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COLUMN: 'Environmental justice' may gain traction in 2021

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 1/8/2021 3:13:00 PM

The term ‘environmental justice’ is not well-known in Canada beyond activist groups and affected communities, but it appears set to come to Canada in 2021 or 2022 and may well have an impact on a wide range of industries. A Bill proposing a national strategy to redress environmental racism was recently debated in Canada’s House of Commons. 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency provides the following definition: 

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This goal will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decisionmaking process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work. 

Environmental justice has become one of the rallying cries of a movement composed mainly of social, environmental, and legal advocacy groups concerned that environmental quality and health conditions are often much worse in black, ethnic, low-income neighbourhoods and in First Nation communities than in middle- and upper-income neighbourhoods. Although environmental injustice may prevail more commonly in the large cities of the United States and Europe, it is far from unknown in Canadian cities and to some extent also in rural and remote areas, particularly where industrial operations are or have been located. 

Two overarching factors have given rise to environmental injustice. The first is that, over the decades, housing, often intended for workers, has sprung up around many older and possibly more polluting industrial plants. As a result of the presence of pollution, sometimes quite visible, the homes in these industrial zones sell for less than similar homes in more attractive parts of the city. Hence the neighbourhoods in the pre-existing industrial zone become low-income enclaves. 

The second factor is that more modern, but not necessarily well-managed, companies seek out industrial sites that are close to transportation links and are less expensive than properties in designated industrial parks. People in smaller towns and villages as well as in residential neighbourhoods in larger cities often find themselves overwhelmed by an industrial developer planning a new industry on the edge of their community. Local politicians, eager to provide employment and acquire increased tax revenues, often become promoters of new industries which are likely to become polluting even before any kind of environmental assessment has been completed. 

In either case — an existing industry surrounded by somewhat more recent housing or an existing community overwhelmed by a new industry — environment department regulators appear less likely to shut down an operating industry (even when it violates regulatory requirements), or to refuse permits for a new industry when local politicians support the industry, than they are if the industry were polluting a higher-income neighbourhood occupied by angry citizens with more access to political and legal resources. 

One of the more highly researched cases of environmental injustice in a Canadian city exists today in Hamilton, Ontario, although the Hamilton example is by no means unique in Canada. Code Red is an ongoing 10-year series of articles by The Hamilton Spectator on health outcomes on a neighbourhood level in the City of Hamilton. Among the many key findings is that the average lifespan of people living in neighbourhoods closer to the industrial core of the city is five years less than that of people living in more suburban areas of the city. The average lifespan of people living in a social housing project close to the industrial core is 57 years, some 30 years less than that of people living in the Hamilton neighbourhood with the longest lifespan. 

The Hamilton Spectator reports that this would rank the low-income housing project as similar in terms of life expectancy to the 15 worst countries in the world. The causes of poor community health are many and varied. Few would argue that pollution from industry is the primary cause of the much shorter average lifespan of people living close to heavy industry, but the link between pollution and poverty is clearly part of a serious public health problem that has become worse over the 10 years of The Hamilton Spectator’s research. This is what the call for environmental justice is all about and why it is a call with which polluting industries need to become familiar. 

Although some of the most comprehensive published analysis in Canada comes from Hamilton, it is likely that similar situations exist in other urban and many rural industrial locations. Environmental injustice and environmental racism are also terms frequently applied to environmental and health conditions in many First Nation communities, some of which have a direct industrial connection.   

In December 2019, the State of California released its latest three-year Environmental Justice Program Update. The 64-page update provides a useful overview of the program’s activities in the areas of environmental justice and equity; safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water; enhancing notification and information access; funding and technical assistance resources; policy development; fostering and integrating community expertise in decision making; and data tools and resources. 

The section summarizing activities in 2019 provides a sense of ways in which a government environmental justice initiative can impact industry:

  • cancelling registration for chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide with limited permitted uses in Canada
  • improving mitigation practices for solid waste facilities in environmental justice communities
  • reporting on carbon neutrality: equitably distribute all benefits associated with achieving carbon neutrality; prioritize health, safety, and opportunity for the state’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged residents, and for communities disproportionately burdened by pollution; improve and protect environmental quality across the state. 

Canada’s Bill C-230, the National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism Act — a Private Member’s Bill tabled by Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) Lenore Zann, re-instated from previous session September 23, 2020 — was debated in the House of Commons on December 8, 2020. While Bill C-230 is unlikely to be passed by the House of Commons, the fact that such a Bill was introduced by a government MP is indicative of a direction that sooner or later may be taken up by the government itself.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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