The Who, What, Where, Why, and How of Environmental Justice


Environmental Justice, noun
“Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys:

  • The same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
  • Equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency, read more here.

Who and Where:

Environmental Justice Population, noun

“In Massachusetts, a neighborhood is defined as an Environmental Justice population if any of the following are true:

  • The annual median household income is not more than 65 per cent of the statewide annual median household income;
  • Minorities comprise 40 per cent or more of the population;
  • 25 percent or more of households lack English language proficiency;
  • Minorities comprise 25 per cent or more of the population and the annual median household income of the municipality in which the neighborhood is located does not exceed 150 per cent of the statewide annual median household income.”

Source:, read more here.

Check out this dynamic map of MA to see where the EJPs currently are. If you don’t live in MA, you might see if your state has its own resource.


There are a lot of historical and current factors that have prevented and continue to prevent Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) from having access to neighborhoods and houses in areas less effected by pollution. There have also been many instances in which these factors actively increased the amount of pollution in neighborhoods largely populated by BIPOC.

This article summarizes some key decisions in US law, past and present, that have fed into racial discrimination. Below is an excerpt:

“Many disturbing trends persist that have made integrated communities, and therefore integrated neighborhood schools, even more elusive. For example, in 2017, in Massachusetts, denial rates for conventional home-purchase loans to Black and Latino borrowers were generally much higher than the denial rates for comparable white households. This has contributed to an enormous disparity in Black and white homeownership rates and this, in turn, has contributed to the wealth gap. In addition, as of 2019, most of the 100 municipalities in Greater Boston effectively prohibited the development of multifamily housing. And, further, analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that recipients of federal Housing Choice Vouchers ‘have limited access to higher opportunity areas – neighborhoods that positively influence residents’ health and social and economic well-being.'”

Source: The Boston Globe.

This report by Michela Zonta of the Center for American Progress in an in-depth review of how policy in the US, beginning in the early 20th century all the way through the report’s publishing in 2019, has negatively affected the BIPOC community.

“The Fair Housing Act aimed at eliminating overt discrimination and disparities in the housing market and ultimately ending residential segregation. Although the Fair Housing Act has succeeded in eliminating the most blatant forms of discrimination that were common 50 years ago, the U.S. housing market is still highly segmented along racial lines. The legacy of federal redlining and discriminatory housing policies and private practices is still visible today, as housing discrimination has taken different forms and African American neighborhoods continue to be devalued compared with white neighborhoods.”

Source: Center for American Progress.


Environmental inequities come in many forms and don’t just affect “other” parts of the world. They happen right in our backyards and nearby neighborhoods. This article describes the disproportionate impact on some communities of color that can be traced back to poorer health conditions brought on by close proximity to pollutant sources.

“Latino and Black residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected with coronavirus and nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts. In an interview with Mother Jones, the epidemiologist Christina Hemphill Fuller says that this isn’t a coincidence. Communities of color face more pollution in their daily lives. That can lead to lung damage (among many other conditions), which becomes a factor in COVID-19 infections and outcomes.”

Source: JSTOR Daily.

Heat islands are areas of increased localized temperature due to lack of green space and shade, which can be common in densely-populated urban areas. They heat up more than natural material does and release that heat more easily too. Think what it’s like to standout on the sidewalk on a hot day versus in your yard.

“Prolonged periods of extreme temperatures correlate with increases in heat-related illness and death. The elderly, the very young, and those with chronic illness are the most vulnerable to heat-related illness. According to the CDC, ‘[u]rban heat islands, combined with an aging population and increased urbanization, are projected to increase the vulnerability of urban populations to heat-related health impacts in the future.’
In Boston, the detrimental effects of heat islands aren’t spread across communities equally. Lower-income communities of color are among those especially impacted by heat islands. The Boston neighborhoods that historically were redlined are among those experiencing some of the hottest temperatures today. Residents of lower-income areas are less likely to have access to air conditioning to escape the effects of extreme heat. And for those who have air conditioning, the financial burden is ever-increasing as temperatures rise.”

Source: Commonwealth Magazine, read more here.

Springfield, MA is the asthma capital of the country and they’ve been protesting the development of a biomass plant, that would burn “waste” wood for energy, being built right in their midst. The 10-year struggle would be determined by updated language in an MA housing bill that might excuse the biomass plant as being “renewable energy” – a highly contested topic within the eco-community.

“‘Where do they want to put a biomass plant? It’s not an affluent community, not in places where there are predominantly white people. It’s only in communities where there are Black and brown people,’ Arena [Executive Director of Arise for Social Justice] said.
What it’s about, Arena said, is a continued environmental assault on communities of color. Springfield has the highest number of asthma-related emergency room visits in the nation.”

Source: Sierra Magazine, read more here.

Spoiler alert! In spring of 2021, the plant’s permit was revoked by the state. Thankfully, that’s one step in the right direction.
“‘The last thing the asthma capital of the U.S. needs is a plant spewing air pollution and further imperiling public health,’ Caitlin Peale Sloan, interim director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement. ‘Springfield residents made their opposition to this polluting plant clear, and DEP officials have handed them a win today. The fact that burning biomass is neither clean nor renewable and it should be left in the past with fossil fuels.'”

Source: WBUR News, read more here.

Lawyers for Civil Rights is a Boston-based organization that supports BIPOC and immigrant communities with legal advocacy to overcome challenges related to the immigration process, financial stability, and more. If you’re interested in reading more about environmental justice and what local organizations are doing to help, check out their project report.

Note: I learned about Lawyers for Civil Rights an all about what they do (and why it’s so important) through a webinar hosted by the Cambridge Public Library. They have a whole series of events, live and virtual, open to the public – you don’t need to live in Cambridge or even have a library card to participate. Check out their events page if you’re interested, or see what your own local library offers!