Last Updated 17 Jun 2020

Environmental Justice Campaign

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Beginning with Executive order 12898, policymakers in the United States federal and state governments have been mandated to consider elements of environmental justice (EJ) in policy deliberations (President 1994). The executive order arose out of concerns about an apparent and disturbing trend whereby ethnic and low-income minorities were being disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Such evidence led many to conclude that injustice, even racism, had influenced U.S. environmental policy.[1] The response has been to focus on issues of distributive justice; where spatial relationships between environmental hazards and surrounding communities was used to create EJ claims (UCC 1987; Bullard 1994; Pulido, Sidawi and Vos 1996; Stroud 1999). A novel intersection of civil rights and environmental science unfolded creating a social movement centred on distributive justice – that all members of society should equally share burdens and benefits of economic activity. This focus has however been criticized as “insufficient and inadequate” in understanding how inequalities happen and where (Walker 2009a, 615). Cleary at-risk groups should be protected from environmental hazards, but identifying those groups (and the hazards they may face) has been less than forthcoming. Instead academics and environmental managers are calling for a move beyond this “first-generation” research frame to focus on other areas of justice theory including participation or procedural justice (Walker 2009a, 615). This paper will seek to evaluate whether or not environmental justice campaigners should pay as much attention to achieving procedural justice as to addressing distributional injustice. It will argue that in fact procedural justice should receive the bulk of attention (especially by policy makers) because of the weaknesses in distributive justice research. Those failures are described in the next section, followed by a discussion of the benefits of a focus on procedural justice frame.

The Murky World of Distributive Justice

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In theory, distributive justice sounds harmless enough. A normative principle, it is justified on the grounds that all people are owed equal respect and equality of the costs and benefits of an economy should be achieved (Lamont and Favor 2008). Moral critics argue however, that societies can be better off if certain inequalities exist and that strict equity principles restrict freedom.[2] Moreover, distributive principles suffer from the so called index problem, where constructing indices for measurement are difficult or impossible (Lamont and Favor 2008). This index problem is at the heart of the failure of distributive justice when applied to the environmental justice research.

The index of measurement in the distributive frame (and the overwhelming majority of research so far) has been to document spatial relationships between environmental hazards and racial groups (Maantay 2002). These studies focused on industrial pollutants (Hurley 1995), waste management (Martuzzi, Mitis and Forastiere 2010) and pollution (Johansson-Stenman and Konow 2010). Yet this approach has critics who claim quantitative spatial relationships do not support claims of environmental injustice (Atlas 2002; Davidson and Anderton 2000). Hite (2008) writes “the underlying causes of inequitable environmental outcomes are so complex that the straightforward application of standard statistical methods is generally unsatisfactory.” Other authors contend that higher proportions of minorities living near waste sites are a by-product of broader forces like racial and ethnic differences in education, occupation and income (Hamilton 1995; Szasz and Meuser 2000). Still others point out that the entire debate does not necessarily help poor and minority communities, but distracts them from more pressing issues (Foreman 1998).

William Bowen is rather biting in his critique of environmental justice research. After examining 42 studies pning three decades, Bowen concluded “the evidence regarding disproportionate distributions is mixed and inconclusive” adding “little to none of the research is meaningfully linked to actual exposure and associated public health effects” (Bowen 2002, 10). Bowen has identified the Achilles heel of the distributive frame. Spatial correlations do not prove causation of ill health. Yet a complete adoption of his perspective would be foolhardy.

Bowen’s fundamental argument is that public policy decisions should be based solely on empirical evidence (Bowen 2001). Given privacy limitations on public data and logistical restrictions, this may not even be a possible or even a desirable goal. This is especially true with regard to environmental policy where waiting until all the scientific data are in could mean deaths and health effects (Timney 2002). EJ activists use the precautionary principle as a defence against critics like Bowen (Wakefield and Baxter 2010), but this too is haphazard as the precautionary principle has its methodological and moral flaws (Weiss 2003). A middle ground is needed whereby scientific studies develop causal links between hazards and communities that managers can use to make policy. Such studies are emerging (and one is discussed below), but first let us look at another weakness of distributive EJ research.

The enormous number of GIS-based studies in the U.S. has already begun to influence policymakers. Holifield (2004) documented the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to create EJ communities where managers could attempt to identify injustices. This had the effect of codifying communities, grouping them (sometimes unfairly) and giving certain groups power based solely off a coincidental placement within or outside arbitrary boundaries. In reality pathways of pollutants are far more complicated than simple proximity (Bowen 2002; Walker 2009a). Further, risk assessment studies are often based off an “average while male reference man” ignoring the fact that pollution affects people differently based off age, gender and race (Getches and Pellows 2002; Kuehn 1997, 268). Similarly, while people are not all physically the same, they are also socially complex; choosing to move from and to areas for reasons beyond exposure to hazards such as closeness to relatives, access to jobs, healthcare resources and others (Walker 2009a). These complexities cannot be illustrated in GIS mapping, yet they should be studied further in order for us to fully realize how communities form. The point here is that quantitative mapping of hazards to populations cannot be a sufficient source of injustice claims. Researchers must think about health and the environment on multiple levels and merge various strategies in order to protect both (Lee 2002).

Responding to calls for more detailed and multi-variable studies of communities and environmental hazards, some researchers have attempted to link actual health hazards to vulnerable communities (Grineski and McDonald 2010; Sicotte and Swanson 2007). Troy D. Abel (2008) is one such author in his study of air pollution exposure risks in the American city of St. Louis. Abel took a two-step approach first mapping 319 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) facilities across the metropolitan area and surrounding census block groups. This conventional approach unsurprisingly showed spatial concentrations of minority residents averaged nearly 40% within one kilometre of TRI sites (See Appendix; Figure 1). As Abel notes, this concentration seems to support an environmental injustice conclusion, but “Knowing that, on average, minority and low income residents are closer to TRI facilities is of less interest to environmental managers than is the information about the sites which produce the most pollution and greater health risks” (Abel 2008, 233). To identify these ‘worse polluters,’ Abel applied a model developed by the EPA, the Risk Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI). The model simulates air dispersion and pollutant concentrations relative to populations producing a comparative risk characterization of different pollution sources (Schmidt 2003). Applying RSEI to St. Louis, Abel found that only six of the region’s industrial sources created more than one-quarter of the air pollution risk over a decade (See Figure 2).

By identifying these ‘worse polluters,’ regulators, policymakers, activists and the industry can begin to take steps to mitigate the risks through a variety of methods including audits and public awareness campaigns. The RSEI model helps to narrow the focus of EJ claims and is more likely to bring about useful change than a focus on the distribution of pollution facilities across the city. Indeed comparing the two maps, one notices that the top pollution exposure risk producers are to the east of the Mississippi river (Figure 2) whereas the minority population concentrations are to the west. Had Abel’s study stopped at the conventional mapping approach, (Figure 1) than the conclusion would have been that remediation efforts should be concentrated to the west of the river. In fact, the worst polluters are to the east. This is a useful example how a focus on distributional injustice does not by itself improve communities. More detailed and causative studies are needed in order to identify and eliminate real injustices.

The Benefits of Procedural Justice

Simply reforming research in the distributive justice frame is not enough. The EJ movement must move its focus from distributive to procedural justice. This next section is divided into a discussion of the moral and philosophical benefits of procedural justice followed by real world examples of its application. Procedural justice refers to the use of a fair procedure to arrive at a judgement of justice (Solum 2004). In his milestone work on justice, John Rawls attempted to solve the problem of distributive justice by describing justice as fairness and outlining two principals which guide equal and free individuals (Rawls 1971).[3] These principles form the basic structure of society in that they “regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established” (Rawls 1971, 11).

In the context of environmental justice, they benefit the movement by overcoming the philosophical difficulties of distributive justice (i.e. restricted freedom discussed above) while acknowledging that inequalities between groups can exist and should be corrected (i.e. a minority community that is unequally burdened by an environmental hazard). Additionally Rawls egalitarian principle provides a moral necessity, previously nonexistent, whereby groups can become involved in decisions about their environment (i.e. the siting and management/regulation of a waste treatment facility). Rawls justice as fairness provides a platform through which claims can be evaluated. In many ways it satisfies the aims of distributive justice, while avoiding its problems. Rawls justice as fairness has been applied to global questions of EJ in relation to climate change (Grasso 2006; Grasso 2007).

It should be noted that while Rawls justice as fairness theory has numerous benefits, its application can be difficult. New streams of research examining public participation in environmental policy formation have included: government attempts to provide citizens with information (Abel and Stephan 2008), gender equality in activism (Buckingham and Kulcur 2009) the free flow of ideas, political and legal power and inclusion in research (Walker 2010). The exact methodologies for how procedural justice should be achieved are somewhat uncertain. Some have said those most affected by decisions should have particular rights to be involved and have their voices heard (Hampton 1999). The natural follow-up questions include: Would spatial boundaries (seemingly necessary to exclude non relevant stakeholders) limit participationWould participation be limited by time, fees or special knowledgeAs already discussed above, environmental hazards often move beyond simple borders and affect different people in different ways. These complexities will need to be hashed out as part of EJ claims. While these questions are pressing and complicated, they are not however insurmountable. Rather they are a necessary part of replacing the obsession with distributive justice with a more useful focus on procedural justice.

Examples of procedural justice research are out there. Illsley (2002) examined good neighbour agreements as part of a first step towards a participatory approach of EJ. Concluding that good neighbour agreements are a useful (although not perfect) tool, Illsley shows how the procedural justice frame is workable. Another example, Edwards and Darnall’s (2010) study of industrial facilities near EJ communities. The authors discovered that industries near EJ communities tend to adopt an environmental management system (EMS) designed to better control emissions. Again the procedural frame is most useful here as it guides the study to examine what industries adopt EMS and why. Policy makers can then assess whether or not EMS are effective in reducing environmental hazards and identify egregious offenders. The distributive frame does not lead to this kind of research. Other procedural studies include Cheng (2006) and Grasso (2010).

It is worth pointing out that EJ researchers should not necessarily stop with procedural justice. Many have claimed that EJ should be threefold focusing on distribution, participation and recognition (Schlosberg 2004; Walker 2009b). This approach may have its benefits and is certainly worth examining. Personally, I find adding recognition as an independent frame unnecessary as it is included under procedural justice (Rawls first principle). I will be happy when EJ research moves beyond the distributive frame.


The analysis of environmental injustice has become a powerful force in public policy in the last decade. This paper has sought to demonstrate how and why the distributive justice frame has been unhelpful to EJ researchers. It has created a field of research obsessed with arbitrary percentages of spatial distance between communities and environmental hazards. These studies have been unhelpful to environmental mangers and in some cases lead to false conclusions about where problems exist and how to fix them. The procedural justice frame however solves these problems by acknowledging notions of fairness between communities while also recognizing that some inequalities do (and must) exist. Procedural justice creates a moral platform through which claims of environmental injustice can be evaluated. Finally, it is more helpful to researchers who can more easily identify and mitigate hazards.


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