Black Lives Matter and the Environment: How the Current Civil Rights Movement is Reshaping American Environmental Law

By: Andie D’Angelo

On October 14th, groups across the country collectively mourned and celebrated the birthday of George Floyd.[1] Floyd was killed this past May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while he exclaimed, “I can’t breathe.”[2] The reprehensible acts of police brutality against Black bodies was the catalyst for the mainstream popularity of the Black Lives Matter (“BLM”) movement, which has been active in fighting racism and oppression since the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin.[3] The inhumane killing of Floyd in particular, brought the issues of injustice against Communities of Color, especially the Black Community, to the forefront of the American psyche. In the wake of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, there has been a call to address the racial injustices deeply imbedded in all facets of American life, including the racial injustice inherent in environmental protection.[4] “I Can’t Breathe,” has become a symbol of not only police brutality, but also environmental racism.[5]

After decades in the background of environmental thought, the BLM movement has brought environmental justice concerns to the forefront of American Politics.[6] Multiple states have begun addressing environmental racism through legislation and administrative means. On September 18th, New Jersey Governor, Phil Murphy, signed into law the strongest Environmental Justice legislation in the nation.[7] In his official press release, Gov. Murphy makes it clear that the goal of this legislation is to correct the decades of environmental racism experienced by Communities of Color in New Jersey. It states, “[t]oday we are sending a clear message that we will no longer allow Black and Brown communities in our state to be dumping grounds, where access to clean air and clean water are overlooked.”[8] The law will require the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”) to formally identify areas of concern, referred to as “overburdened communities,” in order to address unfair permitting practices for industry.[9] “Overburdened communities” are defined as communities where 35% of households are low income, 40% are People of Color, or 40% have low English proficiency.[10] The law requires an Environmental Justice Impact Statement for certain hazardous industries applying for permits in these communities.[11] The Environmental Justice Impact statement requires an evaluation of existing and future environmental and public health stressors, and more importantly requires public participation from the community during the permit application process. Additionally, the law requires permit applicants to pay a fee to the NJDEP in order for the agency to conduct its own environmental justice review and permit decision making process.[12]

This New Jersey law marks a clear movement towards addressing Environmental Justice concerns at the state level. Although the full impact of the law still remains to be seen, it is symbolic of the influence Black Lives Matter has on environmental concerns. Similar actions have been taken in Virginia, and hopefully more states will follow suit.[13] The current Civil Rights Movement has highlighted how the history of environmental racism is active in the United States, and it is critical that governmental bodies, like the state of New Jersey, address this phenomenon through Environmental Justice legislation.

Image from JustGive.org

[1] Susan Littlefield, Memorials Pour In on What Would’ve Been George Floyd’s 47th Birthday, CBS Minneapolis (Oct. 14, 2020), https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2020/10/14/memorials-pour-in-on-what-wouldve-been-george-floyds-47th-birthday/.

[2] Id.

[3]Six Years Strong, Black Lives Matter, https://blacklivesmatter.com/six-years-strong/ (last visited Oct. 17, 2020).

[4] Nina Lakhani and Johnathan Watts, Environmental justice means racial justice, say activists, The Guardian, (Jun. 18, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/18/environmental-justice-means-racial-justice-say-activists.

[5] Lisa Friedman and Julia Rosen, The Environmental Justice Wake Up Call, N.Y. Times (Jun. 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/climate/climate-environmental-justice.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Julius Redd, et al., New Jersey Governor Signs Landmark Environmental Justice Legislation Into Law, 10 Nat. L. R. 291 (Sep. 23, 2020), https://www.natlawreview.com/article/new-jersey-governor-signs-landmark-environmental-justice-legislation-law.

[8] Office of Governor Phil Murphy, Governor Murphy Signs Historic Environmental Justice Legislation, Off. Site of the State of N.J., (Sep. 18, 2020), https://nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20200918a.shtml.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Redd, supra note 7.

[13] Sarah Vogelsong, Long-awaited environmental justice study calls for ‘a cultural shift’ at DEQ, Va. Mercury (Oct. 17, 2020), https://www.virginiamercury.com/2020/10/17/long-awaited-environmental-justice-study-calls-for-a-cultural-shift-at-deq/.

3 comments

  1. Hi Andie!

    It is fantastic to read that states are starting to take action against environmental racism! The New Jersey legislation seems like a great start, but it makes me think, if not there, where? This thought always comes to mind when I read articles about environmental injustice. Of course, the obvious solution is to stop these toxic facilities from being built in low-income, minority communities, but where should they go instead? Should we ship this waste to other countries? Wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods? It seems there is no easy solution. As a result, we need to get to the root of the problem and advocate for reducing waste and toxic by-products. I also think funding needs to go into finding clean alternatives to certain toxic producing facilities. However, until that point, we still need to find a place for these facilities to be located, but it seems the answer is not an easy one.

  2. Great article, Andie! I think that requiring Environmental Justice Impact Statements will go a long way in preventing overburdened communities from becoming “dumping grounds.” New Jersey’s environmental justice legislation sets such an excellent example for other states to follow, and hopefully, more will pass similar legislation soon!

  3. While long overdue, this is definitely a step in the right direction. It is vital that state governments and effective leaders take a stronger stance in addressing environmental racism, especially with regards to Fenceline communities located near industrial sites. One book that I suggest for further reading if anyone is interested is: Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility, by Dorceta Taylor.

    I hope more states follow suit, and hopefully with this change in administration, the EPA and Federal Government will implement impactful regulation as fast as possible.

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