Environmental Justice

Andy Koenigsberg

Sep 19, 2019

I first heard the term “Environmental Justice” when I was helping to revise Westborough’s Open Space and Recreation Plan a few years back.

The first review of our revised plan by the State said we had to address the needs of Environmental Justice populations in Westborough. My reaction was “Huh?” I had a lot to learn.

The US 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.”

In Westborough, that meant we had to make sure that everyone had equal access to the Town’s open space and recreational facilities and that their needs were taken into consideration. I did not think that the Town had any population which met that definition, but the state mapped over a third of the town as meeting the Environmental Justice standard.

The big issue for Westborough was (and is) the large immigrant population who live in the town’s apartment complexes. Through a series of surveys distributed to the managers of these apartment complexes, the Town attempted to find out what people knew about Westborough’s open space assets and to get them to provide feedback about the revised Open Space Plan.

Environmental Justice goes well beyond making sure everyone knows where trails and tennis courts are located.

The concept scales from community to the entire world. As the EPA definition implies, environmental justice can apply to anyone and everyone, not just minorities and/or people who are economically disadvantaged.

Any neighborhood impacted by hazardous waste pollution would qualify, because through no fault of their own, they suffer health and economic consequences due to industrial practices over which they had no control. Back in the late 1970s, the W.R. Grace company dumped organic solvents which made their way into Woburn Massachusetts’ water supply. It was among the first Superfund sites in New England and sadly, not the last.

Environmental Justice applies to communities, many of them lower income and majority minority, such as in Louisiana where petrochemical plants abound. The residents are exposed to higher pollutant loads and consequent health issues.

They can be found in Texas, where shale gas drilling companies consume vast amounts of fresh water for fracking, leaving communities without sufficient potable water.

They can be found in regions devastated by floods or storms, which have not received sufficient aid to recover. Think the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans after Katrina, or Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria.

They can be communities close to urban highways, where people suffer much higher rates of respiratory illness.

They can be towns in Appalachia, where water ways are polluted due to mountain top removal strip mining for coal.

They can be downwind of a coal-fired power plant or downstream of a power plant’s toxic coal ash retention pond, which fails due to inadequate maintenance.

The list goes on and on. In all these cases, the people impacted are not the ones who created the problem, but are the ones who are suffering. Given their economic circumstances, it’s also not like they can afford to just pick up and leave.

It begs the question – “Where’s the justice?”

The concept is now being applied to entire countries. For example, Pacific Island nations are starting to disappear as sea levels rise, including Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea. Bangladesh, a very poor country where millions live close to sea level, is very vulnerable to rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms.

These countries are not the ones which contributed to their dire situation, but are the ones most needing assistance to adapt and mitigate in order to survive. Sadly, though, for the Pacific Islanders, it most likely mean assistance to abandon their ancestral homelands.

I was new to the concept of Environmental Justice just a few years ago. I have been reading more and more about it since then. It is a concept we all should be familiar with, because as the world is changing before our eyes, the calls for environmental justice will only grow louder.