Mustafa Santiago Ali (Courtesy of Harvard Radcliffe Institute)
Mustafa Santiago Ali (Courtesy of Harvard Radcliffe Institute)

The environmental justice movement began more than four decades ago with a lost battle. After four years of town hall arguments, three lawsuits and over 500 arrests for civil disobedience, a majority Black community in Warren County, North Carolina became the site of a toxic landfill in 1982. The community did go on to acquire state and federal resources to remediate the site — but not until 2001. 

The Warren County protesters couldn’t have known, when they laid down on the road to block trucks loaded with contaminated soil, that their protest would become the catalyst for an international movement. Soon after their protest, academic and government reports began documenting, indisputably, how U.S. and state governments dumped hazardous waste in Black and low-income communities at staggeringly unequal rates. Influential advocacy groups began to form in the late 1980s and early 90s to fight against environmental injustice. 

In the last few years, the movement has picked up momentum in major policymaking spaces. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January 2021 that requires at least 40% of the benefits of certain federal programs to flow to disadvantaged communities. Two major pieces of recent federal legislation (the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act) included billions in specially earmarked environmental justice funding. 

Starting with Warren County, decades of activism have moved racial and economic disparities to the forefront of policy conversations about the environment. But to continue that momentum, and make sure agencies keep their promises, the right officials need to get elected. And that means fighting an even older fight: voting rights. 

“We have to protect the vote, and we have to utilize the vote,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, an environmental justice leader and executive vice president for the National Wildlife Federation, at a rally in support of climate legislation last year. “Our vote has to be a part of this overall set of actions and tools that we have to bring forward justice.”

In 2022, seven states passed new laws that make voting more difficult, according to a report by the Brennan Center. The previous year, 19 states passed such laws. These restrictions disproportionately target Black, Latino and Indigenous voters. In other words: the communities that face the most environmental health hazards have the fewest opportunities to elect the people who will fight to clean them up. 

Other forms of voter suppression stand in the way of environmental justice, too. Last year, Ohio conducted its midterm elections using maps that the state’s Supreme Court had deemed unconstitutionally favored Republicans. A Brennan Center analysis found that the Ohio communities facing some of the worst environmental health hazards were also communities that lost political influence because of redistricting. 

“The cracking apart of communities and haphazard connection of wildly different communities severely diminishes the ability of Ohioans experiencing environmental injustice to advocate for their needs,” the report said. 

The connection between voting power and environmental justice is clear locally, too. Last year, 28 delegates in Maryland’s legislature sponsored a bill that would add the right to “a healthful and sustainable environment” to the state constitution. Maryland would have become the fourth state to enact a so-called “green amendment” — but the bill never made it out of committee. Another bill, which would have required certain Department of Environment permit applications to include specific environmental justice data, met a similar fate in the Maryland senate. But this year, with an environmentally ambitious ally in Governor Wes Moore, re-introduced legislation may stand a better chance.

People at all levels of government — including appointed officials like judges and agency leaders — make a huge difference in whether communities like Warren County see justice done or not. The ballot box determines, in part, the path toward clean air, water and soil for everyone.

“My grandmother says, ‘you have power unless you give it away,’” said Ali, the environmental justice leader. “And one of our forms of power is our vote.”

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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