Environmental Justice (EJ)

Issue Summary
Organizations/Non-government Programs
Databases and Tools
Publications, Guidance Documents and Training Resources
Financial Assistance

Issue Summary

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines EJ 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.” It includes concepts of procedural justice, fair treatment and avoidance of disproportionate and adverse impacts, as well as recognition of cumulative impacts on minority and low-income communities that should be rectified. EJ is important to many local governments, both in their administration of environmental services and in their implementation of compliance programs. 

Why are minority and low-income (EJ) communities disproportionately impacted? 

  • Lack of political power,
  • Lack of financial and other resources,
  • Systemic racism, as illustrated by redlining and bias in funding decisions,
  • Failure to carry out treaty obligations and trust responsibilities to American Indian Tribes and Indigenous communities.

What are examples of these impacts?

  • Disproportionate exposure to pollution and toxic releases,
  • Siting of locally undesirable land uses (LULUs) like proximity to industrial facilities and former facilities, transportation hubs and waste disposal facilities,
  • Failing municipal infrastructure,
  • Cumulative effects on human health,
  • Comparative under-enforcement of environmental laws,
  • Destruction or impaired access to subsistence hunting and fishing resources,
  • Additional exposure to global environmental problems, like heat effects of climate change, frequent flooding and inadequate water supply. 

Governments—federal, state, local—have EJ obligations grounded in federal law:

  • Equal Protection Clause of 14th Amendment.
  • Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance (including local governments) from discriminating based on race, color or national origin in any program or activity. Persons can file administrative complaints with EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office
  • Executive Order 12898 (“Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations”) requires each federal agency to:
    • Prepare and implement an “environmental justice strategy that identifies and addresses disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.”  
    • “[P]romote nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment, as well as provide minority and low-income communities access to public information and public participation.”
  • Executive Order 14008 (“Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad”):
    • Sets a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, instructing all agencies to develop their own programs and policies to address disproportionate effects in disadvantaged communities.
    • Amends EO 12898, creating a White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, and a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council tasked with addressing EJ issues in collaboration with local EJ leaders.
    • Directs the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to create a geospatial Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and to annually publish interactive maps highlighting disadvantaged communities.
    • Directs EPA to: (i) strengthen enforcement of environmental violations with disproportionate impact on underserved communities through the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance; and (ii) create a community notification program to monitor and provide real-time data to the public on current environmental pollution, including emissions, criteria pollutants and toxins, in frontline and fenceline communities—places with the most significant exposure to such pollution.
    • Orders the Department of Health and Human Services to establish an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity.
    • Creates the Justice40 Initiative, which aims for 40% of the benefits of federal sustainability investments to flow to underserved communities.

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EPA makes available resources to help local governments and communities advance EJ.

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Organizations/Non-government Programs

WE ACT. Organization based in Northern Manhattan, New York, focused on advocating for environmental justice policies at the city, state and federal levels. Their current campaigns focus on health and energy justice.

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Many states have enacted their own legal requirements, policies and goals incorporating EJ into their implementation of environmental, energy and other laws. Examples of state EJ requirements and policies include:

  • New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act establishes EJ requirements, including sharing of benefits of energy transition investments in communities. The role of the Climate Justice Working Group includes identifying disadvantaged communities, as well as reviewing and modifying the processes involved in identification.
  • California law has defined EJ. CalEPA maintains CalEnviroScreen to help agencies and local governments carry out their duties to their EJ communities.
  • IllinoisEJ Policy addresses permits, programs and actions, and requires EJ considerations be taken into account in siting, permitting, enforcement, public participation and other activities.
  • Massachusetts' climate roadmap law defines what qualifies as an EJ community, directs resources to these communities and creates pathways for increased participation in development decisions.
  • Virginia’s Council on Environmental Justice provides advice and recommendations to the governor for integrating EJ into state programs and for strengthening EJ partnerships with federal, tribal and local governments. The state’s Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act and Clean Economy Act provides funding to low-income communities for energy efficiency and targets shoreline resiliency funds to low-income areas.
  • New Jersey’s Environmental Justice Law requires the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to evaluate the contributions of facilities to existing environmental and public health stressors in overburdened communities when reviewing permit applications. NJDEP is developing rules and will publish a list of overburdened communities for use by municipalities in which those communities are located.

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Databases and Tools  

  • EJScreen. EPA’s EJ mapping and screening tool provides comparative environmental and demographic information for locations in the U.S. Local/tribal governments and community members can use the tool to identify low-income and minority neighborhoods and overlay those with potential environmental quality issues and key demographic and environmental indicators. EPA makes available guidance on Understanding EJSCREEN Results and Learning to Use EJSCREEN.
  • Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO). Searchable database of facility compliance records and EPA enforcement actions. Community members can use ECHO to report suspected environmental violations. Users may leverage EPA's newly released mapping and screening tools that focus on Environmental Justice and Benzene Fenceline monitoring.
  • EPA EnviroAtlas. Geospatial data tools and resources for identifying and understanding ecosystem services and how they benefit communities. Guidance is available on Using EnviroAtlas in Health Impact Assessment (PDF).
  • CalEnviroScreen. Mapping tool that can help identify California communities affected by many sources of pollution and people especially vulnerable to pollution’s effects. It uses environmental, health and socioeconomic information to produce scores for every census tract. Learn more at About CalEnviroScreen.
  • Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Decision-making tool that examines impacts of proposed decisions on health and well-being in a community. 
  • EPA ECHO Notify. Online notification system that sends out weekly emails to communities on enforcement and compliance data relevant to their locality. Provides data related to violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  • Center for Disease Control/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Social Vulnerability Index. Interactive map providing data on the potential for communities to face negative impacts caused by external stressors including natural or human-caused disasters and disease outbreaks.
  • National Equity Atlas. National report card providing detailed information on racial and economic equity aimed at informating policymakers. Includes a library of local data tools providing actionable information on specific localities across the U.S.
  • Country Health Rankings. Index ranking American counties on key health measures. Provides information on health metrics that require improvement at the county-level as well as tools for peer-to-peer learning between country officials.
  • Environmental Justice Index. This index uses data from the Census Bureau, the EPA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the CDC to rank the cumulative impacts of environmental injustice on health for every census tract. The Index ranks each tract on 36 different environmental, social, and health factors and groups them into three overarching modules and ten different domains.
  • My Community Explorer. This U.S. Census Bureau arcGIS site includes community resilience estimates based as well as data on active hurricanes, cyclones & typhoons, current wildfires, temperature, and air quality. This interactive map is intended to be used to ensure equitable access to transportation and health care, as well as to understand regions potentially impacted by events.
  • USDOT Equitable Transportation Community (ETC) Explorer. This is an interactive web-based tool that uses 2020 Census Tracts and data to explore five components of cumulative communities burden as a result of underinvestment in transportation: Transportation Insecurity, Climate and Disaster Risk Burden, Environmental Burden, Health Vulnerability and Social Vulnerability.

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Publications, Guidance Documents and Training Resources

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Financial Assistance

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