Who Wins, Who Loses? Understanding
Outcomes of Environmental Injustice
Melissa Toffolon-Weiss and Timmons Roberts
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, grassroots environmental justice
activists waged contentious battles against industry representatives, government officials, and other development advocates. In some, activists have
successfully stopped the siting of nuclear waste facilities or the dumping of
toxic waste. In other struggles, industry representatives have won the right
to build toxic facilities or maintain landfills. The varied outcomes of these
struggles raise the question of what factors contribute to the success or failure of local environmental justice groups.
In this chapter we examine two prominent environmental justice struggles that took place between 1990 and 2000 in Louisiana. The cases are the
Louisiana Energy Services uranium enrichment plant siting in Claiborne
Parish and the Agriculture Street landfill Superfund site in New Orleans. In
both cases, local citizens mobilized and engaged in exhaustive struggles that
went on for years.
First we will review the literature as it pertains to the success or failure of
a social movement. Then we will provide a brief overview of each case.
Finally we will explore the trajectories of these movements to find the common characteristics that contributed to a protest group's success or failure.
We realize that comparing a siting case and a contamination case is like comparing apples and oranges. However, we propose that this comparison is
useful in an effort to illuminate the differences between types of fruit (or
cases). Other researchers have found that siting cases are more easily won by
protesters than contamination cases (Gladwin 1987). We want to know why.
The struggles that we explore in this chapter involve grassroots, poor, and
people-of-color groups who are fighting against environmental injustice.
This is not surprising, since the cultural, political, and economic history of
Louisiana has created a situation in which the populations most affected
by the negative effects of development are poor people of color (see Roberts
and Toffolon-Weiss 2001). The proposed uranium plant would have had
the greatest impact on the poor rural black community closest to the facility, and the Agricultural Street Landfill's potential risk is to the low and
middle-income blacks whose homes were built directly atop it.
Why Do Some Local Protests Succeed While Others Don't?
In order to understand how power is gained by a previously powerless
group, one must look to theory developed in the study of social movements.
Much of social movement scholarship has focused on the emergence and
mobilization of protest. However, for the purposes of this study we will
focus on a less evolved body of theory that seeks to explain the outcome of
social movement struggles (Guigni 1998). In other words, we want to know
what made a difference in the successful versus the unsuccessful cases that
Logically, the first issue to examine when studying the factors that contribute to a successful protest challenge is how to define "success." Social
movement scholars have explored extensively how movement outcomes are
classified. However, for the purposes of this study we are going to employ a
simplified definition of success. A protest will be deemed successful if the
protesters achieved the land use that they desired at the onset of the protest.
Those protesters who do not achieve such land uses are not successful.
Researchers have identified several variables that affect social movement
outcome, such as organizational structure, resource levels, protest tactics,
framing of grievances, and political opportunities. Some of these variables
are under the control of actors; others describe the structural environment
in which the struggle takes place. We will briefly review these concepts.
The structure of a protest group's organization is one factor that can affect
a social movement's outcome. Tilly (1978) and McAdam (1982) emphasize
the importance of a protest group taking advantage of an existing organizational structure. Several social movement researchers (Steedly and Fioley
1979; Mirowsky and Ross 1981, Gamson 1990; Frey et al. 1992) found that
groups with unified, centralized, and bureaucratized structures were more
successful than groups with more decentralized organizational structures.
Who Wins, Who Loses?
A protest group must make many strategic decisions regarding tactics.
Many researchers have found that more successful protest organizations
use tactics that are disruptive or threaten disruption (Astin et al. 1975; Tilley
at al 1975; Mirosky and Ross 1981; Steedly and Foley 1979; McAdam
1983; Gamson 1990; Tarrow 1994). However, several studies of strikes and
labor conflicts have found that the use of violence by protesters did not help
them meet their goals (Taft and Ross 1969, Snyder and Kelly 1976). After
an extensive review of contentious political battles, Giugni (1998) concluded that there was no definitive answer to the benefit or detriment of
using disruptive tactics in a struggle.
Several studies have found that the use of a legal strategy combined with
other strategies, such as demonstrations and lobbying, by protesters (i.e.
animal rights, pay equity, Indian rights, and civil rights groups) can lead to
a successful outcome. (See McCann 1994; McCann 1998; McAdam 1982;
Morris 1984; Silverstein 1996.) McCann theorizes that the use of a legal
strategy by a movement organization can compel opponents to make concessions because of the fear of high legal fees and, ultimately, losing control of decision making concerning the issue at hand. He also argues that
legal tactics have not been successful for all groups.
A social movement organization must select specific goals. Research by
Gamson (1990) suggests that single-focus groups tend to be more successful. McAdam (1982) argues that disruptive goals that overtly challenge the
existing political and economic structures of society will evoke a strong
response and possible repression, while reform goals that seek incremental
change may be less threatening, but also, less productive. Gamson (1975),
Frey et al. (1992), and Steedly and Foley (1979) argue that groups whose
goals required the "displacement" of opponents tend to be less successful
than those with "non-displacing" goals.
Another important decision that protesters must make is how to "frame"
their grievances. The term "collective action frame" is used to describe the
collective beliefs and meanings that are developed by protesters and used to
motivate and legitimate their protest (Benford and Snow 2000). Strategic
framing of the problem or grievance, of the solution, and of "a call to arms"
can serve to attract additional protesters and bring in outside resources and
support (Benford and Snow 2000). Walsh et al. (1993) and Gordon and
Jasper (1996) found that the strategic framing of protest ideology to appeal
Who Wins, Who Loses?
Toffolon- Weiss and Roberts
to a wide audience may have significantly influenced the positive outcome
of grassroots protest against the siting of an incinerator. Similarly, Capek's
(1993) analysis of a Texas Superfund site provides evidence that the adoption of an effective environmental justice frame led to the success of grassroots mobilizing for a federal buyout and relocation.
Early social movement researchers stressed that a protest group must
have^adequate resources to mount a successful challenge (McCarthy and
Zald 1976; Jenkins and Perrow 1977; Cress and Snow 1996). While the
availability of resources is not entirely under the control of protesters, they
can develop strategy and tactics to obtain resources from outside supporters. Albrecht et al. (1996) noted that extra-local groups were instrumental
in supporting local groups that were protesting radioactive waste facilities
by providing strategic, financial, moral, and informational assistance.
Kitschelt (1985) noted the importance of resources for the success of antinuclear movements in four countries.
Structural factors, such as political opportunities, directly and indirectly
affect the actions, motivation, and aspirations of the actors on both sides
in the struggle. The growth coalition and the insurgent groups act within
these structural constraints to develop mobilization structures, frames, and
strategies to increase their capital and thus their power to affect economic
development within their community. Amenta et al. (1999) recognize this
link when they argue that the strategies of activists must fit into the current
political context in order to be successful. They theorize that the more
favorable the political environment the less difficult it will be for the challenger, and that, conversely, a more antagonistic political contest will
require more effort on the part of the challenger.
Political opportunities can be created by broad social processes that undermine and create instability in the political structure that serve to elevate a
minority group. These occurrences provide an opportunity for insurgent
groups to gain political leverage and standing and decrease their susceptibility to repression (McAdam 1982). McCarthy (1996, p. 10) identifies four
specific dimensions of political opportunities that researchers have found to
provide avenues or obstacles for insurgent groups: the level of openness or
closure of the formal political system (e.g., legal and institutional aspects),
the level of stability of the elite network that inhabits the political system, the
existence of elite allies, and the level of state repression. Amenta et al. (2002)
and other researchers have found that the political opportunity structure can
mediate the success or failure of a social movement.
There is an inherent difficulty in developing theoretical concepts for the
study of something so complex as a social movement: These theoretical concepts, while often elucidating, can confine your analysis and allow the bigger, more dynamic picture to slip out of sight. Zald (2000, p. 1) states that
"definitions, key concepts, and methodological/epistemic commitments
provide opportunities and constraints for communities of scholars." A
major criticism of classic social movement theory is that researchers tend to
look for simplistic causal connections between variables that lead to a
movement's success. Most theorists cite the importance of the interaction
between variables such as movement strategy and tactics and the larger societal context (political and cultural) (Giugni 1998). An example of this
approach is Zald's (2000) call for a refocusing of the study of social movements to center on "ideologically structured action." Zald defines this concept as behavior that is "guided and shaped by ideological concerns." He
proposes that this concept can link the frames proposed by protesters with
the larger society and expand the focus on social movements from the actual
struggle to the way the issue is treated within formal bureaucratic and political channels. This approach links ideological concerns with the action they
promote among potential allies and enemies of a movement creating or hindering political opportunities.
In this study, we did not attempt to conduct a rigid comparative analysis
and develop a theoretical model for social movement success. The cases do
not lend themselves to this task, because siting cases are fundamentally different from contamination cases. However, we do consider the commonalities and differences in the cases in the context of the scholarly literature
on movements and draw conclusions about why siting cases appear to be
easier for protesters to win than contamination cases.
Two Struggles For Environmental Justice
From 1995 through 2001, we conducted field and archival research on the
following cases and the broader context of environmental justice struggles
in Louisiana.1 We interviewed activists, industry representatives, and government officials on each case, and attended numerous meetings, protest
Toffolon- Weiss and Roberts
events, and hearings as participant observers. We have assembled more than
700 newspaper and magazine accounts of these local toxic struggles, the
industries they battle, and the environmental justice movement in general.
We have collected hundreds of social movement organizational pamphlets
and reports, company materials, and government documents.
The Ration's First Major Environmental Justice Judgment: The LES
Uranium Enrichment Facility
On the sunny hot day of June 9, 1989, US Senator J. Bennett Johnston
announced at a town picnic in northern Louisiana's Claiborne parish that the
area would be the site of a $750 million "uranium enrichment facility," which
would be entirely safe and would bring to the area 400 jobs and millions of
dollars in tax revenues. The cheerfully named "Claiborne Enrichment
Facility" would be run by a group of investors called Louisiana Energy
Services. LES was a German-led consortium that included British and Dutch
interests and utilities from North Carolina, Minnesota, and Louisiana.
A series of informal gatherings with wealthy residents and owners of local
businesses had already taken place. The town council, the industrial development group, the police jury (roughly like county commissioners), and
state and national political leaders were all on board for this project. The
group they failed to even consider were those who lived closest to the proposed site. Five miles outside of the county seat, Homer, are Forest Grove
and Center Springs—small, rural, 100-year-old African-American communities connected by a narrow road upon which the enormous factory
was designed to sit. Those residents were neither at the announcement nor
invited to the gatherings in the weeks beforehand.
These residents, along with a white real estate agent who had formerly
been a manager and a chemical engineer at an aluminum plant, formed a
group to protest the proposed land use. They viewed the promised tax revenues as too good to be true, and they felt that their poor communities were
being "sold out" for the benefit of local businesspeople and politicians. The
protesters shared a fear with most communities in the rest of the country
that nuclear energy was not safe. This tiny group, Citizens Against Nuclear
Trash—or CANT, "as in you CANT build it here"—eventually secured the
legal support of Nathalie Walker of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now
Who Wins, Who Loses?
called Earthjustice), Greenpeace, the Nuclear Information Research Service
(an established anti-nuclear group), and several other local, national, and
international groups. Their coalition, which crossed race and class lines,
survived nearly a decade of battle before the matter was finally settled.
Senator Johnston was a popular target among consumer groups in
Washington, such as the National Taxpayers Union and Ralph Nader's
group, Public Citizen. Both had criticized legislation he sponsored allowing
the nuclear industry to write off most of a $9 billion debt to the federal
government, which provided them with uranium enrichment services
(Associated Press 1989). The consumer groups believed the LES project was
little more than a "consumer scam," and that LES had no intention of selling enriched uranium on the open market. Rather, they believed that the
companies would merely raise their utility rates to charge the consumers
for the investments in LES.
Black churches played a pivotal role in the LES struggle. The activists
used the churches as powerful moral pulpits and networking tools. Virtually
every CANT meeting was held in one of the black churches. With the skills
they learned running the churches' finances, the Forest Grove and Center
Spring women ran CANT as a tight ship. A core of twelve families, each of
which pledged $100 per month for two years, kept the group alive. Sales
of box lunches raised $1,700. The group also received funding from
national anti-nuclear foundations.
The protesters took advantage of several statewide and national political opportunities. At that time, Louisiana's Environmental Protection
Agency was headed by Paul Templet, an open-minded professor who was
sensitive to environmental issues. At Temple's direction, Assistant Secretary
Vicki Arroyo wrote to Peter Loyson of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC) requesting that the commission consider the potential adverse effects
of the plant, conduct a cost-benefit analysis of environmental impacts compared to the social and economic benefits, and consider whether any alternative technologies or sites were available and whether greater protections
could be added.
Another political opportunity in this case was division within the federal
government over the issues the plant was raising. The US EPA's regional
administrator, Jane Saginaw, castigated the NRC's impact statement for not
considering environmental justice concerns (News-Star 1994). Among
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dozens of specific requests for more information, the EPA administrator
required more evaluation of the two other sites besides the proposed tract.2
The agency was under pressure from the Clinton administration to consider the president's executive order on environmental justice and many
speculated that the agency wanted to prevent private companies from competing with its uranium monopoly.
The protesters used several strategies in their fight against the corporate
giant. Members testified at congressional hearings. They mobilized dozens
of people to attend local and state hearings on the siting and cultivated contacts with national and international groups. They framed their struggle as
an environmental racism case by bringing in speakers from the NAACP's
national office and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund to discuss the siting
patterns of dangerous factories. The group's legal representation brought
claims involving racist intent and impact of the proposed siting to the NRC,
the state environmental agency, and the US EPA. The group also conducted
extensive public relations work. Many letters were written to the local
newspaper and state and federal agencies explaining the protester's views.
They even went as far as sending letters to lenders on Wall Street to warn
them of the project's shaky financial foundations (Minden Press-Herald
The battle over Louisiana Energy Services swung back and forth over the
next several years. LES faced several setbacks, but it persisted and won some
important battles having to do with permits. In 1995, the Louisiana
Department of Environmental Quality expressed concern that it might end
up with the uranium hexafluoride tailings to clean up by itself if the LES
group chose to leave the state, or if it collapsed financially. However, the
state agency issued the pollution permits late in 1995. CANT and the Sierra
Club Legal Defense Fund appealed the permits and won their reversal in
1996 when the First Circuit Court of Appeals revoked them. Also in 1996,
the NRC ruled that LES was financially unstable.
On May 2, 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a "partial" ruling on the plant which was "widely viewed as a national precedent
in the area of environmental justice" (Shinkle 1998). In the ruling, the NRC
cited evidence that "racial considerations had played a part in the site selection process." They also stated explicitly that they were addressing the case
in the spirit of President Clinton's Executive Order on Environmental Justice.
Who Wins, Who Loses?
After the appeals and the continuing battle over the partial ruling, in early
April 1998, the NRC ordered LES to examine the effects of rerouting the
road, but stopped short of forcing it to study whether the siting was discriminatory. To many people's surprise, LES finally put out a terse but angry
press release on April 22, 1998 (plant opponents immediately noted the
appropriateness of its being Earth Day.) It read "LES officials today ended
their seven-year quest for a license from the US NRC to build and operate
what would have been the nation's first privately owned centrifuge enrichment plant."
The opposition had spent about 1/15 as much money as LES had spent
(around $200,000, versus more than $30 million), and had flexed a surprising new type of political muscle by combining the resources of national
civil rights and environmental leaders, environmental lawyers, and persistent grassroots organizing.3 The environmental justice coalition in this case
had been successful, it seemed, partly by utilizing what was evolving into a
strategic delay tactic, which made the project economically unfeasible by
tying up its permits in the courts.
The Politics of Living on a Superfund Site: The Agriculture Street Landfill
The saga of the Agriculture Street Landfill began around 1910 when the
City of New Orleans opened the site for operation as the city's municipal
waste dump. The dump continued to receive solid waste for 50 years,
during which time the waste was incinerated on site and buried in the surrounding area. Nearby residents complained throughout the 1940s and the
1950s of a terrible stench wafting from the facility. Upon closure, the landfill was 17 feet deep and covered 95 acres downriver from New Orleans'
famous French Quarter.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the federal
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) first chose
Agriculture Street as the site of the Press Park neighborhood, consisting of
167 public housing units. The neighborhood expanded in 1975 when a
newly formed group called the Desire Community Housing Corporation
(DCHC) submitted plans to construct 67 single-family homes and a senior
housing facility. The DCHC completed the construction of these properties, which they named Gordon Plaza, and the Gordon Plaza Elderly
Toffolon-Weiss and Roberts
Housing Apartments, using $7 million in federal funds from HUD in 1981
Once in their new homes, residents quickly noticed that they were living
in a situation that was a far cry from the safe and secure neighborhood they
had been promised. Shoddy construction of the houses and landfill debris
in the yards foreshadowed impending problems related to living atop a
landfill. One resident found the corpse of a cow in her front yard. Another
resident found a rusted car door in her garden. Nearly all of the ground surrounding the residents' homes contained broken glass and other debris
After discovering that the land beneath and surrounding their homes contained dangerous contaminants, some of the most worried residents met
with city officials in 1985 to discuss possible relocation of their community. In their struggle for relocation, the residents of Agriculture Street went
on to enlist the support of numerous politicians, including New Orleans
Mayor Marc Morial, Congressman William Jefferson, and Senators John
Breaux and Mary Landrieu. These politicians wrote letters of support and
verbally advocated on behalf of relocation of the community. However, residents feel they merely provided lip service to the relocation efforts and have
failed to take any decisive action.
The EPA came to inspect the site in May 1986, taking 45 soil samples
back to their labs. Some samples had lead concentrations greater than 1,000
parts per million (ppm), and three samples had lead concentrations of more
than 4,000 ppm, all far above EPA "safe levels." Soil samples also contained
lead, zinc, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. There were also polynuclear
hydrocarbons, potentially dangerous oil products, in almost every sample
The EPA, however, initially determined that the site was not dangerous
enough to secure Superfund status and the federal monies to relocate the
residents and clean up the site that might come with such designation. The
neighbors and their advocates continued to fight, with the assistance of a
regional environmental justice group—the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization. The organization put pressure on the EPA to reconsider their methods
of ranking sites. Congressman William Jefferson brought his office's weight
to bear with the help of the Congressional Black Caucus. Then, in 1990,
EPA rules changed to include soil contamination in hazard ranking scores,
Who Wins, Who Loses?
changing the neighborhood's score to 50 out of 100, much greater than the
28.5 needed for Superfund designation (Cooper and Warner 1995).
The Agriculture Street residents were caught in a dilemma that has
plagued dozens of Superfund sites around the country: their neighborhood
was certified as hazardous enough to get listed, but not hazardous enough
to get them relocated. The Superfund program, meanwhile, was embroiled
in a politic battle between Democrats and the Reagan and Bush administrations. Many environmentalists feared that the Republican administrations were trying to subvert the program (Szasz 1993).
The Environmental Epidemiology section of the Louisiana State Health
Department and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (the environmental arm of the Centers for Disease Control) found
that the undeveloped area of the site posed a public health hazard, but the
residential areas and a nearby school posed "no apparent public health hazard." However, two professors at Xavier University, a historically black
Catholic university in New Orleans, contributed to the scientific debate on
Agriculture Street (Health Consultation 1997). The director of the Deep
South Center for Environmental Justice, Beverly Wright, conducted a doorto-door survey of residents in the mid 1990s and submitted the results to
EPA and the community. A white chemistry professor named Howard
Mielke did his own tests on lead and other heavy metals in the soils around
the Agriculture Street neighborhood and the Moton Elementary school.
Mielke found that the site was actually far better than most New Orleans
black neighborhoods in soil lead, but these results were largely ignored.
Faced with unsatisfying responses from government officials after a
decade of pleas, some residents believed that only lawsuits could achieve
relocation. For years the community had difficulty getting public interest
lawyers to take up their case, and the private lawyers they found had been
interested only in class-action lawsuits against the City of New Orleans, the
Orleans Parish School Board, HANO, site developers, and the other parties
involved in the construction of Press Park and Gordon Plaza. None of these
strategies paid off.5
The EPA did not believe that the Agriculture Street site was dangerous
enough to warrant relocation, and instead opted to remove two feet of contaminated soil from residents' yards, replacing it with a "geotextile" (a fine
porous plastic mesh) barrier and two feet of "clean" soil, at a cost of
Toffolon- Weiss and Roberts
approximately $20 million. With the two-foot barrier created by the EPA
cleanup plan, all trees in the neighborhood were removed and residents
were instructed on which trees they could plant. The plans also restricted
residents from making additions to their homes and from building inground swimming pools.
Despite residents' protests and opposition from the City of New Orleans,
the EPA began cleanup of the site in late 1998, starting with the undeveloped
portion of the land surrounding the site and the Gordon Plaza Elderly
Apartments. When EPA finished cleanup of those areas in March 1999, they
sought permission from the local housing authority HANO and the federal
agency HUD, which owned 124 of the Press Park public housing units. On
March 5,1999, HANO and HUD granted that permission to the EPA. The
EPA began excavation of the Press Park properties on April 29, 1999, and
completed work in September. The agency sent "last chance" letters to the
owners of the single-family houses in Gordon Plaza, and many accepted the
cleanup. In this way, the EPA successfully divided the neighborhood and conquered it piece by piece. Overall, protesters view their struggle as a failure
because they have not received what they have wanted all along: relocation.
What Was Important for Success?
In the LES siting case, protest erupted against a proposed siting that had
been planned long in advance; however, the most immediate residents, who
became the protesters, were never consulted. The protest group was well
organized, with leaders who remained focused on a single, non-displacing
goal: to prevent the siting. Seeking non-displacing goals is one of the key
differences between siting cases and contamination cases. (See also Gladwin
1987.) Courts and administrators may be more reluctant to shut down an
already existing facility and displace development and guaranteed tax revenues than to address a proposed siting. In the LES case, the protesters did
not have to move an existing industrial operation; instead, they just had to
stop or delay the construction of a facility. (For early evidence of this trend,
see Gladwin 1987.) And, in fact, governmental authorities did not have to
actually reject the proposed sitings—this happened indirectly as they were
in the process of deciding what to do. In this successful case, the company,
frustrated with the long legal delays, decided to withdraw its proposal.
Who Wins, Who Loses?
Framing its struggle as an environmental justice battle served the EJ
group well. Because this master frame was popular and came into the public spotlight with President Clinton's 1994 executive order, the protest group
was able to attract media attention and support from statewide and
national environmental and social justice groups and lawyers.
The timing of this case was very important for another reason: political
opportunity. This was a time when the federal government was struggling
to create regulations and policy for addressing environmental justice cases.
At this time, these agencies were more vulnerable to pressure from the public, media, and lobbying groups. It was the indecision and delay in developing and interpreting policy on the part of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency
that ultimately caused the company to withdraw its plans. There was also
an opening in the political opportunity structure when the EPA and other
federal agencies began to take environmental injustice complaints seriously,
which created a division between the federal government and state level
political actors—a division that the protesters exploited.
The trajectories of the failed protest struggle was very different from the
CANT battle against LES. The Agriculture Street group first sought the help
of local and federal officials at the EPA Superfund Program. Similar to the
LES siting case, the Agriculture Street protesters did frame their struggle as
an environmental justice issue and they received outside support from statewide and national organizations. But this was not enough. One important
reason why the Agriculture Street struggle failed was that it did not occur
at a time of favorable political opportunities.
The EPA had already established procedures for handling Superfund sites.
This was not an issue high on the priority list of the national media or environmental organizations. The protesters resorted to hiring private lawyers
to file lawsuits against the owners of the source of the contamination. As
stated earlier, this approach is often fraught with problems for the plaintiffs,
and in this case, the protesters received little relief from this legal avenue.
In summary, outside resources were not enough and an environmental
justice frame was not enough. In the contamination case, these were isolated
factors that were not sufficient to lead to a victory for the protesters. One of
the main factors that hindered the protesters in this struggle was a political
environment that provided few high-level allies and few political opportunities for the protesters. One may argue that contamination cases always
Toffolon- Weiss and Roberts
face a less politically open environment than siting cases because the corporate actors and industrial operations are more firmly entrenched in the community and supported by allies and policy at all levels of government.
This^analysis points to the complexities of environmental justice cases and
the significant differences between siting and contamination cases. It was
not just one or two characteristics of a protest that decided victory. Rather,
in these cases, it was a combination of pursuing a political strategy targeting federal agencies that were in the process of creating policy, "marketing" the struggle to attract outside resources and support, using the media
and outside allies to put pressure on the federal agencies, and seeking nondisplacing goals. The analysis of these two cases demonstrates that siting
cases may be more likely to have the key ingredients that would lead to success as compared to contamination cases. Although the Agriculture Street
residents had outside support and adopted an environmental justice frame,
their legal strategy, which focused first on the EPA and then on a private
toxic tort, was not enough to overcome a political environment that was
closed to their demands.
1. For more detail on these cases and some of our arguments here, see Roberts and
2. The full text of the EPA letter was printed in the Homer Guardian-Journal on
March 3,1994 under the headline "EPA Responds to Impact Statement for Planned
Uranium Enrichment Plant."
3. Earthjustice figures estimated by Nathalie Walker (interview, May 15, 1999);
CANT figures estimated by Norton Tompkins (interview, June, 1999).
4. Further testing by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1993 confirmed the
1986 tests indicating excessive levels of toxins such as lead, arsenic, chromium, and
calcium. Tests also revealed the presence of "volatile organic compounds, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, metals" and "other dangerous toxins" (Environmental
Protection Agency 1999).
5. Theresa Berry and Phillis Smith v. The City of New Orleans et al., 1994.
The Environmental Justice Movement: An
This chapter, adapted from an interview conducted by David Pellow, represents Carl Anthony's personal views and not necessarily those of the Ford
My perspective on environmental justice issues differs somewhat from those
of most people who have been active in the movement, because I'm older
and lived through the 1960s. In the early days I was deeply involved with
efforts to link community and environmental design to the civil rights movement. Our focus was on neighborhood environmental issues—the quality
of housing, schools, parks, and economic opportunity. We viewed these
issues as multidimensional, not single issues. Our efforts bore fruit in movements for community design, advocacy planning, and community development corporations. Regrettably, this early work is not well known or
understood within the environmental justice movement.
Throughout the 1960s we worked to bring together the civil rights movement and efforts in community environmental design. That was how I came
of age in this movement. As a result, my perspective differs somewhat from
the conventional wisdom. Also, because I was trained as an architect, I have
a strong bias toward balancing problem identification with solutions.
As an architect, I have been concerned over my entire career with the role
of space, place, and environment in the conduct of daily life, and with building political and economic power for the most vulnerable human populations. During the last three decades it has become clear to progressive
architecture and urban planning professionals that problems of urban disinvestment, racial polarization, sprawl, the loss of farmland, and wilderness protection are not separate issues but are parts of an interconnected
The E] Movement
community-building challenge. The long struggle for racial justice is central
to meeting this challenge.
It is vital to incorporate a wide range of voices and approaches in addressing these issues. Historically, the civil rights movement started with Brown
v. Board of Education, then shifted to the Montgomery bus boycott. The
next thing you know, there were the sit-ins, then the freedom rides, then
Black«Power and economic power, and then electoral politics, and so on. All
of these different aspects were expressions of the same impulse.
Some of the challenges facing today's environmental justice movement have
to do with a lack of historical perspective on issues beyond toxic pollution.
During the 1960s, young people of my generation had a similar blind spot.
Many of us believed that we could address the full range of civil rights issues
by having boycotts and getting rid of separate drinking fountains and securing the right to vote. It took awhile to figure out that people in the 1930s
had been working on these issues long before us.
Today's environmental justice movement suffers from a similar lack of
historical context. I believe that the popular understanding of environmental justice is based on too narrow a view of "environment" and too narrow
a view of "justice." Many environmental justice advocates define the environment as the places "where we live work and play." By that definition, a
credible argument could be made that, from an African-American perspective, the environmental justice movement began with struggles against slavery, against the Middle Passage, and against the way people were uprooted
from the land, and with attempts—all through the colonial period and all
the way up to the Civil War—to escape from slavery and set up new communities. This is the kind of broad thinking about environmental justice
that I would like to encourage. But we must go even further.
In 1982, Warren County in North Carolina was the site of what is now
considered to be the first major mobilization for environmental justice. This
was a significant milestone in the fight against pollution. Yet, in looking at
the broader definition of "environment," it becomes apparent that issues of
access to and control of resources and land are all part of the same struggle.
Native Americans tend to have an especially powerful understanding of this.
Thus a focus on toxic pollution is really a symbol of a much larger conversation that is needed. For people of color, our ancestors' struggles shed
light on a great many things that have not been part of the public discourse.
To deal with the core issues of environmental justice, we need to take into
account the whole sweep of the European expansion and the ways that
people and their environments were colonized and dominated. Native
Americans have one particular set of histories on that, while AfricanAmericans have a different set. Other people of color also have their own
histories in this area. All of these historical perspectives can enrich our current understanding of our collective relationship to the environment.
We have only just begun to explore the relationship between racism and
Paradoxically, African-Americans are not usually associated with land use
or rural land management. This is paradoxical because the majority of
African-Americans in this country, up until 1950, were basically rural people, yet now we are identified as urban people. For generations, under a
regime of forced labor, African-Americans cleared the forests, drained the
swamps, and planted and harvested tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton, for
which they received no compensation. Yet this experience of environmental injustice is not visible in standard environmental histories.
Those of us who were around in the early 1960s had little patience with
the older generation. We didn't understand the full historical context of our
efforts. Still, it was a good thing that young people of the 1960s lost
patience—because if we had not, we still would not be able to sit down at
a non-segregated counter and get a hamburger, right? At the same time,
there was a weakness in our not standing more firmly on the shoulders of
those who had gone before, incorporating their wisdom and perspectives.
Without a strong sense of continuity going back many generations, vital
experiences and insights are lost.
This is the difficulty now facing the environmental justice movement. Its
leaders, who are getting on in years, are encountering some of the same
challenges experienced by the previous generation's activists. As younger
folks come in and engage with the issues, the experience and insight of longtime activists is often discounted.
The challenge of speaking truth to power requires real skill, because it is
difficult for many people to accept the truth of what this country is and
what is going on. Paradoxically, the people whose work requires that they
tell uncomfortable truths may then find themselves shut out—because people cannot handle what they are hearing. That is the interpretation that
comes through in Green of Another Color, a report on foundation support
(or lack thereof) for the environmental justice movement. Thus the most
marginalized people often have the most difficulty raising resources—which
is, of course, because they are marginalized. The most vulnerable populations are the ones who are the farthest away from power. They suffer the
most egregious harms, and they also are not accepted into the heart of cosmopolitan life and philanthropy.
However, I see another element at play here. The ideology that is so fundamental to the environmental justice movement, about the importance of
the grassroots and the voices of people who are marginalized, has led to
missed opportunities for building bridges to those who are middle class and
more established. One of the fundamental challenges of the environmental
justice movement is to get people to accept the truth about injustice in ways
that do not also make them feel diminished. Although not easy to achieve,
there is a way to do this—and some people have consciously worked at it
in other fields.
It was no accident that the activists who became prominent in the environmental justice movement were suspicious of and hostile to middle-class people. Many middle-class African-Americans managed to get some benefit
from affirmative action in the 1960s and left behind folks who were not
able to get access. We need to honor the fact that if the folks who were left
behind had not been willing to step up and criticize some people of color—
or at least refuse to be trapped by whatever bargains they had made to "get
ahead"—we never would have found out about all of these issues.
Having said that, I do think that the class issue here has two sides to it. I
question the deeply entrenched yet limited perspective that only people who
are grassroots and only people who have never been educated and only people who are suffering have a contribution to make. Of course, many people
have achieved personal success and then willingly turned their back and
forgotten about folks who live in the inner city and rural areas. The other
side, though, is the long history of well-positioned people who have continued to stand up for poor people. Look at W. E. B DuBois, for example.
He was Harvard-educated, but he managed to give a powerful voice to
The E] Movement
these issues. Whether you are talking about Che Guevara, Fidel Castro,
Harry Belafonte—the list goes on—you can find a lot of relatively privileged people who have figured out ways to continue advocating for social
One of the worst things in progressive movements is when people working for social justice get to the point of greater visibility and increased capacity to reach out to other constituencies, yet find themselves cut off from
their former associates due to resentments about their upward mobility. To
put it more plainly: people may face accusations that they have "sold out."
At some point you need to be able to move up to have some effectiveness,
yet the last thing you want is to be cut off from your base. Lani Guinier has
a wonderful chapter about this in her book The Miner's Canary.
In short, it is vital to have both an inside game and an outside game. We
need strong social movements that are grounded in the real needs of communities, and we need people who have moved into establishment careers
and have leverage that can help to strengthen community-based efforts.
One mission of Urban Habitat, the organization I co-founded and directed,
has been to build multicultural urban environmental leadership for sustainable communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Urban Habitat was
the earliest environmental justice organization to take on the quest for metropolitan regional equity. The first aspect of this mission was to have people of color understand who they were and whose shoulders they were
standing on as they tackled environmental problems in their communities.
It was not simply about fixing up a toxic situation, or remediating a particularly egregious environmental challenge. Rather, we helped community
leaders gain a sense of continuity with their culture, stretching back over
many generations. We spent a great deal of time working with people on
such questions, helping them to explore their culture more fully as an integral part of their environmental justice organizing. A second mission of
Urban Habitat was to develop among participants a shared understanding
of the political, economic, and environmental context of the region where
our work was located. Third, we sought to strengthen the leadership skills
and capacities within a geographic context larger than individual neighborhoods or workplaces more familiar to them.
I see my current work on metropolitan regional equity and smart growth
as an extension of these early efforts within the environmental justice
movement. I do not see it as something different. Today, all over the United
States, community-based organizations, churches, and labor leaders are
joining together to fight for new patterns of metropolitan regional development. They see that the squandering of land through sprawl is connected
to the abandonment of the inner cities. The struggle is not only about toxic
waste dumps. It's also about just transportation, affordable housing near
economic opportunity, decent schools, well-maintained parks, and open
space in every neighborhood. The Ford Foundation is supporting these
efforts. When I was involved with the first People of Color Environmental
Leadership Summit, in 1991, we had some sessions on these issues and people were not yet ready to talk about it. I believe that now, many years later,
people are finding this approach more useful.
I was at the Environmental Justice Summit 2 in the fall of 2002. On the
one hand, it was extraordinary how many folks from so many walks of life
were there. As an effort at mobilization, it was outstanding. On the other
hand, some tensions and conflicts arose among activists there. There was
so much disorganization, so much chaos—yet the fact of the matter was
that all these people came. All these people who had not been part of the
original group were there, trying to figure it out and get their two cents in.
On the level of the "official" organization, the situation seemed to point to
a lot of challenges. Yet the vitality of the dialogue had positive implications
for the future.
I see a need for new leadership within the environmental justice movement. I believe that the new generation—the people who have "gotten" the
ideas but were not necessarily at all the planning meetings—have an essential role to play. What I hope will happen is that a "coming of age" will
occur, with established leaders making a transition to different roles and
responsibilities. How a new set of voices comes in, and how they are able
to take the strength of what happened and use it and build on it, can lay the
groundwork for future success.
In comparing the civil rights and environmental justice movements, I see
similar themes. The civil rights movement started in rural areas and in communities that were not at the center of national power. It was in the small
towns and in places like Montgomery and Topeka that this energy began
to develop. As it matured, it moved more and more to the cities and the city
The EJ Movement
neighborhoods. Toward the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, it began
to influence electoral politics, and people began to get elected.
I see a similar trajectory in the environmental justice movement.
Although the movement began mostly in more rural locations, now these
issues are having a much greater impact in urban areas. While continuing
to work on rural problems, the environmental justice movement has been
an important influence on smart growth policies in the cities, something
that most people do not realize. The debates currently happening about
regional equity would not have been possible if the conversation between
social justice and environmental groups had not taken place. In that sense
there has been an evolution over time.
Still another dimension is the globalizing of the civil rights struggle. At
one point, when I wanted to write a chapter about some of the cities in the
South where the sit-ins started, I called folks in Greensborough to find out
what happened to the five-and-dime store where people had gone and "sat
in." They told me that they were making it into a civil rights museum that
would also include exhibits from Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall.
It is clear that the civil rights movement had an enormous impact on
global events. I think this is true of the environmental justice movement as
well. People from all over the world have taken cues from this movement.
It is a two-way street: even as people from our communities learn more
about these dynamics of globalization and the World Trade Organization
and all that, folks from around the world are also looking to communities
of color in the United States.
Having said that, I think there are also some particularly important new
challenges that were not as visible in the civil rights movement. One of them
is multiculturalism and the relationship among different communities of
color. How we articulate that and go forward with that is a crucial question.
Are we going to have real communication among these different groups
that opens up further possibilities to achieve change? Or are we just going
to end up at each other's throats?
How far have we come with regard to the movement for environmental
justice? I do not think we have come nearly far enough, particularly when
we think about the relationship between people of color and the natural
world. When I was in South Africa and saw some of the work that the
brothers and sisters there are doing around environmental justice, I was
surprised to learn that the emphasis was almost exclusively on toxic pollution. I thought: "What about all the natural resources on the whole continent? Why are we not having a conversation about that?"
The entire continent of Africa is being exploited, primarily by foreign
corporations and European governments, yet somehow this is not viewed
as an environmental justice issue. It seems to me that we have gotten stuck
in little boxes, instead of learning and thinking about the broader issues.
Can we find a way to shift gears and tap the full potential of thinking about
all these things in a totally new way?
My feeling is that the question of the natural world is the work that the
emerging generation will take on, and I do believe that there are ways of
doing that. The question has always been this: How do you make it real for
people who are struggling under the burdens of everyday life and survival,
and at the same time occupy the larger moral space that can provide leadership for everybody? The "double consciousness" that DuBois talked
about at the turn of the twentieth century, instead of being a liability, can
be a real asset. He talked about these two aspects being at war with one
another. My feeling is that, as we begin to think of ourselves as global citizens and have some sense that we, as people of color, have to take some
responsibility for the outcome of everything, at the same time we can also
address the issues of our own neighborhoods and communities.
You do not have to ignore the everyday challenges of people who are trying to pay the rent or who lack food to eat. In fact, that is part of the same
conversation. In getting out from under this white-dominated, white-led
view, we can come to understand that we're all human and we have an
urgent responsibility to take on these larger issues. To achieve healthy and
sustainable metropolitan regions would be a huge step in that direction. That
is why, at this stage of my life, this is now the focus of my current work.
The quest for environmental justice is to meet the needs of the most vulnerable communities fairly while building a fitting home for humans in the
context of all of creation. I like to bear in mind that we are the end product of 4 billion years of life on the planet. As global citizens, we need to
think about how we are going to transform this world to make it into a
habitable place for not only our progeny but also for other living systems.
The environmental justice movement is right on the front lines of this.
New Strategies for Achieving Environmental
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