Four Questions About Environmental Justice

Zip codes matter.

In North Carolina and around the country, there are communities facing major environmental challenges such as poor air or water quality. The causes are complex, often controversial and sometimes issues of environmental justice.

But what is environmental justice and why does it matter? To answer these questions, NC State’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity hosted a workshop featuring faculty and staff leaders in environmental justice.

What is environmental justice?

The EPA defines environmental justice as the merging of issues of race, color, national origin or income with issues of development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. In order to be inclusive, environmental projects must have the meaningful involvement of all people affected by them. The ultimate goal of environmental justice is that everyone has the same degree of environmental protection and equal access to the decision-making process that shapes the environment in which they live.

How did the concept of environmental justice emerge?

Environmental justice has its roots in North Carolina, where one of the first cases emerged in the early 1980s. Soil contaminated with PCBs was headed for disposal at a landfill near Warren County, where 69 percent of the populartion is non-white and 20 of the population lives below the poverty line. The community protested the decision, leading to the popularization of the term environmental racism, or environmental justice.

Why does environmental justice matter?

Despite decades of progress, environmental justice is still a common problem that often affects communities that are predominantly people of color. A recent example is the protest at Standing Rock, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had not been included in the decision-making process for the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline was slated to cross beneath Lake Oahe, near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, threatening the region’s clean water and ancient burial grounds.

What can we do?

On NC State’s campus, many student organizations work to give voice to minority communities that students call home. By raising awareness of environmental justice, students can help give agency to issues that may otherwise be ignored. National issues (such as the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan) and local issues (such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s routing through 8 counties in North Carolina) will continue to emerge. Being aware of the complexities and impacts of these issues is an important part of environmental justice. One way students can learn more about local issues is by participating in the environmental justice-focused Alternative Service Break trip to eastern North Carolina.