Environmental justice is defined as the fair and equitable treatment of all people with respect to the development, adoption, and implementation of environmental law. Unfortunately, it was discovered that persons of color and low income were often, intentionally or unintentionally, disproportionately affected by environmental decisions or excluded from them altogether. As recognized by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an individual may not be discriminated against, denied participation, or excluded from any federally assisted programs on the grounds of “race, color, or national origin.” In 1994, Executive Order (EO) 12898 regarding “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations” was established to combat this issue. The order requires all Federal agencies to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” on minority and low-income populations that may have or will be produced by any of their programs, policies, or activities. Adverse effects are considered to be significant individual or cumulative human health or environmental effects, including interrelated social and economic effects. When these effects are predominantly borne by low-income or minority populations and are more severe in magnitude than adverse effects borne by non-minority/low-income populations, they are considered to be disproportionate.  Every federal agency is required to develop and implement a strategy to address such concerns. In addition to ensuring public participation, each strategy is to “at a minimum” promote health and environmental statutes, identify patterns of consumption, and improve research relating to areas of low-income and minority populations.  

Table 1: Comparison of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Executive Order 12898

Title VI
EO 12898
Prohibits recipients of federal funding (not limited to the environmental agencies) from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin in their programs and activities  Encourages each federal agency to achieve "environmental justice ... by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations...."
Allows persons to file administrative complaints with the federal departments and agencies that provide financial assistance alleging discrimination based on race, color, or national origin by recipients of federal funds  Establishes the Administration's policy on environmental justice; it is not enforceable in court and does not create any rights or remedies
Ensures that federal funds are not being used to subsidize discrimination based on race, color, or national origin Intended to improve the internal management of the federal government with regard to race and class of US Citizens

A low-income person has a median household income at or below the poverty guidelines as denoted by the Department of Health and Human Services. When a “readily identifiable” group of these persons lives within geographic proximity of a proposed program, policy, or activity of a Federal agency, they are considered a low-income population. A minority person is defined to be:

  1. Black: a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa
  2. Hispanic or Latino: a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race
  3. Asian American: a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian Subcontinent
  4. American Indian and Alaskan Native: a person having origins in any of the original people of North America, South America (including Central America), and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition
  5. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: people having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands

Likewise, when a readily identifiable group of these people live in geographic proximity of proposed programs, policies, or activities of a Federal agency, they are considered a minority population.