Center for Progressive Reform

Environmental Justice

Pollution's Peril Amplified

Pollution and the negative health effects it causes affect all of us, but not equally. People who live near pollution sources are more likely to be affected – more likely to breathe air laced with pollutants from a nearby industrial plant, more likely to drink well water contaminated by pesticide run-off from a nearby farm, more likely to be affected by toxic waste at a nearby dump site not yet cleaned up by Superfund.

Such increased environmental hazards are not just the result of where one lives, they also relate to where one works. Some farm workers and chemical plant employees, for example, are likely to have higher rates of illness, including life-threatening diseases like cancer, because they work daily in a compromised environment, breathing or otherwise taking into their bodies a variety of environmental hazards.

Not surprisingly, the people who work at such jobs and live in such areas tend to be those on the lower end of the economic scale and, therefore, disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities. The recognition of this dynamic has given rise to an “environmental justice” movement that focuses attention on exactly who is harmed by pollution, and that works for stronger pollution controls.

The Chesapeake Bay

A national treasure, the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals. The Chesapeake Bay watershed – the land that drains into the Bay – encompasses parts of six states and Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the Bay has been deteriorating since the 1930s, when water clarity, crab and oyster populations, and underwater bay grasses began to decline. Excess nutrients – phosphorus and nitrogen – and sediment runoff from agriculture, urban and suburban development, and sewage treatment plants caused the Bay’s cloudy waters, resulting in “dead zones” containing too little oxygen to support aquatic life. The Bay’s oyster and blue crab populations have suffered as a result.

In May 2009, President Obama issued an Executive Order on Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration, declaring the Bay a national treasure and signaling that EPA will play a strong role in leading Bay cleanup. The order marked a dramatic departure, offering the promise of federal leadership on the Bay cleanup.  The following year, the EPA issued a Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a sort of pollution budget for the Bay states.

Faced with a federal commitment, the states began work on complying with the TMDL requirements. One Bay-wide approach under consideration is a Water Quality Trading regime that would allow polluters to trade pollution credits.

In August 2012, CPR's Rena Steinzor, Rob Verchick, Nick Vidargas and Yee Huang issued a report exploring the environmental justice implications of a water quality trading regime in the Chesapeake, concluding that in the absence of specific safeguards, the approach could result in pollution "hot spots" that took a disproportionate toll on the region's poor and minority residents. Read the news release.

CPR Member Scholars have participated in, studied and written about the environment justice movement:


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