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"Environmental justice" is the idea that the government should be careful to treat all communities fairly when it makes decisions that allocate environmental benefits or burdens. In other words, all of a community's park money should not be spent only to improve areas near wealthy homes, and all landfills shouldn't be clustered near existing poor neighborhoods or near one racial group.

Environmental justice is a nationwide concern that is heightened in the South due to a history of racial disparity and less comprehensive environmental regulation. Nationwide, an Associated Press analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data showed black Americans were 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution was suspected of posing the greatest health danger. Residents in neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores also tended to be poorer, less educated and more often unemployed than those elsewhere in the country.

The law of environmental justice is in flux at the federal and state levels. This is an opportunity for leadership among Southern states, which already have shown some innovation in this area. Comprehensive rules requiring disparate impact analysis, thorough notice and meaningful participation would provide to low-income and minority communities the basic protections all citizens deserve.

Recommendation

Recommendation 15: Every Southern state should enact a basic, comprehensive environmental justice law that guarantees analysis of potential disparate and cumulative impacts, thorough and early notice, and meaningful public participation in environmental permitting decisions.

Talking points

  • "Environmental justice" is the idea that a government should be careful to treat all communities fairly when it makes decisions that allocate environmental benefits or burdens.

  • In the South, environmental justice issues should be a pressing concern due to a history of racial disparity and less comprehensive environmental regulation than in the rest of the nation.

  • Because the federal courts have limited federal efforts on environmental justice issues, Southern legislatures have the responsibilities - - and great leadership opportunities - - to ensure people in their states are treated fairly in sharing the burdens and benefits of environmental decisions.

  • While Southern states have shown some innovation in environmental justice issues, there's still a long way to go. Throughout the South, landfills, hazardous waste facilities, power plants and industrial complexes have tended to have been located near poor and minority communities.

  • Creating comprehensive environmental justice rules is common sense. Such rules will benefit all citizens because they will help to prevent any single geographic area from becoming so degraded that it is a health hazard or drag on an entire local economy.

  • Southern states should embrace comprehensive environmental justice regulations to improve people's quality of life and to respect the rights of people to live in their communities as much as the rights of businesses to profit from the area where those people live.


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