A Short History of the US Environmental Justice Movement

February 14, 2024

Environmental Justice - SCS Engineers
Executive Order 12898: Thirty Years Later. An important action in the Environmental Justice Movement.


Thirty years ago this week, on February 11, 1994, then-President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice In Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. The Executive Order marked the first government action on environmental justice and an important part of the environmental justice movement.

Executive Order 12898 directed government agencies (particularly the US Environmental Protection Agency or EPA) to develop plans and strategies to help address any disproportionally high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs on minority and low-income populations.


Executive Order 12898 responded to changes that began during the Civil Rights Movement. Minority groups, particularly African Americans, began to object to discriminatory practices long entrenched in government policy. The most notable being the practice of “redlining.” In the 1930s, the United States worked to end the Great Depression. To encourage banks to lend money for mortgages, the federal government began insuring or underwriting housing loans; however, government inspectors designated African American and immigrant neighborhoods uninsurable, and the residents could not obtain loans. Landlords were not vested in maintaining their properties, and much of the housing became sub-standard. Inexpensive swaths of property inside city limits encouraged businesses and industry to purchase and develop this land, increasing pollution from traffic, industrial processes, and edging out small businesses.

Solid Waste Disposal

In 1979, Texas Southern University sociologist Robert D Bullard, Ph.D., studied solid waste disposal sites in Houston, Texas, for a class-action lawsuit seeking to prevent the siting of a new landfill near the Northwood Manner subdivision, a Black, middle-class neighborhood. Dr. Bullard’s work found that five out of five city-owned landfills and six of the eight city-owned incinerators were in Black neighborhoods. While the case was lost, it increased awareness of environmental issues in minority communities.

Hazardous Waste

In 1982, North Carolina sited a toxic waste landfill in Afton, a rural Black community in Warren County, to hold 40,000 cubic tons of polychlorinated biphenyls from illegally dumped contaminated soil along state roads and highways. For six weeks, residents and activists protested, marking what many consider the birth of the Environmental Justice Movement. The contaminated soil ultimately went into the landfill and eventually caused a release that cost the state $18 million to clean up.

In subsequent years, the movement began to attract the attention of public officials. In 1983, the US General Accounting Office Study released the location of Hazardous Waste Landfills. It took another seven years before the federal government began to consider policy change when, in 1990, the Environmental Equity Workgroup was formed to gather information and make recommendations to the government, leading to the creation of EO 12898.

Gaining Traction

Throughout the 2010s, the EPA published a series of plans and guidance documents, including the public release of EJScreen in 2014, the Technical Guidance for Assessing Environmental Justice in Regulatory Analysis, and the Environmental Justice Research Roadmap in 2016.

In 2022, EPA Administrator Michael Regan traveled to Warren County, North Carolina, to officially create the new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. Several people involved in the 1982 PCB protests were in attendance.

Today’s Protections

State and federal environmental permitting now requires Environmental Justice (EJ) reviews. Fortunately, most, if not all, of the necessary EJ review data is publicly available online. For example, environmental professionals use EPA’s EJScreen regularly for EJ reviews, and many states have developed or are developing interactive data tools.

In the past decade, the US Census Bureau developed a searchable, interactive online database, and in 2021, the US Council of Environmental Quality released the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Other online data sources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, and individual state, county, and tribal organizations. These data not only allow us to meet permitting requirements and identify community challenges but also help guide outreach and facilitate communication with stakeholders.

On April 21, 2023, President Biden signed Executive Order 14096, Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, expanding upon the direction and intent of EO 12898. Thirty years on, we can see the effects of EO 12898 on incorporating environmental justice into environmental policy so that all people can have a healthier, safer, greener place to live, work, and play.


For more information on the Environmental Justice Movement, we encourage you to visit EPA’s website at https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice.



Meet Candy Elliott, PG. Candy brings her scientific perspective and experience as an Environmental Justice expert to support disadvantaged communities marginalized by underinvestment and overburdened by pollution. She helps make impactful changes through her work experience with site characterization, site assessment and remediation, brownfields, groundwater monitoring and reporting, groundwater corrective action, mining, and other industrial facility or site development projects.

These sites often provide excellent locations with existing infrastructure and transportation but with the need to clean the soil or, in some cases, mitigate other potential health risks to emerge as excellent opportunities for economic revitalization efforts and for creating green spaces.

Posted by Diane Samuels at 6:00 am