Environmental justice


Environmental justice (EJ) is a problem at the interface of environmental, social, and health policy, which has been much discussed in the US since the 1980s. EJ deals with the social and geographic distributions of environmental bads (and goods). These raise questions about social justice - mainly, distributional and procedural justice.

Distribution of environmental bads

According to US studies, socio-spatial distributions of environmental bads typically show the following characteristics:

  • environmental bads are distributed very unequally to social groups and regions
  • social groups with high environmental exposures are also disadvantaged in respect to economic, political, social, occupational, and health conditions
  • distribution of new environmental bads enhances already existing inequalities
  • redress of envronmental bads often occurs in a socially discriminating manner.

Exemplary case

In Woburn, a lower-class suburb north of Boston, from 1969 to 1979, a conspicuous cumulation of child leukemia cases was observed, with a majority of cases (16 out of 28) being fatal. The risk of dying from leukemia was, for a child in East Woburn, 12 times above US average. Residents had for a long time complained about murky and ill-smelling drinking-water from their taps, witout any reaction from authorities.

The leukemia cluster was detected by parents and epidemiologists, with simple methods and without research money, which always had been denied by appropriate sponsors. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which had been called in after some media publicity, admitted a doubling of leukemia risk, but claimed not to know the reason.

A research study showed that two near-by chemical plants had massively polluted soil, river, and groundwater with neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemicals, like trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, chloroform, and methyl chloroform. The concentrations of trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene in the drinking-water wells were 40 times higher than the existing threshold limit values, which had been known to authorities since 1956.

The polluters drew out the civil action - about factuality, kind, and amount of pollution; its effect on ground-water; causing of the leukemia cases by the water-pollution - from 1983 to 1986. Then the firm of solicitors, which represented the destitute plaintiffs, went bankrupt bcause of the enormous costs and had to give up. This was caused by legally dubious decisions of the responsible federal judge.

One of the firms was acquitted for lack of evidence. When evidence, which had been withheld from the jury, showed up later, the court of appeal turned down a retrial. The other firm was found guilty of chemical pollution of grundwater, according to the jury. But the judge denied a compensation settlement, becaue the jury had allegedly misunderstood the scientific facts, and threatened to reopen the trial. Enervatedly, the plaintiffs agreed to a out-of-court settlment. Later, the US department of justice sued the firm for lying to authorities about the chemicals that had been used - it got a $ 10000 fine.

Emergence of environmental inequity

Environmental inequity - in the sense of socio-spatially unequal distributions of environmental bads - is not only ascertained in this controversy, but regarded as an injustice. Environmental inequity may develop by various processes:

  • in advance, by placement decisions of investors, operating companies, or authorities in accordance with the expected political resistance from afflicted individuals and communities (discrimination effect)
  • in advance, after cost-benefit comparisons (prices of ground, energy, etc.; taxes; infrastructure; existence and control of environmental restrictions; liability for environmental and health damages; risks and costs of clean-up) of potential sites (market effect)
  • afterwards, by lowering of environmental and residential quality in afflicted communities/regions, price fall for estates and rents, move-out of "normal population", move-in of marginalized groups (selection effect).

Social movement for environmental justice

In Germany, the socio-spatial distribution of environmental bads is gradually becoming a topic in some areas of the scientific and political community. Prevention of environmental inequity is rarely discussed here. In the US, however, very concrete problems of environmental inequity - or even racism - induced a claim for environmental justice (EJ), which was related to older claims of the civil rights, anti-poverty, and union movement. Related to this issue, grass-root groups sprang up (NIMBYs: "Not in my backyard!"), which cooperated loosely and exerted, via medias, much political pressure on the local, state, and even federal level.

US president Clinton issued in 1994 an executive order on environmental justice, which gave federal agenies and ministries instructions to implement environmental justice in their areas. There was some discussion, if this went beyond symbolic policy.


The US environmental justice movement has the following goals:

  • access justice, as equal opportunities and risks of becoming the target of serious environmental changes, e.g., placement of a new waste incinerator
  • distributional justice, as equal costs and benefits after environmental changes, e.g., drop of residential quality and estate value after building of the waste incinerator
  • procedural justice, as equal treatment of various actors during conflicts over environmental changes, e.g., in legal battles over the wate incinerator
  • precautionary justice, as reduction of risky environmental changes, e.g., by drastic reduction of waste, which makes the waste incinerator unnecessary.

Relevancy for Germany

In principle, in a welfare state, it does not make sense to shift environmental burdens on to socially and politically disadvantaged groups, because it would interfere with the equality of opportunities. To compensate for such a shift within the frame of the German welfare system, it would be necessary to establish a "compulsory environmental insurance", which regulates frequent and severe environmental burdens as social risks - comparable to the establishment of a nursing care insurance in 1995. With the present political and economic constellation, this is completely unrealistic.

EJ is a new theoretical approach, but related to present-day environmental, social, and health policy. In the German discussion, the terms "environmental", "social", "health compatibility", and "sustainability" offer conceptual links to EJ. On the program level, EJ may be linked to "healthy cities", "local agenda 21", and "social city".


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