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What Does An Environmental Justice Community Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Thanks to nationally-recognized community leaders like Hazel Johnson and Majora Carter, we have a strong understanding of the environmental justice issues that plague communities across our cities and countryside. But when trying to pinpoint those communities suffering most from environmental injustice, the definition gets complicated. How do we define an “environmental justice community”?

The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) defines the optimized state of 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.”

When it comes to eliminating environmental injustice, it is critical to understand where to focus empowerment, cleanup, protection, and prevention resources. However, this can be quite complicated.

Communities most impacted by environmental harms and risks are typically referred to as “environmental justice (EJ) communities” or, as the USEPA defines them, “overburdened communities.” There are a few factors that go into identifying EJ communities, including where there is: (1) disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards and (2) increased vulnerability to said hazards. The USEPA further describes these factors in their definition of an “overburdened community:”

Minority, low-income, tribal, or indigenous populations or geographic locations in the United States that potentially experience disproportionate environmental harms and risks. This disproportionality can be a result of greater vulnerability to environmental hazards, lack of opportunity for public participation, or other factors. Increased vulnerability may be attributable to an accumulation of negative or lack of positive environmental, health, economic, or social conditions within these populations or places. The term describes situations where multiple factors, including both environmental and socioeconomic stressors, may act cumulatively to affect health and the environment and contribute to persistent environmental health disparities.

The USEPA’s EJSCREEN mapping tool enables stakeholders and decision makers to better understand the complicated relationship between these factors and a suite of environmental hazards.

While the USEPA recently lost its EJ czar, I am heartened to know that the State of Illinois has a proactive and influential Commission on Environmental Justice that continues to raise our collective awareness to right these wrongs.