Environmental Justice


What is environmental justice?

Environmental justice is 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. (Source: EPA) 

Environmental justice and the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is an environmental organization that acknowledges the harmful and discriminatory impacts of environmental racism. This acknowledgement gives us an opportunity for organizational change and growth. With this opportunity we choose to listen to the people who are most negatively impacted by an unhealthy environment, and from there work in a space of community, where we attempt to understand our shared struggles and the role(s) we can and cannot play.

We embrace the values of equity, inclusion, and justice as integral to the continuation and expansion of the environmental movement. But why are these values important, and what do they mean?

Because we, as members of the Sierra Club, accept the charge to “educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment…” we believe that we must be an organization able and willing to prioritize, promote, and support people of any race, gender, class, and orientation.

All humans have needs, but some of us have access to more resources for meeting those needs than others. In the United States, inadequate access to resources is correlated to demographics of diversity, including race, gender, ability, age, and culture (Source: Kincaid). The Sierra Club acknowledges this history and the impacts it has created within our organization and our environmental community as a whole. We are determined to seek out ways to actively eradicate these inequalities.

Defining our values

Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful. This is not the same as equality, which is treating everyone the same. Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Equity may appear unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by “leveling the playing field.” But not everyone starts at the same place, and not everyone has the same needs. (Source: Everyday Feminism)

One way of incorporating equity into our value system is to enhance the voices of frontline communities (communities that have direct exposure to environmental hazards within their community) at every level of our organization. Because of environmental racism, many frontline communities are communities of color that environmental organizations have historically neglected. As the largest and oldest environmental organization in the U.S., we have a responsibility to rectify this situation by centering and prioritizing frontline communities and using our voices to support their needs which have gone unheard for far too long.

Inclusion is the action or state of including, or of being included, within a group or structure (Source: Oxford Dictionary). Inclusion is recognizing that we are "one" even though we are not the "same." The act of inclusion means fighting against exclusion and all of the social diseases exclusion gives birth to - i.e. racism, sexism, handicapism, etc. Fighting for inclusion also involves ensuring that all support systems are available to those who need such support. Providing and maintaining support systems is a civic responsibility, not a favor. We were all born "in.” (Source: Inclusion Network)

National parks and nature areas have predominantly been enjoyed by white, middle- and upper-class communities, with non-white and low-income communities spending disproportionately less time in the outdoors in comparison. In this example, inclusion means recognizing this disparity and working to ensure people of color and other historically marginalized communities feel welcome and have access to wilderness and green spaces.

The environmental movement has also struggled historically with making sure communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards and degradation (eg., from coal plant pollution, poor water quality, etc.) are empowered with resources for fighting and speaking for themselves. Instead, many advocacy campaigns have been “transactional” and suffer from “saviorism” whereby an outside group enters a community and coopts the fight to improve environmental conditions. Inclusivity in this example means acknowledging that the people who should be leading advocacy campaigns are proactively welcomed, listened to, and put in leadership positions to effect the change they want to see.

Social Justice is related to the distribution of resources and power within a society, and is based on human rights and equality. (Source: Kincaid)

Existing minority neighborhoods have commonly been targeted as locations for toxic waste sites, bulk gasoline storage tank farms, sewage treatment plants, municipal landfills and illegal dumps, incinerators, concrete batch mix plants, animal rendering plants, metal fabrication & die casting plants, chromium plating plants, and smelters. This has resulted in these communities facing an unequal exposure to pollutants and consequent adverse health impacts.

One example occurred in East Austin. In the early 1990s, East Austin minority neighborhoods (near the Southeast corner of Airport Blvd & Springdale Rd) were living next to six adjacent East Austin tank farms emitting gasoline vapors including cancer-causing benzene into the air in this area for several decades exposing residents to toxic gases. Six major oil firms had dozens of large fuel tanks that were all leaking gasoline fumes into the air and liquid leaks contaminated groundwater well beyond the tank farms into the neighborhoods. Residents organized protests against expansion air permits sought by the oil firms, and by early 1993, all six tank farms were shut down.

Another example here in Texas has been the reported cancer cluster in the East Harris County neighborhood of Chasewood. The neighborhood is within close proximity to petrochemical plants, oil refineries, and other waste and industrial sites. Environmentalists have suspected that pollutants have contaminated the water supply, possibly resulting in this radioactive water to cause rare cancers among the residents, including children. Passing laws and regulations that control the siting of air pollution sources recognizes this injustice, enabling protection against pollution and its harmful impacts to East Harris County residents.

Many cities in Texas face siting disparity problems similar to the heavy concentration of hundreds of dirty industrial plants in East Harris County: Beaumont, Port Arthur, Port Neches, Texas City, Corpus Christi, South Dallas, West Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio, and others. Texas’ siting laws are primarily limited to two types of industry: commercial hazardous waste facilities and concrete batch mix plants. In cities, zoning ordinances are the best way to control where unwanted industry is sited. But in rural areas, it’s extremely difficult to get counties to keep out unwanted industry. Facilities can be encouraged by citizens and local officials to create large buffer zones between the plants and nearby neighborhoods, but there is no law in Texas requiring them.