When it comes to the environment, geography matters. When we talk about our environment, we are referring to the conditions that surround us every day, including natural attributes such as air and water, and manmade attributes such as buildings and roads. The features of our environment may also include hazards that are sources of danger to our collective health and well-being. Environments are different everywhere; some places have more hazards, others more green spaces, and others combinations of these. Location, then, is important in this context. Think about where you spend the hours of each day. How many hours do you spend at home? How many hours do you spend at school? The air we breathe and the water we drink can change depending on where we are and what else is nearby. Environmental policies are implemented and enforced on a local level, and health hazards are almost always the most severe for those who experience the greatest exposure in their homes and workplaces. It is an examination of this inequality that leads to a discussion of environmental justice.
According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental justice means that all people, regardless of their race, age, job, income, or education level, enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards. The notion of environmental justice has been around since the 1980s, but the official definition was first established as a federal mandate in 1994 by President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898. This legislation sought to focus federal efforts on ensuring that poor and minority communities were not disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards and that these communities had more say in the legal process that brought environmental hazards in the first place. The federal definition, then, says that the government and the affected communities are both responsible for making sure that any given area has a just distribution of hazards. This project is able to show you how the county looks right now, but not much about the process by which the county came to be this way. As you look through the booklet, think about who is responsible for bringing pollution to a given area, and also who you think is responsible for protecting communities. Are environmental hazards distributed equally? Fairly? If not, what can be done to fix this?