Celebrating 20 years of Executive Order 12898: How far have we come and how do we create an impact in the next 20 years?

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President Clinton
Guest post by LaToria Whitehead, PhD, Environmental Justice Officer
National Center for Environmental Health
Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services

February 11, 2014, marked the 20-year anniversary of former President Bill Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, a charge to all federal agencies to address disparate environmental and human health conditions in minority and low-income communities, with the goal of achieving environmental justice. Organizations around the country will celebrate this historic occasion throughout the year.

By executing this charge, former President Clinton showed that all federal agencies have a responsibility and should address environmental hazards that create health disparities for minority and low-income populations. The historic environmental justice movement started in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina when a poor African-American community advocated against a toxic landfill being placed in their neighborhoods. Today environmental justice addresses disparate social conditions holistically, working to bring justice for communities that experience food deserts, climate change, inaccessible transportation and health needs, economic deprivation, dilapidated housing, and other environmental hazards that directly impact human health and human life. Examining the ideology of environmental justice, while reflecting on systematic and institutional inequities, we as an agency, the National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (NCEH/ATSDR) have been charged to promote and provide safe and healthy communities for all populations.

In the past 20 years, health disparities have decreased, communities are being cleaned up, neighborhoods have become sustainable, academic environmental justice programs and centers have been created, and environmental justice statutes around the U.S. have made a difference for many populations. President Barack Obama has reinvigorated the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice; the Department of Health and Human Services has created a strategic plan on environmental justice; the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies have created programs, policies, and activities to create healthy, safe, and sustainable communities. But despite these victories, there is still work to do.

Environmental justice is everyone’s issue. It encompasses the social, economic, and political factors that impact the nation, our neighborhoods, and our day-to-day lives. Housing discrimination, exposures to pollution, and other environmental risks are distributed unequally by race and socioeconomic class. So, as we ponder past accomplishments in environmental justice, how do we continue the successes of the last 20 years, and create an impact for the next 20 years? NCEH/ATSDR will continue to work toward the environmental justice goals of fair treatment and meaningful involvement.* As we continue to collaborate and create dialogue, initiatives, and activities within the agency with these goals in mind, we may be one step closer to achieving what we all call environmental justice.

*Fair treatment: to ensure that no group of people has to deal with an unequal share of the harmful environmental effects coming from the day-to-day waste of a modern society; meaningful involvement: to ensure that potentially affected community residents can participate in decisions about activities that will affect their environments or their health.

LaToria Whitehead, Ph.D.

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Page last reviewed: May 23, 2014
Page last updated: May 23, 2014