Black activists in the District have spent decades fighting for a cleaner Anacostia and an end to polluting industrial and waste facilities sited in predominantly Black neighborhoods. The national movement for environmental justice (EJ) — led by Black researchers, lawyers and organizers — has deep roots, too. In celebration of Black History Month, check out this timeline of crucial moments.
1968: The Memphis Sanitation Strike
During the Memphis Sanitation Strike, workers fought for increased wages and safer working conditions. Many see it as an early example of an environmental justice fight because sanitation workers served one of the most crucial roles in keeping communities clean and healthy. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the strike in the days before his assassination.
1979: Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp.
Black homeowners in Houston, led by attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, filed the first environmental discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history. They charged a waste management company with violations of civil rights laws for its choice to site a landfill just 1500 feet from a local public school. They lost the case — the company did build the landfill in their community. But it laid the groundwork for future environmental justice fights in the courts.
1982: The Warren County PCB Protests
North Carolina’s plan to dump thousands of tons of soil contaminated with the hazardous chemical PCB led to a drawn-out fight that included four years of town hall arguments, three lawsuits and over 500 arrests for civil disobedience. Though the state went ahead with the landfill anyway, the protest served as a national catalyst and has been called “the birthplace of the environmental movement.” After decades of continued efforts by residents, the state agreed to detoxify the site, a project it finished in 2003.
1983: Robert Bullard Kicks Off Wave of Research
Dr. Robert Bullard (husband to Linda McKeever Bullard) published “Solid Waste Sites and the Houston Black Community,” examining the location of waste sites in Houston. It was the first comprehensive documentation of U.S. environmental racism. Its publication marked the beginning of a series of important environmental justice studies from academics and government agencies. Dr. Robert Bullard later became known as “the father of environmental justice” for his research and activism.
1991: First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit
Held here in D.C., this environmental justice summit brought several hundred Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders together. The attendees drafted and adopted a 17-point platform for the national and international movement.
1992: The Office of Environmental Equity
The Environmental Protection Agency established the Office of Environmental Equity, later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice.
1994: Clinton Signs Executive Order 12898
President Bill Clinton signed an executive order titled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” The order directed federal attention to racial and socioeconomic disparities in environmental quality and public health, kickstarting decades of EJ-focused efforts at the EPA.
2000: Environmental Justice Recognized as a Global Goal
The United Nations Millennium Summit established international goals for equitable development, and acknowledged environmental injustice as a worldwide issue.
2010: White House Forum on Environmental Justice
Obama Administration agency heads and other leaders met for a daylong event to discuss environmental justice goals and strategies.
2014: Flint, Michigan Switches its Water Supply
The predominantly-Black city of Flint, Michigan changed where it sourced its drinking water as a cost-saving measure. Major failures in water treatment led to severe contamination, including with dangerously high levels of lead. Relentless local activism brought the issue to light, including in the national news, which sparked renewed conversation about environmental racism across the country.
2021: Biden Signs Executive Order 14008
The Biden administration has made environmental justice a high-profile priority. His executive order, titled “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” created the Justice40 Initiative, which requires agencies to direct 40% of all benefits from certain federal investments to disadvantaged communities.
2022: EPA Announces New EJ Office
Last year, the EPA launched the Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights. The agency aims to fill the office with at least 200 full-time employees, a major increase from the previous EJ office. One major task for the new office: facilitating the allocation of billions in new funding for environmental justice established by recent Congressional legislation.