The EPA defines “Environmental Justice” as:
“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 decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.”
Despite EPA’s goal, some Hoosier communities bear a much heavier pollution burden than others and those inequalities tend to track with economic and racial inequities, and are at the heart of the concept of “environmental injustice.”
Communities of color, low-income and immigrant communities face disproportionate burdens of environmental pollution and related health risks in Indiana and nationwide. This inequity is the result of many factors: a history of residential segregation and discriminatory zoning, lower levels of political access and economic power, and market-driven land use and economic development policies that exacerbate the concentration of environmental hazards in disadvantaged communities, while distributing their benefits elsewhere. Combined with the absence of meaningful economic and political opportunities, low-income communities and communities of color encounter many barriers to health and sustainability not faced by more affluent communities.
Some of Indiana’s most environmentally burdened communities can be found in northern Lake County (“the Region”), in the cities of Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago and Gary. The Region is home to approximately 187,000 people, an enormous concentration of heavy industry, and a host of environmental problems.
The Region has around 1,000 inventoried environmental concerns, including hundreds of hazardous waste sites and hundreds of underground storage tanks. The Region’s air quality also ranks among the nation’s worst. Poor air quality has a host of documented adverse effects on children and teenagers, and aggravates the difficulties that many of the Region’s young people face in becoming productive members of society.
These environmental issues thus compound the multitude of social and economic problems faced by the residents of these majority-minority cities, each of which has a poverty rate that is dramatically higher than state and national averages.
Overall, the Region is a powerful example of a recurrent problem in environmental justice: poverty begets pollution and pollution begets poverty. Learn more about HEC’s environmental justice work in Lake County.
A degraded environment impacts health, reduces neighborhood morale, and discourages economic development. Part of the solution to improving conditions in overburdened communities is establishing a land use policy framework that addresses prevention, mitigation, participation, and revitalization.
The burden of air, water, and land pollution varies from one Indianapolis neighborhood to another. One may be burdened because of air pollution from heavy traffic while another may be burdened by contaminated brownfields. Each one would need a different solution, but some land use policies can help improve environmental justice regardless of the type of environmental burden.
Addressing Equity With Land Use Controls
Many environmental issues are about land use. Land use controls like zoning regulations and comprehensive land use plans can mitigate environmental hazards that degrade the quality of residential life. Land use plans set policies for future land use development and is used as a guide for decisions on zoning or zoning variances. Zoning is the law that permits specific types of activities in designated geographic areas.
The inclusion of enhanced measures in land use plans can greatly improve environmental equity. Ensuring effective participation of those who will be most affected by a land use decision has shown to be an effective measure. Bringing additional environmental assets like trees or green spaces into environmental justice areas is another. Buffer zones that improve environmental conditions can be used to reduce potential health risks in communities.
The poverty rate in Gary is
which is dramatically higher than Indiana's poverty rate (4.7%)
The air is so polluted in Gary that it that exposes residents to the
highest risk of cancer in the nation
Northern Lake County has
hazardous waste sites and the highest proportion of land devoted to industrial activity than any area of state.
How to Make a Difference
There are no easy answers to addressing the root causes of environmental injustice which are complex and systemic. However, any solution must involve leveling the playing field for disadvantaged and overburdened communities in environmental, zoning and land use decision-making. HEC has identified three main strategies for doing that in Lake and Marion Counties and we could use your help:
Support HEC's Legal and Technical Assistance Services in Low Income Communities
Hiring an environmental attorney or expert is extremely costly and out-of-reach for low-income people who most need expert help to address pollution burdens in their communities. This lack of affordable access leads to a power imbalance where industry interests are fully represented by lawyers and environmental consultants at all levels of government decision-making, while the interests of people who have to live with the pollution burdens resulting from those decisions are not. HEC’s Legal & Technical Assistance Program was launched to address this power imbalance by providing pro bono and low cost legal services on a sliding-scale fee based on a potential client’s ability to pay and other factors. Please donate to HEC so that we can continue to provide these critically needed services.
Take a Pledge
Your actions are connected to the water serving all Hoosiers. Take a Clear Choices Clean Water Pledge to make a difference for water quality and for water conservation. If you’re unsure of what to do, Clear Choices Clean Water makes small, attainable suggestions that can have a big impact.
Identify a community in need and dig in! Volunteer to plant trees, pick up litter, participate in a beautification project, build a playground…ask what is needed. Do something to show others that the quality of life of all Hoosiers is important to you.