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Environmental Justice Primer for Ports: Defining Environmental Justice

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On this page:

Origins of the Environmental Justice movement 

Selected Principles of Environmental Justice from the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, 1991

Environmental justice:

  • Demands public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples.
  • Mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources.
  • Affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination.
  • Demands accountability and cessation of the production of all toxins.
  • Demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making.
  • Affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment.
  • Recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the U.S. government.
  • Affirms the need for policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas.
  • Calls for education which emphasizes social and environmental issues.

There are 17 environmental justice principles that were adopted at the Summit.6

Communities of color and low income and tribal communities have historically been home to many toxic and polluting facilities and land uses. These communities bear a disproportionate impact from environmental hazards.2  EPA acknowledges, “these communities face an array of challenges, including proximity to polluting facilities, barriers to participating in decision-making processes, disproportionately high levels of chronic disease, neighborhood disinvestment, and poor or no access to jobs and services.”3

In response to these disproportionate impacts, many local civil rights, faith-based and labor organizations across the country began to organize the environmental justice movement (as shown in the timeline) to demand racial equity and drive the environmental justice public policy debate over the past three decades. The environmental justice movement seeks to ensure fair treatment and equal protection under the law for all communities to avoid disproportionate environmental impacts from proposed plans, projects and operations.

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What is environmental justice?

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.”4

The EPA definition was developed 25 years ago to capture the federal government’s knowledge of the issue at that time and to provide an actionable definition for regulation. The environmental justice field has developed its own definitions based on people’s work and life circumstances. These definitions, which capture a vision that goes beyond regulatory requirements, include:

Environmental Justice...refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions [that] support sustainable communities where people can interact with confidence that the environment is safe, nurturing, and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential...where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributive justice prevails.5
Bunyan Bryant

Environmental Justice is the right to a decent, safe quality of life for people of all races, incomes and cultures in the environments where we live, work, play, learn and pray. Environmental Justice emphasizes accountability, democratic practices, equitable treatment and self-determination…7
Asian Pacific Environmental Network

Both public- and private-sector organizations are adopting environmental justice policies to ensure their plans, projects and operations do not disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, and instead provide benefits to improve local quality of life. For example, the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group (EJ IWG) brings together all federal offices to promote environmental justice in federal programs. Within the private sector, many organizations from diverse sectors - ranging from food production, consumer goods, transportation and energy - are adopting environmentally and socially responsible policies and operational models as part of their corporate social responsibility and sustainability plans.

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Social equity in public policy and planning

EPA offers the following working definitions for these equitable planning approaches:

Equitable Development
Equitable development is an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities through policies and programs that reduce disparities while fostering places that are healthy and vibrant. It is increasingly considered an effective place-based action for creating strong and livable communities.8

Smart Growth
Smart growth covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger and more socially diverse...Smart growth approaches to development can help address long-standing environmental, health and economic disparities in low-income, minority and tribal communities.9

Sustainability and Sustainable Development
The ability to maintain or improve standards of living without damaging or depleting natural resources for present and future generations.10

Sustainable communities grow in ways that expand economic opportunity, protect public health and the environment, and create and enhance the places that people love.11

While near-port communities may often experience direct or indirect impacts from port activities, many disproportionate impacts on near-port communities are the result of long-term policy and siting decisions across various levels of decision-making. Cumulative impacts for these communities include adverse health outcomes and reduced quality of life. In contrast, policies and decision-making tools that are non-discriminatory and promote equitable distribution of benefits and mitigation of burdens across society help advance environmental justice.

In the last few decades, the fields of urban planning and public policy have evolved rapidly to begin addressing social inequities and environmental impacts. In 2016, the American Institute of Certified Planners updated the professional planning Code of Ethics to underscore the commitment “to serve the public interest with compassion for the welfare of all people.”  In addition, the planning field has developed new approaches focused on social equity, equitable development, smart growth and sustainable development, all of which can promote the principles of authentic community engagement and equitable access to jobs, transportation, housing and a built environment that promotes community health and wellbeing. Government, private and non-profit sectors are adopting these approaches in projects and planning efforts to protect and improve environmental quality and local quality of life.

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Social equity

Equity [...] represents a belief that there are some things which people should have, that there are basic needs that should be fulfilled, that burdens and rewards should not be spread too divergently across the community, and that policy should be directed with impartiality, fairness and justice towards these ends.12

Equity can be considered within the following four categories:13

  • Procedural Equity—inclusive, accessible, authentic engagement and representation in decision-making processes regarding programs and policies.
  • Distributional Equity—programs and policies result in fair distributions of benefits and burdens across all segments of a community, prioritizing those with highest need.
  • Structural Equity—decisions are made with a recognition of historical, cultural and institutional dynamics and structures that have routinely advantaged privileged groups in society.
  • Transgenerational Equity—decisions consider generational impacts and do not result in unfair burdens on future generations.

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