007: Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States, was produced. It found that disproportionately large numbers of people of color still live in hazardous waste host communities, and that they are not equally protected by environmental laws.

The study found that more than nine million people live in neighborhoods less than two miles from one of the nation’s 413 hazardous waste facilities, and that the proportion of people of color in these neighborhoods is almost twice that of the proportion of those living in other neighborhoods. Where facilities are clustered, people of color are 69 percent of residents.

Paul Mohai, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment and a co-author of the report, described the results as dismaying:

          You can see there has been a lot more attention to the issue of environmental justice but the progress has been very, very slow. Why? As important as all those efforts are, they haven't been well executed, and I don't know if the political will is there (Michigan News, 2007).

Click on the button to read about Naeema Muhammad 

and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network

Modern Environmental Laws

Prior to the passage of modern environmental laws, it was legal to dump wastes into the air; into streams, rivers and oceans; and to bury it underground or aboveground in landfills. No one agency had responsibility for monitoring the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)


The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970 to oversee efforts to protect and preserve the environment. When led by a supportive presidential administration, it has been an important force in environmental protection and an advocate for environmental justice. The 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. The 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.









The 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) created nationwide programs to regulate the handling and disposal of hazardous wastes. The RCRA governs the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act authorizes the EPA to collect information on all new and existing chemical substances, as well as to control any substances that were determined to cause unreasonable risk to public health or the environment. However, the disposal of toxic waste continues to be a source of conflict in the United States. Due to the hazards associated with toxic waste handling and disposal, communities often resist nearby siting of toxic waste landfills and other waste management facilities.


In the 1970s prompted by major exposes of toxic waste dumps such as Love Canal and Valley of the Drums, studies reported thousands of contaminated sites existed around the country due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed, These sites included manufacturing facilities, processing plants, landfills, and mining sites. In response, Congress passed the

Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, but informally called the Superfund) in 1980.  


Superfund allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites and forces the parties responsible for the contamination to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.

When there is no viable responsible party, Superfund gives EPA the funds and authority to clean up contaminated sites.


The specific goals of Superfund (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017) are:


Despite the name, the program has suffered from under-funding, and cleanups have moved at a slow pace. The EPA and state agencies use the Hazard Ranking System (HRS) to calculate a site score (ranging from 0 to 100) based on the actual or potential release of hazardous substances from a site. A score of 28.5 places a site on the National Priorities List, eligible for long-term remedial action (i.e., cleanup) under the Superfund program. As of August 2016, there were 1,328 sites listed; an additional 391 had been delisted, and 55 new sites have been proposed. The 2018 Trump Administration Superfund budget would cut the program by $330 million out of its nearly $1.1 billion budget, a 30% reduction to the Environmental Protection Agency program.

Meaningful involvement means:
  • People have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health
  • The public's contribution can influence the regulatory agency's decisions.
  • Community concerns will be considered in the decision making process
  • Decision makers will seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected

Navassa and the Superfund

In 2015, more than $10 million was allocated to clean up a hazardous waste site at the location of a former wood treatment plant in Navassa in northern Brunswick County. The money was part of a lawsuit that resulted in the largest environmental settlement in history.

The 292-acre tract was the site of a large plant that operated for nearly four decades treating wood with creosote, a common wood preservative made from a wide range of chemicals that, when combined, form a gummy substance applied to wood products such as railroad ties and telephone poles. The plant opened in Navassa in 1936 under the ownership of the Gulf States Creosoting Co. and was sold to Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation in 1965. Kerr-McGee closed the plant in 1974, leaving behind extensive creosote contamination, a determination made in a 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-enforced study. The creosote and sludge left on the site entered the marshes adjacent to the Brunswick River and Sturgeon Creek, which flow into the Cape Fear River.

Since then, ongoing studies have been conducted on the site in the small town near Wilmington to determine remediation options and public health effects. Creosote has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA, with studies showing an increased risk of cancer and respiratory problems in plant workers routinely exposed to the material. Soil samples turned up hazardous substances, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a combination of chemicals that commonly enter the body through breathing contaminated air or by consuming contaminated water or food.

The Navassa site was added to the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in early 2010, about four years before a New York district court judge approved a $5.15 billion settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. That amount was split between dozens of sites in more than 20 states. The Navassa project is also being driven by a bankruptcy settlement, in which a judge required Kerr-McGee’s successor companies to pay the state and federal governments $92.5 million to clean up the site and another $23 million to restore the damaged ecosystems. (The concentration of creosote in the marsh sediment was high enough to be toxic to animals living in the water, which caused spawning areas to move and affected the normal growth of fish.)

W. Russell Callender, acting assistant of NOAA stated, “Coastal wetlands like the areas impacted in North Carolina provide important environmental and economic services. Using these funds to restore habitat will benefit fisheries and wildlife and provide protection from storms, all of which will directly benefit the coastal communities and economies that depend upon them, while improving coastal resilience.” (The material on the Navassa site and Superfund drawn from Trista Talton, 2015). 


While pleased with the cleanup of the site and the surrounding areas, many Navassa residents have expressed unhappiness that none of the funds are going to the people who were harmed by the toxic location. They point to the early mortality of many local residents and the continuing health problems being experienced.       

 Residents of Navassa greeted an anti-poverty group in 2012 with signs about the old Kerr-McGree site. Photo: Cash Michaels

Check out this excellent three-part article on the Navassa Superfund site:

(1) Mark Hibbs. July 12, 2016 "Navassa: A Century of Contamination." 

     Coastal Review


(2) Mark Hibbs. July 13, 2016 "Navassa: From Guano to Creosote."

      Coastal Review Online.

(3) Mark Hibbs. July 14, 2016 "Navassa: Cleaning Up a Century of Pollution."

      Coastal Review Online.

What Can Be Done?

The starting points for doing something about environmental injustice are the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:

  • Become more knowledgeable about this issue.


  • Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.

  • Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.

  • Advocate for policies that show understanding and respect for natural processes and for all communities of people. Challenge policies and decisions that expect low-income communities and communities of people of color to always absorb the most dangerous health-harming substances. 

  • Advocate for government agencies and government leaders at all levels to conscientiously try to fulfill their responsibilities toward protection and conservation of the environment.


  • Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific and just approach to consideration of environmental issues is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.


CalRecycle. 2017 “Environmental Justice.”


Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ.  1987 Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites.

Environmental Protection Agency. 2017 "Environmental Justice."

Environmental Protection Agency. 2017 “What is Superfund?”

Mark Hibbs. July 12, 2016 "Navassa: A Century of Contamination." Coastal Review

Mark Hibbs. July 13, 2016 "Navassa: From Guano to Creosote." Coastal Review Online.

Mark Hibbs. July 14, 2016 "Navassa: Cleaning Up a Century of Pollution." Coastal Review Online.

Michigan News. 2007 Toxic Waste and Race: Report Confirms No Progress Made in 20 years.

G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman. 2016 Environmental Science. Boston: Cengage Learning.

Natural Resources Defense Council. 2016 “Environmental Justice Movement.”


Renee Skeleton and Vernice Miller. 2016 “Environmental Justice Movement.”(Natural Resources Defense Council).


Trista Talton. 2015 “Navassa Superfund Site Slated Cleanup.”

Wikipedia. 2017 “Toxic Waste.”

Read and See More on Environmental (In)Justice

Reeve Basom. 2017 "Race and Environmental Injustice."

     Slide show depicting the environmentally unjust way in which racial minorities are treated.

Environmental Protection Agency, Superfund Site: Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp, Navassa, NC. 2018


     The federal government's website focusing on the former Kerr-McGee plant site in Navassa.

Joseph Erbentraut. “Here’s What We Lose If We Gut The EPA’s Environmental Justice Work.” 2017

     Cutbacks in the Environmental Protection Agency by the Trump Administration.

Greenville Multistate Environmental Trust LLC. 2018 Navassa, North Carolina Site.

     Excellent background information on Navassa site plus nice list of references.

Elizabeth Jones. 2016 "Drinking Water in California Schools: An Assessment of the Problems, Obstacles, and Possible Solutions." Stanford Environmental Law Journal, 251.

     Problems with poor quality drinking water in schools found for schools in low-income districts.

Jon Queally. 2014 "Common Dreams: Environmental Injustice: Minorities Face Nearly 40% More Exposure to Toxic Air Pollution.” (

     Study shows that race and class are major indicators for levels of airborne poisons found in communities.

Town of Navassa. 2018 "What are Brownfields."

     Navassa's plans for remediation of the former Kerr-McGee plant site.

Trista Talton. 2018 "Navassa: Contamination at Various Levels." Coastal Review Online, January 25.


     Up-to-date reporting on testing at the Navassa Superfund site.

(Sample Scholarly article) Shea Diaz. 2016 “Getting to the Root of Environmental Injustice.” Georgetown Environmental Law Journal.

      Scholarly article on the root causes of environmental injustice.

(Sample Scholarly Article) S. Wing, D. Cole, and G. Grant. 2000 "Environmental Injustice in North Carolina's Hog Industry. Environmental Health Perspectives 108:225-231.

     Rapid growth and the concentration of hog production in North Carolina have raised concerns of a disproportionate impact of pollution and offensive odors on poor and nonwhite communities.

(Sample Scholarly Book) Luke Cole and Sheila Foster. 2001 From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of Environmental Justice Movement. New York: New York University Press.

     Review of environmental racism and the development of the movement to combat it. Book is older, but excellent source for up till the time of its publication.

(Video) CNN: “Failing Flint: Who Knew What, and When?”

     CNN summary of the environmental injustice that occurred in Flint, Michigan.

Sample of Scholarly Journals:

  • Environmental Health Perspectives

  • Environmental History Review

  • Environmental Sociology

  • Human Ecology

  • Progress in Human Geography

  • Urban Geography

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