The Environmental Justice Movement emerged in the 1980s in reaction to discriminatory environmental practices including toxic dumping, municipal waste facility siting, and land use decisions which negatively affected communities of color. The origins of the Environmental Justice Movement, however, may be traced to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as well as the Environmental Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Citing the environmental threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities, low-income communities of color emerged as strong activists against what they viewed as environmental attacks on their civil rights.

The term “environmental racism” grew out of this grassroots activism. In 1982, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) coined the term in response to an incident in Warren County, North Carolina. At the urging of community leaders, Chavis and others including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Joseph Lowery and Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member Walter Fauntroy participated in a month-long protest against the siting of a chemical landfill in Warren County. The protest, though unsuccessful, garnered the attention of national civil rights leaders and environmentalists and is commonly recognized as the birthplace of the Environmental Justice Movement.

The Warren County incident was also the motivation for a CRJ study examining the correlation between race and toxic waste. In 1987 CRJ published a report about this study, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Social Economic Characteristics of Communities of Hazardous Waste Sites, citing the overrepresentation of toxic waste facilities in minority communities, especially African American and Hispanic communities.

In 1990, the Congressional Black Caucus and a bipartisan coalition of academic, social scientists and political activists met with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to discuss the heightened environmental risks for minority and low-income populations. The CBC and others suggested that the EPA’s inspections did not address the needs of low-income communities of color. In response, the EPA created the Environmental Equity Workgroup. In 1992, the workgroup addressed these concerns in a report, Reducing Risk for All Communities, which linked the exposure of racial minorities to high levels of pollution. The group made several recommendations, among them was the idea that an office was needed to address environmental inequities. As a result, the Office of Environmental Equity was created; the name was changed to the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) in 1994.

Two years later, the CBC established the Environmental Justice Braintrust under the leadership of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC). The CBC indentified environmental justice as one of the top three issues on its agenda. The National Environmental Policy Commission, established in 2000, is an outgrowth of recommendations from a Congressional Black Caucus’ Environmental Justice Braintrust. It was created by the CBC to address environmental justice, public health, and economic development. The Congressional Black Caucus’ Environmental Justice Braintrust continues to be a driving force in environmental justice activism.

The CBC’s commitment to protect the environmental health of its constituents can be traced back to its inception in the 1970s. CBC members were strong advocates of The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. In the 1980s, the organization worked with grassroots organizations to ensure that low-income communities of color would be protected from discriminatory practices which compromised their environmental health. During the 1980s and 1990s the CBC had one of the strongest environmental voting records on environmental legislation. For more than 15 years, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) has introduced legislation meant to promote environmental justice, public health, and pollution reduction. During the 110th Congress, Rep. Albert Wynn (D-MD) served as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) served as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Resources & Environment, Transportation & Infrastructure. Today, CBC members serve on various environmental committees such as the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment and the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

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