What Environmental Justice Is

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. It can be seen in examples of engineering where a town is bisected by a road, leaving lower income populations with less access to amenities. It can also be seen where infrastructure is constructed in neighborhoods in a city, which affects a disproportionate population more so than others, and there is no benefit to that population. An Environmental Justice review must be done for any project that will utilize federal funding for design or construction of a project.

1970: Policy to Utilize Federal Funds: NEPA

We have to go back to 1970 and the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA. NEPA was brought about when it was recognized that there was a need to assess environmental effects prior to making decisions. NEPA’s basic policy is to make sure that all branches of government give proper consideration to the environment prior to undertaking any major federal action that significantly affects the environment. For any action that receives federal funds a NEPA analysis needs to be performed to ensure there will be no harm and should it be determined that there are unavoidable impacts, those impacts need to be mitigated. In essence, replace what you take.

Interestingly enough, environmental justice was not included in the enactment of NEPA in 1970.

1980: The Environmental Justice Movement

The environmental justice movement didn’t begin until the late 1980s when reports and studies showed there were substantial differences in the burden of environmental damage and pollution facing minority and low-income communities.

A good example of this is the construction of major roadways through lower income parts of towns and cities, or where water quality issues (i.e. pollution) occur and are not addressed in a timely manner.

Over the next decade, the movement gained momentum and groups sought governmental action to ensure that the hardships of pollution and environmental degradation would not be further imposed upon any community, especially those already facing discrimination.

As a result, in 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 to address environmental justice. Enactment of this executive order required that minority and low-income populations be given consideration, and a voice.

Giving people a voice comes from intentional public outreach: Flyers in different languages that target the people that live where the proposed work will occur; advertisements of meetings and available documents posted in locations where they will be seen by all people, especially the targeted environmental justice population.

2021: Environmental Justice Today

Times change and thankfully so does policy.

In March 2021 the former Governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker signed a bill into law called “An Act Creating a Next-Generation Roadmap for Massachusetts Climate Policy.” What was remarkable about this bill was that within it was an amendment that took environmental justice a step further.

This amendment expanded on the definition of an environmental justice population. The population of people was expanded to include “race, color, income, class, handicap, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnicity or ancestry, religious belief or English language proficiency.”

Now in the State of Massachusetts there is a wider definition of people that need to be considered when planning and developing projects that receive federal funds. Meaning not just minorities or underprivileged people are given a voice, but other kinds of people who should have had a voice to begin with are recognized. Policy makers in Massachusetts are demonstrating through action that they believe that there is a wide range of people that have the right to a safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environment, where “environment” is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments.

What we’re Doing to Help

Our Environmental Team has extensive knowledge and experience with completing NEPA documents as well performing Environmental Justice reviews. It is this experience that allows our projects to improve the natural and built environments enabling our clients to provide healthy and vibrant communities to all their citizens. We’re committed to delivering the best possible services we can. Do you have a community or environmental justice question? Reach out to me!


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