Environmental Justice

Environmental Injustice and Justice by Gener Abdon, Scarlett Alexander, and Lani Pangilinan

We stand upon a land that carries the footsteps of millennia of Kumeyaay people. They are a people whose traditional lifeways intertwine with a worldview of earth and sky in a community of living beings. This land is part of a relationship that has nourished, healed, protected and embraced the Kumeyaay people to the present day. It is part of a world view founded in the harmony of the cycles of the sky and balance in the forces of life. For the Kumeyaay, red and black represent the balance of those forces that provide for harmony within our bodies as well as the world around us.

As students, faculty, staff and alumni of San Diego State University we acknowledge this legacy from the Kumeyaay. We promote this balance in life as we pursue our goals of knowledge and understanding. We find inspiration in the Kumeyaay spirit to open our minds and hearts. It is the legacy of the red and black. It is the land of the Kumeyaay.

'eyay e’haan My heart is good.

What is Environmental Justice?

“Environmental justice is thought to occur when “(1) the burden of environmental hazards or degradation is shared equally across all demographic groups or communities, and (2) there is equal inclusion in decision making processes” about environmental policies and action steps (Nesmith & Smyth, 2015, p. 485). At the global level, wealthy nations are exploiting the natural resources of poor nations, depleting those resources and exacerbating the poverty in those nations. The degradation of the world's ecosystems is growing significantly worse, and the burdens of that degradation go increasingly to the most marginalized populations, poor people, people of color, older people, women, and children (Hetherington & Boddy, 2013). The people carrying the greatest burden of environmental degradation seldom have a seat at the table where environmental policies are developed (United Nations Human Rights, 2014). 

This pattern of environmental injustice occurs in wealthy nations as well as poor nations. In the United States, there is considerable evidence that the toxic load of pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, and factories is generally heaviest in poor communities of color (Perkins, 2012), and considerable research establishes that such pollution is a risk factor for cancer and respiratory diseases. There is also clear evidence that hazardous waste facilities are more likely to be located in poor and minority communities (Perkins, King, & Varner, 2012). One research team found that brownfields—properties that are no longer operational because of the presence of hazardous substances—are much more likely to be located in poor and minority communities than in areas of higher socioeconomic status. They also found that brownfields are cleaned up much more slowly when they are located in communities with larger minority populations (Eckerd & Keeler, 2012). Similar patterns have been reported in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden, France, Germany, and Australia (Nesmith & Symth, 2015). 

Since the 1980s, some activists in the environmental justice movement have referred to the situation discussed in the previous paragraph as environmental racism, a term used to refer to the process of placing environmental hazards in low-income or minority communities. In his book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, Carl Zimring (2016) suggests that although some of the environmental hazards are new, environmental racism is not new in the United States. He traces a history in which people of color have been assigned the dirty work of the country: doing the laundry, cleaning up human waste, and junk collecting. He also discusses the way that racial anxiety and concerns about urban health became intertwined in the major cities with the influx of African Americans and immigrants.

Social justice and environmental justice become more and more tightly entwined; in many communities it is not possible to promote social justice without working on issues of environmental justice. That is certainly true in the Coachella Valley of California where Dr. Elizabeth D Hutchison recently lived. At a community forum she attended in the eastern end of the valley, which is populated primarily by undocumented farm workers, community members reported that their greatest concerns are the lack of access to potable (drinkable) water; high levels of pesticides in the soil and groundwater; sewage sitting on top of the ground; and the impact of a nearby toxic waste treatment facility on soil, water, and air quality.”


International level


Ever since the dawn of European colonization in the 1500s, Indigenous people were murdered and their land was stolen. The ongoing industrial revolution since the 1800s destroys the environment in pursuit of “economic profit.”

Environmental justice (and injustice) is not just here in the United States. The Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) effect is very strong in the United States. In terms of environmental issues, this can be characterized by local residents opposing the implementation of sustainable technology, such as wind turbines, because of the effect that it may have, such as ‘ruining’ the aesthetics of a community. For being one of the largest plastic consumers in the entire world, the U.S. does not take its fair share of the disposal or nasty effects. Plastic is typically shipped from the United States into landfills in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines particularly in lower income communities where the plastic waste is burned and devastates the people living there.

Women and indigenous people are under threat worldwide for their environmental activism. For example, in the Philippines a female environmentalist received death and rape threats online for her activism. In 2019 alone, 43 environmental activists were murdered in the Philippines; meanwhile President Rodrigo Duterte claims these instances to be “sham assertions” even though some of the murderers have been caught and never charged. The predominately white presence in the environmental movement has overpowered the dangerous risks that are taken in order to be an environmentalist as a person of color.

In Brazil, more than 300 people have been murdered for campaigning against illegal environmental practices in the last decade. Because mining is a big contributor to Brazil’s national income and an essential employer to the country’s people, the current government prioritizes big businesses and the expansion of mining at the expense of violence against the indigenous people of Brazil. Similarly, peaceful protests against mining corporations taking land from indigenous Colombians are met with paramilitary groups.

Not only are environmental activists met with resistance and danger across the world, minority groups are disproportionately affected most by environmental matters and policies. Did you know that according to the United Nations, 80% of all people forced to leave their homes due to climate migration are women? Women, and particularly women of color, are constantly at the forefront of the devastating effects of climate change and environmental injustice.

Climate Justice is “moving to a post-carbon energy system, paying for the ecological and social damage of climate change, and protecting the voice and sovereignty of the most vulnerable” (Schlosberg & Collins, 2014) This means having the most vulnerable be the leaders in creating Climate policy. In 2007, an international network of nongovernmental organizations and activists asserted climate action principles (Koukouzelis, 2017). Two years later the Copenhagen Accord “delivered business-as-usual climate politics, biased towards fossil-fuel capital, heavy industry, the transport sector and over consumers” which led to the climate justice gaining momentum because of frustrations (Bond & Dorsey, 2010; Chatterton, Featherstone, & Routledge, 2013). Impatience with slow change, profiteers profiting from the carbon economy, and needed global reform, “many civil society organizations and activists began to shift away from an international focus and take up local, direct actions to mobilize support and effect change on the national level” (Kluttz & Walter, 2018). “The shift from the global to the local has pulled together an array of environmental justice, social justice, and ecojustice protests, uniting them under the banner of climate justice” (Hadden, 2014; Nulman, 2015). A solidarity approach to an intersectional issue.






The Texas 2021 Winter Storms are a very prevalent case concerning environmental justice and still remains to be a relatively fresh occurrence within our nation, in which individuals are still experiencing its repercussions. This event has disproportionately affected black and hispanic families, leaving a large number of individuals without power, disabling them to generate heat and to have access to safe drinking water.

Along with that instance of environmental injustice in the U.S., there is also rising concern related to water injustice surrounding the Colorado River, regarding pollution, allocation, and the flows across the U.S.-Mexico Border. So not only does this particular case affect individuals on a national level, but also internationally.

In the United States there has been a long and ongoing history of environmental injustice pertaining to health and land disproportionately affecting the Indigenous Populations of the U.S. A recent example includes the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on native land as well as Uranium mining in Arizona. One of the most current cases that is still underway deals with the  Line 3 Oil Pipeline that goes across treaty land and would impact the tribes of this area. Some of this pipeline has already been completed, although there has been some deterrents to its construction due to protesters and growing opposition, as well as legal issues.






One issue that is very prevalent in California, and will continue to worsen as the demand for energy increases, is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is a method of extracting fossil fuels for human use, which is so commonly linked to environmental justice due to the fact that it can pollute nearby communities and affect the health of residents due to the effect of worsened air and water quality. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, there are 10 counties within the state where fracking has taken place, leading to an increased release of methane and toxic chemicals.

Along with hydraulic fracturing, a  growing matter of urgency is the impending rise of water scarcity in California. Droughts have been a mostly recurring trend, although as climate change worsens, the shortage of water is becoming an issue of even greater salience. More recently, as stated by Calmatters, Central Valley has seen extreme decreases in water available, and just as with most environmental justice issues, disadvantaged communities face the brunt of the effects.

An example of environmental injustice that not only applies to California’s coast but also hundreds of small islands is the rising of sea-levels, caused by the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps. In accordance with the United States Department of Justice, the sea level along California is estimated to increase by 20-55 inches by 2100, which would affect around 500,000 individuals with flooding. This would displace a large number of residents, where families and individuals of a lower socio-economic status would have a harder time moving to safety.

"California Environmental Justice Alliance was formed in 2001. Our grassroots, community-based members recognized the need for a voice in statewide environmental policy but realized that they would be more effective and stronger if united. Since CEJA’s inception, we have mobilized hundreds of people to California’s Capitol at critical policy junctures and engaged thousands of Latino, Asian Pacific American, African American and immigrant residents in advocating for smart policies that will win healthy communities, a healthy economy and a healthy California. Some of our recent accomplishments include:

CEJA was a lead organization in the community-based coalition that defeated Proposition 23, an attempt by Big Oil to overturn California’s climate change laws. We mobilized communities of color to overwhelming vote NO on Prop 23 at the polls.
CEJA has been a leader in bringing the issues of health and equity to California’s clean energy debates: In 2010, we worked to ensure that California’s goal around renewable energy (the statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard) includes provisions that encourage local renewable generation, such as consideration of local distributed generation as an alternative to building new transmission power lines.
In 2012, we ran a ground-breaking “Solar for All” campaign (AB 1990, authored by Assemblymember Paul Fong). The bill would have created small-scale clean energy projects in low-income communities and communities of color. Although the bill died, the campaign galvanized the movement to demand small-scale renewables in environmental justice communities, won policy champions on our issues, and mobilized hundreds of community members, community-based organizations, environmental groups, solar producers, and progressive business groups to support our efforts.
CEJA won a huge victory by ensuring San Diego Gas & Electric did not get approval to build two new dirty power plants in 2013.
CEJA helped push the California Environmental Protection Agency to adopt one of the first official cumulative impact screening tools in the country, the CalEnviroScreen. The tool identifies zip codes throughout California that face a deadly combination of socioeconomic stressors, public health burdens and high pollution levels. With a scientific method of identifying highly impacted communities, decision-makers can target programs and resources to help transform our communities. This is a cornerstone of our Green Zones Initiative
We have hosted four highly successful Community Congresos, which brought between 150-200 community leaders and advocates to the Capitol to engage in grassroots advocacy, skills sharing and networking.”




San Diego


Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) works for environmental justice in the San Diego/Tijuana region and throughout California. Founded in 1980, EHC has worked to reduce pollution and improve health and well-being for thousands of people in underserved, low-income communities. They believe that all people and communities have the right to live, work and play in a clean and safe environment regardless of their ZIP code. 

EHC's local work supports residents in low-income, ethnically diverse communities including Barrio Logan, Sherman Heights, Logan Heights, City Heights, National City and Colonia Chilpancingo. A common thread in all of EHC's campaigns is the recognition of the cumulative impacts of environmental, social, political and economic vulnerabilities that affect the quality of life in our communities.

They are committed to working with low-income communities and communities of color to:

Reduce pollution to protect public health and the environment
Secure community plans that address our community's needs
Reduce toxic air pollution
Improve active transportation and public transit
Defend our children from exposure to dangerous toxins
Increase civic engagement and voter participation

The Environmental Protection Unit is part of the Economic Crimes Division. The unit's focus is on protecting the public from companies that violate environmental laws - violations that can threaten the natural environment or endanger public health.

The unit investigates and prosecutes matters involving unlawful treatment, transportation, storage and disposal of hazardous materials and wastes. The unit also reviews industrial accidents referred by Cal OSHA. These cases involve violations of safety regulations resulting in death, serious disability or serious hazard exposures to employees.

In addition to criminal charges filed against an entity or individual, civil complaints may be initiated to prevent on-going violations and to seek monetary penalties for violations when appropriate.

The San Diego District Attorney's Office has prosecuted matters involving air quality standards; discharges of waste affecting the quality of the state's waters; underground storage tanks; violations of the Fish and Game Code; grading and brushing violations; hazardous waste violations; and fraudulent smog inspections.

Examples of San Diego Cases:

When a large corporation released a toxic cloud of hydrochloric acid into the air from one of their storage tanks, the Environmental Protection Unit filed charges against the company. The corporation had been using that tank even though a critical shut-off valve was inoperative and was bypassed by the company's employees. The company admitted to improperly disposing of hazardous waste. The company paid a civil penalty of $25,000, and as part of the settlement made donations of $115,000 to four local environmental organizations.
When a worker was killed in a fall from an elevated scissor-lift as it was moving on an unstable surface, the D.A.'s office filed charges against the employer for CAL-OSHA violations. Our prosecutors reached a civil settlement. The complaint resulted in a penalty of $13,500 and a permanent injunction against the company.
When the Bureau of Automotive Repair refers smog fraud cases to the D. A. 's office, The Environmental Protection Unit often prosecutes. In one case, the business owner was convicted of a felony, prohibited from engaging in smog checks during probation, and ordered to pay restitution of over $14,000.




San Diego State


Associated Students Green Love launched the Environmental Justice Committee in Fall 2017. Introducing to you SDSU's brand new Environmental Justice Committee!

Who we are: a group of driven, focused, and passionate individuals who believe that the equality of individuals should extend throughout all aspects of society, especially the environment.

What we do: connect with local organizations that focus on EJ issues in the San Diego area, conduct EJ related research, advocate for those often overlooked by political measures, and most of all spread love and positivity about the environment.

Why we do it: to raise awareness, encourage active citizenship, and provide a platform for those looking to have their EJ concerns addressed.

Where we meet: if this sounds like something you're interested in come meet us by the SDSU koi pond on Monday's @ 12 for some great EJ convo and yummy eats!

The co-chairs of Green Love EJC hope to tackle a few goals this year:

Help out Cultivando SD to fight food injustice
Get involved with GRID, an organization dedicated to implementing renewable energy in low income communities of San Diego
Create a safe space for students to come together to talk about their experiences and the impacts environmental injustice or racism has on them
Educate, learn, and spread awareness about environmental justice on a local, state, national, and international scale
Take action politically by encouraging SDSU students to vote
Attending protests to rise against environmental injustices
Advocate for other social justice issues and bring to light the intersectionality of environmentalism and human rights
Posting on instagram to bring awareness to EJC at SDSU
Giving talks to other organizations on campus or doing events with other organizations on campus to bring more awareness 
Biweekly meetings on Thursdays 3PM PST @ Koi Pond

The Facilities Services Office Sustainability hired an Environmental Justice intern, Vecky Hernandez, in Summer 2019 until April 2020. She educated the Office of Sustainability Team at that time on Environmental Justice and the importance of it to sustainability and everyone’s positions. In addition, Vecky hosted public events titled, “Environmental Justice 101,” “Environmentalism and Capitalism: Can They Co-Exist?,” and “Climate Justice = Indigenous Sovereignty” with the Native American Student Alliance in October and November 2019 at the Center for Intercultural Relations (CIR). Also, another “Environmental Justice 101” workshop was held at the CIR in February 2020.

Since April 2020 due to the virtual switch because of the COVID-19 pandemic and massive turnover in Facilities Services, no one resides in the Environmental Justice intern position at this moment.