Needed: Environmental Justice for Minorities, by John Carlisle

“Be it required that there be a finding that a proposed federal environmental policy, program or regulation not have a disparate economic impact on minority populations and low-income populations before implementation.”

So should read one of the first Executive Orders the next president should issue upon taking office in 2001.

This Executive Order is needed as African-Americans bear a disproportionate share of supporting the nation’s environmental programs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American family pays $3,000 per year for environmental protection.1 This is a steep demand for the government to make on any family, but it is an especially unfair burden to inflict on African-American families.

Consider: The median household income of black families is $25,351 – $13,534 less than the national median of $38,885 and more than $17,000 below that of white households. Thus, black families must devote a substantially higher portion of their income to pay for environmental programs. For a white household, the $3,000 bill for environmental protection reduces income by 7.1 percent, from $42,439 to $39,439. For a black household, the environmental tab, which reduces income to $22,351, represents a more significant income cut of 12 percent.2

The need to prevent environmental programs from hurting minorities disproportionately is made more urgent by onerous new proposals championed by the environmental movement. The Kyoto Protocol is a prime example.

The Kyoto Protocol, an environmental treaty signed by the Clinton Administration, would require the United States to make drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 to combat the alleged threat of man-made global warming. If ratified by the U.S. Senate, the treaty would inflict major harm on the economy and impose great costs on low-income families. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, Kyoto would increase the price of gasoline by up to 66 cents per gallon, raise the average electric utility bill by 86 percent and hike the cost of heating fuel oil by 76 percent. Each U.S. household would have to spend an additional $1,740 per year on energy.3 That means for an average white family, enforcement of the Kyoto treaty would reduce its income by 4.5 percent. For a typical black family, the Kyoto “tax” would exact an even greater toll, cutting household income by nearly 7 percent to $23,711.

The executive branch’s lack of concern is hardly surprising. Federal agencies have never considered the economic impact of environmental laws such as the cost of the Clean Air Act, wetlands restoration or other programs that can destroy jobs for African-Americans.

That is why the next president must undertake a new environmental justice initiative that will require federal regulators to balance their one-sided preoccupation with environmental goals with the economic needs of African-Americans.

A presidential Executive Order is all the more necessary to improve President Bill Clinton’s 1994 environmental justice Executive Order. His order required federal agencies to promote environmental justice for African-Americans by ensuring that agency policies do not inflict additional environmental burdens on black communities because they allegedly have more environmental problems than other American communities.4

But President Clinton’s version of environmental justice is, in fact, environmental injustice because, in the name of protecting minorities from adverse environmental impacts, it has been economically unjust.

A case in point is the loss of hundreds of much-needed jobs in south Louisiana. Environmentalists contend that numerous petro-chemical plants located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans are responsible for unusually high cancer rates among African-American residents. Citing the Administration’s environmental justice policy, in 1996 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected a company’s application to build a uranium enrichment plant because it was supposedly too close to high-risk African-American communities.5

Never mind that a 1996 article in the Louisiana State Medical Society Journal concluded that blacks in south Louisiana appear to have fewer cases of cancer than the national average.6

Furthermore, the premise that blacks need special environmental protection is not true. For example, environmentalist claims that black communities are singled out for locating landfills was refuted by a 1995 General Accounting Office study which found that “[t]he percentage of minorities and low-income people living within one mile of non-hazardous municipal landfills was more often lower than the percentage of the rest of the country.”7 Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer called EPA’s environmental justice policy “so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies” to minority communities.8

There is, indeed, a need for environmental justice for African-Americans. But blacks do not need special protection from economic opportunity. What they do need is protection from the job-killing agenda of the environmental movement.


John K. Carlisle is the director of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 


1 Alan Carlin, “Environmental Investments: The Cost of a Clean Environment, A Summary,” Environmental Protection Agency, 1997.
2 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1998.
3 Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, “Impacts of the Kyoto Protocol on U.S. Energy Markets and the U.S. Economy,” 1999.
4 Christopher Foreman, “…And Environmental Justice For All?,” Priorities, Vol. 9, No. 4, The Brookings Institution, 1997.
5 Christopher Foreman, “Down in the Dumps, On Purpose,” The Washington Times, November 4, 1997.
6 Christopher Foreman, “The Clash of Purposes: Environmental Justice and Risk Assessment,” Inside Washington’s Risk Policy Report, The Brookings Institution, March 20, 1998, p.p. 34-37.
7 Christopher Foreman, “…And Environmental Justice For All?”
8 “Environmental, Economic, Racial Issues Get Tangled Up,” Scripps Howard News Service, June 13, 1998.

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