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Environmental Justice, the Superfund Program, and Executive Order 12898

Since the 1980s, there has been a call to attention for environmental justice as minority and low-income neighborhoods fight against their incommensurate exposure to environmental hazards. Environmental justice can be broadly defined as the disproportionate distribution of environmental benefits and harms among minority and low-income groups, the limited ability of these groups to participate in decision-making about such issues, and the restoration and enrichment of relations between those involved in and affected by environmental injustice.

While policies have been put in place to ensure environmental equity, such policies have not been accompanied by sufficient monitoring and have not benefited target populations.

In response to rising concerns about environmental injustice, the U.S. Congress and President Carter established the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA 1980) to undertake the cleanup of hazardous waste sites across the country. The act included the creation of a Superfund list, a priority list in which hazardous waste sites were added and selected to receive federal funding for clean up. Then, in 1994, President Clinton passed Executive Order 12898 which specifically demanded that “each Federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations, and low-income populations…” (Clinton 1994). These policies aimed to address environmental injustice by specifically focusing on groups that have been disproportionately burdened by exposure to pollution and hazardous waste, namely minority and low-income groups.

Nevertheless, representation of minorities and low-income populations was found to be lower in areas with Superfund sites, revealing that these populations did not benefit equally from the Superfund program. Areas with high minority populations, families in poverty, or people without high school diplomas all had lower chances of making it to the Superfund list. Conversely, sites with high mean income had higher chances of making it to the Superfund list. Interestingly, however, sites with higher Hispanic or Native American populations had a greater chance of being placed on the list, and sites with more female-headed households too. This could be due to the strong presence, activism, and involvement of women and specifically women of color in grassroots environmental justice movements. Overall, research revealed that low-income and minority neighborhoods were less likely to be placed on the Superfund list for cleanup. When these sites did make it to the list, they took longer to be cleaned and the clean up was not enforced to the same degree as white or wealthier areas.

There were a few additional shortcomings to CERCLA 1980 and Executive Order 12898. First, the federal funding behind the Superfund program originated from taxes on petroleum and chemical industries that expired in 1995. As a result, funding for the program was stifled, and it is possible that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and federal agencies were more likely to tackle “easier” or “lower-risk” sites as a pragmatic approach due to these financial constraints. Then, in 2001, U.S. EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman rewrote the Executive Order 12898 and changed wording to exclude the specific consideration of minorities and low-income groups. While the approach of “blind” justice for all sounds impartial, it did not aid in the fight for proportional treatment by focusing on target populations and disregarded the inequitable treatment which led to the establishment of the order in the first place.

Overall, despite the establishment of legislation to ensure environmental justice, equity in Superfund listing appears to have been worsening over time. For these measures to be truly effective, the order must be complied through increased financial support, consistency of definitions and targets, and repercussions for the lack of implementation of the policies. Furthermore, indexes and methods for monitoring progress towards environmental justice must be developed in order to assess whether these policies are effective, whether funds are well allocated, and how to best achieve policy goals in the future.

Written by Gwen Aubrac


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