Several black and white silos (one labeled AJAX) line an industrial park that is behind a fence.
Ajax Material Corporation’s facility on Wednesday, June 6, 2023 in Flint, Michigan. (Jenifer Veloso | Public Integrity)
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You don’t need to report on the environment to investigate environmental justice.

The issue intersects with many other topics: politics, planning and zoning, budgets, business, community advocacy, road building, energy and more. 

And it cuts to the heart of equal opportunity. Does everyone in your region get to breathe clean air, drink clean water and avoid contaminants that damage health and cut lives short? 

Does every neighborhood have access to the resources that help protect from environmental harms, such as effective sewage disposal and storm drains? 

Does every community get equally strong government enforcement of environmental rules?

Whether you’re a local news reporter or are involved in your community in some other way, here’s what to keep in mind as you dig in:

Put your area in context

Communities of color and low-income residents bear the brunt of pollution in the United States, multiple studies have concluded

That’s caused both by explicit racism (including redlining and racially restrictive real estate covenants) and policies that seem neutral but result in agencies greenlighting more polluting industries in communities of color. The term “environmental justice” speaks to decades-long efforts to end this unequal exposure.

Decisions about how and where to spend tax money are also part of the story. That’s why, for instance, Black residents in a low-income Alabama county have long struggled with serious health problems from insufficient or nonexistent septic systems while getting penalties, rather than help, from the state government.

Do you know the environmental justice stories in your community, region, state? Talk to community groups, environmental advocates and other local stakeholders to learn more or to find out about situations that haven’t been investigated yet.

Seeing how the present intersects with the past can help. For instance, you can determine if the areas you’re looking at were redlined by the federal government in the 1930s. The University of Richmond, in collaboration with three other institutions, digitized the maps and documents detailing the racist explanations for the grades assigned to neighborhoods. Research shows continuing ripple effects from such federal efforts to block investment from reaching communities where people of color lived.

And find out if anyone in your area has filed a Title VI complaint — more on that in the next section.

Know what federal law requires

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans recipients of federal financial assistance — such as the grant funding that many local and state agencies receive — from discriminating “on the ground of race, color, or national origin.”

If a state, locality or other funding recipient isn’t meeting that test, a group or individual can file a complaint with the federal agency providing the money. Federal agencies consider cases of intentional discrimination as well as discriminatory impacts from policies that might have been crafted with neutral intent.

Our guide to filing an environmental justice complaint gets in the weeds about how the process works. But the short story is that complaints about, for instance, a state agency rubber-stamping permits for polluting facilities in a majority Latino neighborhood can be filed to the federal agency (or agencies) that provide funding to the rubber-stamper. 

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Often that’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has an online docket of complaints from 2014 to present. It might also be the U.S. Department of Transportation or other agencies. 

The Alabama sewage situation prompted a Title VI complaint to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice. They settled with an Alabama agency in May 2023.

But the Title VI complaint process has never lived up to its promise for dismantling policies and processes that concentrate environmental harms. 

In our investigations of EPA’s process, the first published in 2015 with a follow-up this week, we found that the majority of complaints don’t make it to the investigation stage. Even fewer end with an agreement that’s supposed to produce change. And those agreements have largely been weak. The agency has taken some steps under the Biden administration toward more meaningful use of Title VI, but it’s being met with pushback from states and at least one lawsuit.

On top of that, we suspect that most people suffering under environmental injustices don’t realize this process exists. Since 2014, EPA has received an average of less than 20 Title VI complaints a year.

But you know about the federal requirements. You can ask your state and local agencies what they’re doing to meet the spirit and letter of Title VI, and hold federal agencies accountable if they’re letting discrimination slide. Journalists can work the issue into stories about zoning decisions, permit proposals, spending plans and more.

Look for the environmental justice angles

Here are some questions that could point you toward environmental justice issues to investigate:

How does your state or city approach environmental justice?

Title VI says that recipients of federal funding can’t discriminate. Many state and local agencies in your region receive federal funding. Some play a direct role — through permits, for instance — in determining whether communities of color get exposed to more pollution or bear other environmental burdens.

What steps are they taking to keep that from happening? Are those steps working? 

Are you in an area where your local and state officials are at cross purposes on this issue?

And don’t forget about land use, such as your locality’s general plan or zoning. It takes real effort in land use to avoid getting the same problematic results again and again.

In California, a 2016 law requires local governments to integrate environmental justice principles into their planning. We explored how that’s been going so far in this piece.

How is the fight to narrow the definition of discrimination playing out in your area?

Louisiana’s attorney general sued in May as EPA was negotiating with two state agencies over resolutions to environmental justice complaints. A month later, EPA closed the complaints, giving up on those would-be agreements.

That’s an example of pushback over “disparate impacts” — systems producing discriminatory effects, no matter what the intentions of the people managing those systems might be. As this write-up by Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program notes, disparate-impact discrimination involves “actions that are neutral on their face, but disproportionately affect or burden protected populations.”

“Environmental agencies still are not comfortable or very experienced thinking about the social context and consequences of their decisions,” said Robert Weinstock, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. “Environmental agencies think of themselves as making scientific or engineering determinations to apply law and regulations to a particular facility.”

An analysis to determine if there are disparate impacts can show agencies “that their scientific and engineering decision-making processes are leading to inequitable outcomes as a consequence of trying to make decisions that ignore the social context,” Weinstock said.

When people push the federal government to address only discrimination that can be proved intentional, they’re advocating to sharply narrow an already slim path to resolving environmental justice problems.

How might that be showing up in your region? Can you see it in how local or state agencies define and address discrimination? Is your state fighting with EPA over the issue?

Have people in your area corrected or reduced environmental injustices? How did they manage it?

There’s something powerful about stories that explain how people addressed a problem. That can offer a roadmap for others and a counternarrative to the idea that you can’t fight City Hall.

Ask around. What have people done, or what are they doing now if they’re still in the midst of a fight? If they tried EPA’s complaint process and got nowhere, did they find another avenue? Are people suing? Organizing? Advocating for new laws? Running for office? 

Here’s an example of a story covering exactly this type of community action. The sustained efforts in Santa Ana, California, came after investigative reporting about lead contamination there.

Just a reminder, if you needed one, that this type of reporting provides information that can help protect health and lives.

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Jamie Smith Hopkins is an editor and senior reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. Her work includes...