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Expanding the Dialogue


Some observers argue that the
environmental movement in the
United States has not only failed to
include the participation of people of
color but also has failed to provide
them with an equitable share of its
benefits. Others maintain that the laws
enacted in the wake of Earth Day 1970
are colorblind, that the efforts to clean
up the air and clean up the water have
benefitted everyone equally. EPA
Journal asked a number of individuals
to respond to the following question:
Have minorities benefited equitably
from the gains made by the
environmental movement? Their
answers follow.

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Copyright Sam Kittner.

he answer is clearly no.

There are at least three ways to measure the benefits of the environmental movement to people of color: socially, economically, and environmentally. • The social aspects of the environmental movement have, almost without exception, systematically excluded people of color. People of color are underrepresented at managerial and decision-making levels of both governmental and nongovernmental environmental organizations, including my own. Academic "feeder" programs in environmental science and policy fail to recruit and retain people of color, and environmental organizations fail to hire those who do pursue such studies

(primarily Chinese- and
Michael Fischer

continue to revere and protect natural Japanese-Americans). Finally, the jobs

and scenic beauties of the Earth. And and contracts generated by

it will be driven by a quest for environmental activity have fallen

environmental justice, or it will primarily to white workers and

become irrelevant. We at the Sierra contractors.

Club are committed to beginning our • The economic effects of

second century with increased, not

decreased, relevance for all the people environmental policy are almost

of this nation. always regressive (in that they fall more heavily on low-income groups

(Fischer is Executive Director of the than on people in middle- and

Sierra Club.) high-income brackets). The lack of attention to the distributive consequences of environmental policy also disproportionately impacts people of color.

is an incontestible fact that people Juana Beatriz Gutiérrez

of color and the poor of America • Finally, the existing evidence

have borne the brunt of suffering from points to great disparities in the incidence of environmental quality.

polluting industries and other

undesirable development. Whether People of color have radically less

intended or not (and too often it has access to this country's natural areas,

been intended), economic growth and and, in our urban environments, face

land use decisions have been based on greater pollution. Most disturbing is

environmental racism. Civil rights the evidence that government

have been violated; the quality of regulation exacerbates rather than

human life in urban communities has reduces these inequities. In both my

been degraded; adjacent communities own research on air pollution and the

and downstream ecosystems have been Commission for Racial Justice's work

egregiously damaged. on toxic waste sites, regulatory

We at the Sierra Club do know how activity--in its efforts to control and to make a difference at the local, state,

o, minorities in East Los Angeles improve the environment-seemed to and national levels. For 100 years, the

Nhave not benefited from the shift the remaining burden of pollution Sierra Club has honed citizen action environmental movement. Although more heavily on the backs of

skills to pressure polluters, elected the Mothers of East Los Angeles communities of color.

officials, and government agencies to participated in the 20th anniversary of People of color are a majority on the pass and enforce environmental

Earth Day, our own environmental globe we all want to save. The

protection laws. The time, though, for movement is just beginning. The environmental movement must

patience, compromise, and "balance" amount of environmental abuse radically retool its approach to is long gone.

suffered by residents of our barrios is

Thousands of community-based understand, to share, and to address

just too great. And the abuse all our needs.

grass-roots organizations, led by people continues. High lead levels and high of color, have been established in

concentrations of carbon monoxide are (Gelobter is Assistant Commissioner of recent years. They possess a deep and directly attributed to those freeways so Environmental Quality for the

righteous anger not seen since the enthusiastically built for “progress.” Department of Environmental

beginning of the civil rights movement. Virtually every family in Los Protection of New York City.)

It is a just passion which now must Angeles can claim a tragedy of one drive the Sierra Club and other

form or another. Asthma, leukemia, organizations of the established

lingering coughs, and more serious environmental movement. Our mission illnesses are now believed to be a has been broadened, and we have been direct result of our environment, even pushed to new heights of commitment though the government will not admit and effectiveness in order to meet the to it. Closer to home, three young challenges of environmental injustice. women experienced miscarriages in

The environmental movement of the the last two years—one of them my 1990s will be multicultural. It will


Expanding the Dialogue

daughter, another my daughter-in-law.
And the uncle of my daughter-in-law
succumbed to a brain tumor-his
residence was directly next to a
"Superfund" toxic clean-up site.

Only recently have we begun to
educate ourselves about the horrors of
environmental racism. With recent
assistance from environmental groups
such as Greenpeace and other
"traditional" pro-active organizations,
we have begun a crash course on
environmental impact statements, risk
assessments, public hearings, etc. This
knowledge has helped us the last few
years and will be invaluable as we try
to right the wrongs of the past. The
fact that this commentary is written in
English and not Spanish is an
indication of the exclusive nature of
the environmental movement, but we
are striving to change that.
(Gutiérrez is President of the Santa
Isabel Chapter of the Mothers of East
Los Angeles.)

environmental movement should be several EPA employees wrote a letter
fighting this battle with us.

to the Editor identifying major
My home, the Northern Cheyenne inequities in EPA policies. With the
Indian Reservation, is being

advent of a major national summit
surrounded by this country's largest conference in Washington in October
coal strip mine. The Cheyenne people 1991 on environmental equity (which
have had to forego basic services, such EPA declined to attend) and a House
as schools and roads, because our few hearing by Henry Waxman, the
dollars have been used to fight for the question is now beyond my opinion,
environment of southeastern Montana. or any other, in the Journal.
In 1982, when Secretary of Interior

This issue is now at a juncture
James Watt permitted the largest

where it will become a moral issue for
federal public coal sale in the history the Agency if EPA declines to
of America, where were the big 10 acknowledge the problem, change
environmental groups? Perhaps it was inequitable policies and priorities, and
because only a few thousand Cheyenne implement appropriate action. If EPA
Indians lived in this area that none of decides merely to pursue attempts to
the "big 10" challenged this giveaway co-opt legitimate civil rights
of public coal.

organizations, offer grants to minority
White ranchers who proclaim

academics, and spin-control the issue,
themselves environmentalists sit on we will continue to end up in an
the same bank board that refuses to ethical struggle on the wrong end of
provide Cheyennes with loans for the scales of environmental justice. I
economic alternatives to the strip

believe our Agency has more sense
mining of our lands. These white

than this. environmentalists want Cheyenne

(Varela is in EPA's Office of
water and land to expand their

Enforcement Policy.)
ranches. And the coal
companies--they just want our coal.

And where is our federal trustee, the
EPA? It's still trying to figure out
whether Indian tribes have the

Terry Ow-Wing
jurisdiction to protect their homelands.
That's like asking the Cheyenne who
won the Custer Battle. Such it is in
Cheyenne Country in 1992.
(Small is the Director of Native Action,
a nonprofit organization to benefit the
Northern Cheyenne.)

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Gail Small

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Alex Varela


ince 1492, little has changed in

terms of the non-Indian's concept of the environment. What they have failed to learn over 500 years is that there is a profound spiritual dimension to the environment. Religion, culture, spirituality, environment are one and the same to Indian people.

Existing environmental laws are not being implemented to protect the sacred places of Indian tribes. Indeed, we often find ourselves fighting environmentalists to protect our ancestral lands and treaty rights. In order to protect our sacred places, we are now asking Congress to amend the Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the


y first reaction to the question is

to pose another: Have minorities shared equitably in any situation where there is a majority and a minority culture? The answer is an obvious no. However, dwelling on the negative is not where the real answer lies. Rather, we must take action to try to make life better for all of us.

From my own story, I decided to contribute my talents to Chinatown, feeling that few outsiders cared about her. In 1976, through a University of California at Berkeley community design course, I interned with the

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Committee for Better Parks and
Recreation in Chinatown. My first
contact with Sierra Club was through
its support for a new Chinatown park.
The Club's participation was not
earth-shattering, but it showed a
serious commitment to the urban
environment in which the minority
community lived.

Recently, I became involved with Sierra Club because it has political clout, which I intend to use to benefit Chinatown, and because many Sierra Club members care about the urban environment. Further, I wanted to make important changes within the organization.

The long road of change for Sierra Club is not only in its membership, which is mostly white upper-middle class, but in how it handles issues. The environmental movement needs to take into account the needs of the entire population. It must not shirk responsibility for a particular community's environment on the grounds that "they need” the jobs. Although it is true that the movement did not begin with equal concern about "wild" versus urban environments, I am pleased to find that some mainstream environmental groups are now working with communities to eliminate toxins in urban areas. Because the air we breathe is shared equally by all, we must work together to cleanse our Earth for everyone and not waste energy on past inequities. How we respond to this challenge will determine whether we preserve the lifeline of the Earth.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye

another $45 million would be required to either upgrade or close, as appropriate, other solid waste disposal sites on Indian lands.

A bill is now before Congress to amend RCRA and empower tribal governments to manage solid and hazardous waste on Indian lands. It is important to note that other federal statutes include provisions stipulating that tribal governments should receive the same treatment as states, whereas RCRA currently does not. The proposed amendments to RCRA would

not only recognize tribal governments' he civil rights movement gave birth authority but also make them eligible to laws intended to grant

to receive funds to assist them in minorities the same powers, privileges, developing solid waste management and protections accorded other

regulations. Such regulations would Americans. The environmental

accomplish several things: provide for movement inspired statutes meant to

the management of waste generated on benefit all Americans, regardless of

reservations; authorize the cleanup of race or income. Despite these

open and unauthorized dump sites; progressive laws, inequities remain. A

and enable the development of case in point: American Indians lack

regulations governing the operation of the

and means to deal with commercial solid waste projects on power solid waste disposal problems on their

Indian lands. own tribal lands.

It is my hope that Congress and the Like state and local governments

nation will act to rectify this and other across the country, tribal governments

environmental inequities in the United are confronted with a mounting crisis

States. in solid waste disposal. In Indian

(Senator Inouye (D-Hawaii) is territory, there are currently 650 solid

Chairman of the Select Committee on
waste disposal sites. Of these, 108 are Indian Affairs.)
tribally owned landfills that were
constructed before Congress
established current standards for
landfills under the Resource

Suzanne Olive
Conservation and Recovery Act
(RCRA); as a result, only two of these
108 are presently in compliance with
EPA requirements under RCRA.

Based on a preliminary estimate
made in 1990, at least $68 million
would be required to upgrade these
tribally owned landfills to meet
current requirements. In addition,


(Ow-Wing, an architect, is co-chair of
Sierra Club's Ethnic and Cultural
Diversity Task Force and on the
Committee for Better Parks and
Recreation in San Francisco's

n its issue commemorating the 20th

anniversary of Earth Day, EPA Journal spoke volumes about the state of affairs in 1970. The only people of color in the entire issue were a lone American Indian and the inhabitants of a Chinese village. Change has come slowly. While the environmental laws

Expanding the Dialogue


may be colorblind, many of the

Beverly Wright conditions which gave rise to the disparate impact of environmental problems on minority communities are not. Colorblind solutions will not solve these problems.

The focus of the civil rights enforcement effort, from about 1970 until recently, was on problems of equal access and nondiscriminatory administration of federally assisted programs. Although the term was not in use, the environmental equity issue was nevertheless there. In the wake of much criticism, certain federal agencies began to address, within their areas of jurisdiction, the issue of disparate impacts of federally funded ust recently, I was asked by the programs on minority

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to communities—e.g., the Department of testify at an environmental equity Transportation and the location and hearing conducted by the Louisiana impact of the interstate highway

Advisory Committee to the system; the Department of Housing commission. My charge was to present and Urban Development and the

an overview of social justice issues location of low-cost and subsidized related to the environment in housing projects.

Louisiana. I was asked specifically to Until the mid 1980s, EPA's primary respond to the question whether concern in terms of civil rights

hazardous waste storage, disposal, and enforcement was the construction

treatment practices impacted with grants program and the racial

greater frequency and intensity on composition of the communities to be

minority communities. The difficulty served by wastewater treatment

in answering this question-indeed, systems. The problem of minority the fact that the question was being communities' exclusion from that

asked-reflects the relative lack of program due to geographical or

attention government has given to political boundaries was largely

possible environmental effects on eliminated some time ago. However, minority communities. other problems, affected by a wide A similar dilemma presents itself range of EPA programs, remain.

when I attempt to answer the question As people become more

posed for this forum: Have minorities sophisticated about environmental shared equitably in the benefits issues, they are also becoming more resulting from the environmental aware and more critical of the

movement? If the answer lies in the disparities in the benefits of

present state of affairs for minority environmental programs. As a result, communities as to exposure to toxics EPA is now looking at the

in the environment, the answer must environmental equity issue and the be a resounding "NO." impact of environmental programs As most of us are already aware, the from a broad policy perspective. EPA's 1983 General Accounting Office report Office of Civil Rights has a role to play and the 1987 study conducted by the in exploring ways to use the

United Church of Christ strongly crosscutting civil rights statutes to suggest that minorities (blacks and address the inequitable effects of

Hispanics) are disproportionately environmental policies on minority impacted by the siting of hazardous communities and bring about

waste landfills. It does not take an significant change.

extraordinary intellectual effort to

surmise that this pattern may be
(Olive is Acting Director of EPA's
Office of Civil Rights.)

indicative of patterns for other
environmental pollutants. For a very
long time, minority and poor
communities have been the prime

targets for undesirable byproducts of
industrial society. These
neighborhoods are seen as the paths of
least resistance for such things as
bridge or highway buy-outs, toxic
waste and solid waste landfills,
incinerator and chemical plant
locations, to name a few. Unlike the
middle and upper socioeconomic
strata, who possess the resources to
effectuate their opposition to the
placing of pollutants in their
neighborhoods, poor communities
have been less likely to forge
successful battles of resistance against
federal, state, and local agencies and
industries who target their
communities for the siting of
undesirable "but necessary" polluting

A review of the history of
mainstream environmental
organizations and their programs fails
to produce any significant involvement
by them of minority groups or
individuals and almost no attention to
pollution problems specific to minority
populations. Only recently have we
seen minority groups and communities
embraced (with some difficulty) and
allowed to have a voice in areas
related to the environment. The results
have been that minorities have not
shared equitably in the benefits
resulting from the environmental

It is now time to forge an Agenda for Action. A highly innovative approach for dealing with equity issues has emerged from a number of minority researchers and scholars independently investigating equity issues. They have proposed the development of a National Agenda on Environmental Equity and the establishment of Environmental Equity Regional Centers to deal with research and policy, community assistance, and education. This would represent a positive step toward the development of a "clean" environment for all, with the ultimate goal being Environmental justice. (Dr. Wright is an environmental sociologist with the Sociology Department of Wake Forest University, North Carolina.)

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