The Father of Environmental Justice Isn’t Done Yet

The Father of Environmental Justice Isn’t Done Yet

The Father of Environmental Justice Isn’t Done Yet

Robert Bullard has been fighting a sometimes lonely battle since the 1970s. For his many heirs, the struggle has just begun.


In 1979, Robert Bullard and a team of 10 graduate students spent weeks poring over city records, library archives, and microfiche, searching for landfill locations in Houston, a sprawling, 557-square-mile city that’s home to nearly 1.5 million people. There was no Google or geographic information systems, no iPhones or laptops. To find a landfill, Bullard and his students had to follow the paper trails of permits, deeds, and licenses. The project took over Bullard’s living room and ate up his weekends and holidays.

“Once we put together a list, we had to go, physically, and find the sites and verify that they existed,” recalls Bullard, who was then and is now a professor at Texas Southern University, among the state’s most prominent historically Black colleges and universities. “I told my students, ‘Houston is flat. Anytime you see a mountain, that’s a landfill.’”

Then came the Magic Markers. Bullard and his students bought a map of the city and color-coded its neighborhoods according to race using census data. Red neighborhoods were more than 50 percent minority, and yellow were less than 10 percent. Next they plotted the landfills’ locations with pushpins.

Nearly all the pins landed in red neighborhoods. Black residents accounted for just over 27 percent of Houston’s population, and yet five out of five city-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods. Six out of eight city-owned incinerators were in the same neighborhoods, and three out of six privately owned landfills were, too.

“Ironically, the communities that had the landfills also had the worst garbage service,” Bullard says. He’s told this story hundreds of times over four decades, but outrage still lingers in his voice. “Some of these folks could walk their garbage bags to the landfill, but they couldn’t get their garbage picked up by the city. That’s how racism was so ingrained.”

Bullard started looking at landfills after his then wife, Linda, an attorney, sued the City of Houston and Southwestern Waste Management over a proposal to build a landfill in a predominantly Black, middle-class neighborhood in northeast Houston called Northwood Manor. In a 1994 interview, Linda recalled that the landfill company had quietly gone about securing permits, and residents assumed that a new shopping center was going to be built instead of a landfill. “The company…was waiting for us. They wanted us to argue the suitability of the site. They wanted us to argue the technical aspects, because we would have lost,” she said. That’s when she knew she had to find another way to sue. So she asked her husband to help her find a pattern to prove that the new landfill, called Whispering Pines, wasn’t an anomaly. If the city had repeatedly permitted landfills in Black neighborhoods but not white ones, there was a pattern of discrimination that would allow her to sue using the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But the data Bullard and his students compiled didn’t hold up in court. “From the evidence before me, I can say that the plaintiffs have established that the decision to grant the permit was both unfortunate and insensitive,” US District Judge Gabrielle McDonald wrote in her decision. “I cannot say that the plaintiffs have established a substantial likelihood of proving that the decision to grant the permit was motivated by purposeful racial discrimination.” McDonald denied a temporary injunction against the landfill’s operator, which had already received a state permit, paving the way for its construction.

The maps and the pins couldn’t definitively prove that employees at Southwestern Waste Management or staffers at City Hall had intentionally chosen to put Houston’s trash in Black neighborhoods. Even today, communities of color face an uphill battle proving that these decisions, however they were formulated, violate their right to clean air and a healthy neighborhood.

Today the phrase “environmental justice” is common parlance among environmentalists and climate activists, who understand that poor communities and communities of color across the globe will disproportionately bear the effects of climate change. Environmentalists have made strides in embracing racial justice as a part of their mission. But Bullard, now 74, says, with characteristic frankness, “That’s because we kicked them in the ass.” For a significant portion of his career, Bullard and other environmental justice scholars and activists were dismissed by traditional environmental groups, who saw environmental justice as a social issue separate from the effort to protect and preserve natural spaces.

Whispering Pines Landfill is still in operation today. The school across the street is still predominantly Black and Latinx, and more than 95 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-cost lunch programs. Over the years, the neighborhood has attracted more industrial facilities. A few years after the landfill case, Linda stopped practicing law. But for the better part of the next four decades, Bullard would keep thinking and writing about landfills. If the rest of America was just as segregated as Houston, was trash ending up in Black people’s backyards all over the country? And if it was, how would you even begin the process of cleaning it up?

In 1987, a national team of researchers confirmed that the pattern Bullard had discovered in Houston prevailed in every part of the country and amounted to a national crisis. The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a report called “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” which analyzed the racial makeup of areas surrounding thousands of toxic waste dumps and landfills across America and found they were concentrated in communities of color. It was a watershed moment for the emerging environmental justice movement, providing activists and communities with hard numbers that showed a correlation between race and environmental hazards.

The report was catalyzed in part by a high-profile environmental justice fight in Warren County, N.C., where the state government had approved a landfill for highly toxic contaminated soil in a county that was nearly all Black. Bullard and his coauthor, Beverly Wright, are cited in the footnotes of the report. By the late 1980s, Bullard and Wright had published a handful of journal articles on environmental justice in the South. But the United Church of Christ’s report helped form a unified national movement out of scattered examples in dozens of Black communities in the South: a lead smelter near public housing in West Dallas, a chemical plant in a small town in West Virginia, waste facilities in Alabama’s Black Belt, industrial facilities near rural towns along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In 1990, Bullard published one of the first textbooks on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Using a handful of case studies, the book gave the experiences of Black Southerners a prominent place in urban planning and environmental studies, fields that had, until that point, all but ignored their concerns. “When I sent my manuscript for Dumping in Dixie, publishers wrote back to me saying, ‘What is this? There’s no such thing as environmental justice. The environment is neutral,’” Bullard says. That sentiment permeated almost every conversation he had in the ’90s. Academics and activists had to pressure the government—and mainstream environmentalists—to simply acknowledge that environmental decisions were often discriminatory.

Bullard and colleagues from the movement met with the Environmental Protection Agency to push it to recognize that communities of color across the nation face unequal environmental impacts, and they played a role in organizing the 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which brought together a broad coalition of communities of color and Indigenous people. The summit developed 17 principles of environmental justice, which still guide the movement today.

In 1992, then-Senator Al Gore and Representative John Lewis introduced the Environmental Justice Act, which would have mandated that the EPA track environmental justice communities—those that have experienced a disproportionate pollution burden—and maintain a list of the 100 areas most affected by pollution, while making the process of approving such sites in those communities more transparent. It also would have enabled the EPA to collect fines and fees from landfills, refineries, and polluting industrial facilities and to fund local initiatives to aid people affected by the toxic sites.

The bill never even got a hearing. Lewis would continue to push for environmental justice protections until his death, in 2020.

In 1994, environmental justice advocates finally won a victory at the federal level. Bullard looked on as President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which marked the first time that the federal government formally recognized, and promised to act on, environmental injustices across the nation.

But 27 years later, the executive order has fallen short. Because federal agencies have leeway in how they implement executive orders, it is virtually unenforceable. A report from New York University’s Institute for Policy Integrity concluded that federal agencies have either outright ignored Clinton’s environmental justice order or failed to recognize whom it is intended to protect.

The lack of federal regulation means that most communities of color still can’t fight off new industrial developments. They often don’t have the legal grounds to claim that a refinery or industrial plant has intentionally violated their civil rights, particularly when residential neighborhoods are next to those zoned for industrial use. Stopping a development requires proving that it would violate an existing environmental law, such as pollution limits, or showing that it failed to acquire the requisite permits. There’s also the issue of “legacy pollution,” says Paul Mohai, a professor at the University of Michigan who has long worked with Bullard on environmental justice. Areas that already have a toxic facility tend to attract more industrialization, concentrating the hazards in the same communities for decades on end. “We haven’t even come close to talking about that in policy discussions,” he says.

Without those legal protections, grassroots movements around the country are fighting to right the wrongs of the past and stop pollution from getting even worse. In Louisiana, for example, an industrial corridor has been dubbed Cancer Alley because generations of residents of the predominantly Black community near its plastic-manufacturing plants have developed the deadly disease. Last year, the community fought off a proposed chemical plant, pressuring the US Army Corps of Engineers to rescind its permit. When it did, the corps attributed its change of course to the sensitive wetland ecosystems that could have been affected by the plant, but didn’t mention environmental justice.

In Houston, Juan Parras, the executive director of the environmental justice advocacy group Tejas, has spent decades trying to protect the communities downwind of the Ship Channel’s polluting refineries. Every so often, plants near his home in Manchester seek permits to increase the amount of pollution they can emit; their applications are often approved. “We are in the belly of the beast,” he says. The Ship Channel is one of the busiest ports in the United States, a hub for oil and gas refining and petrochemical production. In Manchester, rates of leukemia and asthma are higher than in areas further away from the Ship Channel.

There aren’t many lawyers willing to go up against multimillion-dollar companies like Chevron, Exxon, or Valero on behalf of Manchester’s residents, Parras says. And his community, predominantly Latinx and low-income, with many undocumented people, can’t count on politicians, either. “A lot of politicians depend on donations from the industry,” he points out. “So the state is friendly [with the industry], the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is friendly. Who pays the price for this friendliness? It’s the communities on the front line.”

To this day, low-income communities of color are significantly more likely than other types of communities to live near hazardous waste and air pollution. According to the most recent EPA data, Houston ranks in the 84th percentile when it comes to people of color living in proximity to hazardous waste nationwide. (A higher ranking indicates a higher exposure.) In the Woodlands, a predominantly white, affluent suburb north of Houston, the ranking for hazardous waste proximity drops to the 16th percentile. Exposure to particulate matter in the Woodlands is in the fourth percentile, compared with Houston’s position in the 89th. And study after study has found that the pattern exists not just in Texas cities—Port Arthur, El Paso, Austin, Midland, Lubbock—but also nationwide.

Decades of research has demonstrated that there is a link between long-term exposure to pollution and chronic health conditions. When the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world last March, it quickly proved to be more deadly in communities of color, which often have concentrated pockets of preexisting health conditions such as asthma and chronic lung problems. In Houston, Black and Latinx people make up 68 percent of the population, but as of March 31, they accounted for 75 percent of the county’s Covid deaths. White residents account for 24 percent of the population but only 19 percent of the death toll.

Like pushpins on a Magic Marker map, the numbers are stark. “The best way to put it is that these are lessons unlearned,” Bullard says. “The way the pandemic is hitting low-income communities and communities of color—this is not a surprise. It may have shocked some people that don’t recognize the existence of systemic racism.”

The week that we spoke by phone, Dallas County had gotten into hot water with the Department of State Health Services for attempting to prioritize vaccinations in communities of color on the city’s south side. The department threatened to cut the county’s vaccine allocation altogether rather than let it give low-income communities and communities of color priority—even after wealthier white residents had been receiving the lion’s share of vaccines for weeks. Statewide, at the end of March, Black people, who account for 12 percent of the population, had received 8 percent of the vaccinations; Latinx people, with 40 percent of the state’s population, had received 25 percent of the vaccinations. The only group that was overrepresented is white people, who make up 41 percent of Texas’s population but received 50 percent of the vaccinations.

“You are getting hit with a double whammy of racism, and it’s showing up in terms of health disparities,” Bullard says. During a flood or a pandemic, Black and brown neighborhoods get hit the hardest. But the funding and resources inevitably flow to wealthy, white communities first. “Money follows money,” Bullard says, “and money follows whites.”

The 2020 presidential election reinvigorated the environmental justice movement. For the previous four years, communities of color watched the Trump administration roll back what little protections they had, including standards governing air pollution. Calls for a federal environmental justice law grew louder, amplified by the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd last May. To Bullard, it’s something of a magic moment, despite the compounding tragedies. “There is an understanding that racism is stamped in America’s DNA, that racism impacts every aspect of our lives. We are not making this up,” he says.

This year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing an environmental justice office in the Justice Department and an office of climate and health equity in the Department of Health and Human Services. The order also mandates that 40 percent of the benefits from new climate investments “flow to disadvantaged communities.”

Biden has so far appointed one of the most diverse cabinets in US history: Michael Regan is the first Black person to lead the EPA, and Deb Haaland is the first Indigenous person to lead the Department of the Interior, which oversees federal lands and works with Native American tribes. The National Black Environmental Justice Network, which Bullard cochairs, met with the Biden transition team to push for these appointments.

But executive orders aren’t enough. “They don’t have the permanence of law,” Mohai says. “They don’t go further than the agencies the president is in charge of.” At most, an executive order is “a declaration of good intentions,” he says—and communities of color deserve more than that.

Federal legislation could specify concrete environmental justice goals, Mohai continues, such as reducing pollution burdens in specific communities, as well as ways to measure those goals. And crucially, legislators typically write in funding provisions for such laws, while executive orders can’t create sources of funding. In January, Senators Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth and Representative Cori Bush introduced the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act, which would create a comprehensive and uniform mapping tool to identify environmental justice communities nationwide and then direct federal funding toward the communities highlighted in Biden’s executive order. With more public attention on the issue and a Democratically controlled House, the bill might have a fighting chance.

But Texas was a thorn in the side of Barack Obama, the last Democratic president who tried to implement sweeping environmental policy changes, says Ron Reynolds, a Democratic state representative from Fort Bend County. Texas sued the Obama administration over climate and environmental regulations 27 times. A week after Biden took office, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he was planning to sue the administration over any new environmental regulations. For the second session in a row, Reynolds, the only Black lawmaker on the Texas Legislature’s energy and environment committees, introduced a bill that would create an environmental justice advisory committee at the state level. In the previous session, the committee chair never granted the bill a hearing. “Most of my colleagues don’t know anything about environmental justice,” Reynolds says. “This is not a priority for them.”

A generation of younger activists are expanding the boundaries of the environmental justice movement that started with Bullard’s research. Today they push for climate justice, too, recognizing that communities of color will bear the most risk in a hotter world with more weather extremes. In Texas, chapters of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action organization, have attracted people who see the links between green energy, fair housing, and health care as crucial to a better future. It might seem harder to fight on all those fronts, but according to Neha Desaraju, a high school senior and a Sunrise communications coordinator based in Dallas, it’s part of the group’s overall strategy to push the political boundaries of what’s possible.

In El Paso, Miguel Escoto cofounded the city’s Sunrise chapter after graduating from St. Edward’s University in Austin and moving back to his hometown. “I had always cared about climate change, but it was always philosophical and abstract, like global greenhouse gases and science,” he says. Escoto was more interested in immigration issues, including the rights of undocumented residents in the border town. But in Austin, working with local grassroots groups and reading about how climate change would have an impact on global migration helped him connect the dots.

Escoto realized that the Marathon Refinery, which he’d driven past dozens of times as a child, was located in a mixed-immigration-status neighborhood in El Paso. Many of the residents who were most exposed to the plumes of pollution from the oil and gas facility were undocumented, so they were reluctant to speak up, Escoto says. Environmental groups were hard at work tackling the issue—and Escoto wanted Sunrise to amplify their efforts. With his local chapter, he’s helped energize young people to organize social media campaigns and participate in public hearings on new industrial developments and in protests supporting the communities fighting for clean air.

These days, Bullard is back at Texas Southern University, where he teaches classes and takes Zoom meetings throughout the day. After leading his own research center at his alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, and serving as the dean of TSU’s School of Public Affairs, he returned to the classroom in hopes of training people of color to become leaders in environmental justice and all the fields it touches: law, engineering, urban planning, and health care.

“What gives me hope is that young people have fewer wedge issues than my generation,” Bullard says. Polling has shown that millennials and Gen Zers are more likely than older generations to believe that the government can and should solve problems like climate change and racial inequities. Organizations like Sunrise are also more diverse than their predecessors, such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

In December, the United Nations Environment Program presented him with its lifetime achievement award. “Bullard’s research into environmental justice in the USA has influenced global research into similar practices impacting minority and low-income communities in other countries,” says Inger Andersen, the program’s executive director. “Professor Bullard’s work has, in my view, ushered in a third wave of the human rights movement, with growing recognition that all people have a human right to a healthy environment.”

When I ask Bullard what the UN award means to him, after decades of fighting for the concept of environmental justice to gain traction, he replies that he didn’t do the work for the recognition. Still, “it made my day,” he adds. “It was an honor.” And then he returns to the main point: “Even with the pandemic and everything, the world on lockdown—the work goes on. The work goes on.”

Deep Indigo Collective is a visual storytelling resource supporting news outlets reporting on the local impacts of environmental threats and the climate crisis. As a 501(c)(3) organization, Deep Indigo is proud to produce original visual journalism on behalf of our editorial partners across the United States.

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