In 1994, I had the distinct honor of being invited to the Oval Office for President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order (EO) 12898 on environmental justice (EJ). As one of the persons who played a pioneering role in the birth of EJ, I want to highlight some of EO 12898’s impacts after twenty years. The EJ executive order was a product of community activism, which formed the core of the EJ movement. An abiding truth of EJ is that this community activism played a leading role in inspiring and catalyzing many truly visionary developments. This is an underlying thread for all the impacts highlighted.
First, EO 12898 helped to amplify the community action that inspired the EJ executive order’s development and issuance. The EJ movement’s inherent vision is building healthy, equitable and sustainable communities for all people. Communities of color, low-income neighborhoods and tribes led participatory democratic action that significantly influenced environmental decision-making. The list of examples is endless — from relocating fuel tank farms in East Austin, Texas, revitalizing overburdened neighborhoods in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to building “green zones” in California and Kansas. New models emerged, from local zoning ordinances to use of geographic information systems. Activists, practitioners and scholars of all ages and backgrounds have joined the quest. Among them was a young community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago’s polluted southside named Barack Obama.
Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice. He was the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. He helped to spearhead the emergence of a national environmental justice movement and federal action including Executive Order 12898, EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice.