Developing effective environmental justice policies through a synergistic analysis of space, the environment, and the law
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Environmental justice is the idea that all people should have a right to a clean and healthy environment and that no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences of industrialization in our society (i.e. pollution). Unfortunately, the origin and dispersal of toxic pollutants in our air and water has not been distributed equitably and most often disparately affects low-income and minority communities. In their efforts to address environmental injustices, most states have developed environmental justice policies. However, states do not assess the distribution of toxic-producing facilities. Nor do they limit the amount of pollution in communities overburdened with toxic releases. This seems counter-intuitive because it is. If a state creates a policy to address environmental justice, and if environmental justice refers to not disproportionately burdening certain groups of people with environmental pollution, then certainly the state should identify where the concentrations of toxins are found. If disparately situated concentrations of pollution are not identified, then they cannot be limited in the communities disproportionately affected. Identifying where these toxins are located is critical because it is the state, and not the federal government, that has the power to control where and how much a facility is allowed to pollute as part of federal-state partnership agreements. Instead, all states use demographic criteria alone to define the environmental justice community. As demonstrated in Chapter 1, using GIS mapping, declaring environmental justice areas on the basis of strict demographic criteria can be under-inclusive, omitting communities falling outside of the criteria or those that are marginal to the cutoff. More often, however, declarations of the environmental justice community are over-inclusive. When adhering to strict demographic criteria (i.e. percentage of low-income and/or minority residents), large geographic areas are often labeled an “environmental justice community”. As a result, any resources allocated under the policy cannot be specifically targeted toward those neighborhoods/communities actually exposed to and feeling the results of the specific environmental harm. In lieu of addressing the actual injustices (i.e. polluting facilities, etc.), as discussed in Chapter 2, states generally grant these communities increased participation in the permitting process. This however, is often merely limited to the distribution of pamphlets in multiple languages related to the permitting process itself or creating an environmental justice hotline, and meaningful participation (i.e. community involvement in direct permitting actions) is rarely achieved. Because states are not identifying where cumulative exposures are and provide little, if any, tangible benefit to low-income and minority communities, their policies on environmental justice have proved to be more symbolic than functional. As discussed in Chapter 3, these policies often state admirable goals of protecting these overburdened communities, thereby sending a message that they are doing something, yet, in practice, do nothing to actually reduce the toxic releases negatively affecting the health of these residents.
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