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Environmental Justice vs. Economic Development

Rebecca Gordon


Environmental Justice is the fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

-          U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


“Environmental Justice is a policy advocated by elite environmentalists, and it is killing job prospects in minority communities. If outsourcing is considered bad, environmental justice is much, much worse and could lead to further outsourcing totally unrelated to trade policy.”

- National Leadership Network of Conservative African-Americans



Environmental justice is a recent movement developed to challenge harmful environmental impacts that disproportionately burden minorities and low-income neighborhoods.  The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation reported in 2003 that 50% of African-Americans and 60% of Hispanics live in counties where levels of two or more air pollutants exceed governmental standards.  Communities with existing incinerators have 89% more minorities than the national average, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians live in communities with toxic waste sites.[1]  Activists within the movement seek to educate and empower communities to rally against environmental discrimination which contributes to elevated health risks in poor neighborhoods.

Critics in local governments challenge that upholding environmental justice will only harm the populations it intends to help.  Increasing regulations and threatening industries with law suits they argue, will only further drive corporations away from communities who desperately need employment opportunities.[2]  These critics emphasize that environmental justice is an anti-revitalization mechanism which will impede economic development efforts by discouraging investment.

I will present a timeline, highlighting the important events motivating the environmental justice movement, followed by two case studies designed to demonstrate the inherent tensions between environmental justice and economic development.

Environmental Justice Timeline [3]

1978: The Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY contributes to widespread negative health effects on account of hazardous waste problems.  Jimmy Carter condemns the area and declares it a federal emergency.

1982: 500 people are arrested in Warren County, North Carolina for protesting the siting of a landfill for PCB- contaminated soils in a predominantly black area.

1983: The Government Accountability Office reports that three out of four of the off-site, commercial hazardous waste landfills in the Southeast are located in predominantly African-American communities, although African-Americans make up only 20% of the region's population.[4]

1987: The United Church of Christ reports that three out of five Black and Hispanic residents in the United States live in communities with one or more uncontrolled toxic chemical dumps--a social concentration that is virtually impossible to achieve merely by chance.[5]

1989: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges injustice concerns and forms the Environmental Equity Workgroup.

1994: President Clinton signs an Executive Order requiring all federal agencies to “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 and low-income populations in the United States.”[6]

Environmental Justice vs. Economic Development

Case Studies

Convent, Louisiana 

In 1996, Shintech, a Japanese chemical company, proposed to construct a $700 million dollar factory in Convent, Louisiana.  The facility would produce 611,700 pounds of toxic air contaminants in a town with a population that is 82% African-American.[7] The pollutants included PVC (polyvinyl chloride) which can cause reproductive disorders, impaired mental development as well as cancer.[8] Southern Louisiana, or “cancer alley,” is already subjected to large quantities of hazardous waste and Shintech was perceived as a potential contributor to cumulative health concerns.


There was also outrage regarding the tax breaks and subsidies which were offered as incentives for siting the facility specifically in Convent.  Shintech would have received a corporate tax income credit of $2500 for each job it created as well as $130 million dollars in subsidies.[7] With over 40% of the population living below the poverty line, critics felt it was unfair to burden residents with the majority of the social costs while exempting a multi-million dollar corporation from contributing its proportional share in taxes. 


With adamant opposition to the project and threats of legal challenges on the basis of violating economic justice, Shintech abandoned its proposal in Convent in favor of a new location.  The ripple effect of losing such a massive foreign investment can be perceived as a detriment to such an economically deprived area. Construction of the facility alone would have created 2000 jobs, and Shintech also projected that 165 permanent jobs would be created along with a $500,000 nonprofit job training program.[9] The construction of a factory would have improved the local economy by directly increasing employment as well as possibly indirectly stimulating growth in other sectors.  With a significant poverty and unemployment rate, government officials asserted that driving economic development out of Convent in the name of environmental justice could only further hurt minorities and low-income residents who would disproportionally feel the impact.  The local community as well as the state government would lose millions of dollars in expected tax revenues that could be allocated to improve schools and various public works projects. 


San Diego, California & Tijuana, Mexico border region

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994, motivated the relocation of even more transnational American corporations into Mexico in order to take advantage of the low cost of labor and fewer environmental regulations.  These foreign manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, experienced an increase in employment from 200,000 in 1990, to over 1,000,000 in 2000 as billions of dollars in foreign investment flowed into Mexico.[10]  However, the promise of jobs and a successful manufacturing sector has been over-shadowed by the exploitation of Mexican workers earning only $4.00 per day.[11]  Moreover, workers are exposed on a daily basis to acids, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals which have contributed to devastating public health and safety concerns.


Border residents, especially Mexican workers, have disproportionately experienced negative environmental impacts which include overexposure to air pollution, inadequate water and sewage treatment, pesticides, and hazardous wastes.  The maquiladoras are not subject to U.S. environmental laws, and the Mexican government has done little to promote environmental health education or to comply with environmental standards.  Toxic wastes are required by international law to be transferred back to the country of origin; there has been no attempt either to adhere to this policy or to dispose of toxic chemicals in a safe manner.  Additionally, chemicals are usually labeled in English and workers are completely unaware of the dangers in handling the equipment.  A 1996 study of maquiladoras employees in Tijuana revealed that 41% of employees regularly handled chemicals, 59% suffered from upper airway irritation, 58% complained of sore throats, and 77% experienced chest pain. [12]  Workers also complain of head aches, high blood pressure and eye infections, while more serious consequences, such as a rise in birth defects, have been reported as a result of pollution.[13]



These case studies are just two illustrations of the tradeoff that can occur between economic development and environmental justice.  It is in the interest of every level of government to promote economic opportunities for their constituents, but at what cost? Mexico has neither developed the infrastructure nor the regulations to address the massive development of its border region.  As a result, air and water quality have deteriorated and toxic emissions have produced harmful health and environmental impacts in the surrounding communities.  The Mexican workers are ignorant of all the potential health risks they are exposed to and have been exploited on account of their lack of social and political power.  Convent, Louisiana residents on the other hand were more aware of the expected negative environmental consequences and chose to protest investment at the expense of possible employment opportunities.



[1] Hatfield, Heather, “Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism,” Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, March 6, 2003, accessed at

[2] Martin, Kevin. “Elitist Environmentalists Say No Thanks to New Jobs,” National Leadership Network of Conservative African-Americans, accessed at

[3] "Environmental Justice Highlights", The Detroit News, June 28, 1998.

[4] U.S. GAO, “Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities,” 1983.

[5] United Church of Christ, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” 1987.

[6] Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," 1994.

[7] Lousiana Environmental Action Network, “Shintech Environmental Racism,” September 1, 1999

[8] Accessed at, 2005

[9] Justice, Woody, “PVC: Poor Victimized Community,” The Harbinger, September 8, 1998, accessed at, 2005

[10] Accessed at, 2005

[11] La Botz, Dan, “Women and Children, Labor Base of Mexican, North American Economy,” Corpwatch, March 2, 1999, accessed at, 2005

[12] Kourous, George, “Workers’ Health is on the Line,” Borderlines, August, 1998, accessed at, 2005

[13] London Financial Times, “Hazardous Trade Bring Pollution and Health Fears Down Mexico Way,” Fluoride Action Network, June 6, 1997, accessed at, 2005