The Sierra Club, billed as the nation’s oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization with 1.3 million members, was founded in 1892. Like groups that followed, such as the Nature Conservancy in 1915 and the National Wildlife Federation in 1936, they were largely white, upper- and middle-class, and focused on the protection of wilderness areas.
Two decades later, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” alerted Americans to the impact of pesticides and toxic pollution on the environment.
Acting on Carson’s revelations, the mainstream environmental groups helped to push chemical warehouses, pesticide companies and coal-fired power plants from rural and exurban areas, and many polluters migrated to low-income urban areas where people of color live.
In the 1980s, the Government Accountability Office, the United Church of Christ and the Commission for Racial Justice each issued reports that established a direct link between race and the location of toxic-waste sites, according to a study on power plants and their proximity to minorities released in December by the NAACP.
“You walked out your door and wondered, why does everyone have asthma?” said Al Huang, who coordinates NRDC’s environmental justice wing.
Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University said that in 1980 all five of Houston’s landfills were in minority communities, as were six of the city’s eight incinerators. He said mainstream environmental groups he approached for help did not seem concerned.
The environmental justice movement started with a battle in Warren County, N.C., in 1982. The state selected a largely black township as a site for a landfill to dump more than 30,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl.
The residents lost, and minority environmentalists said they never forgot that mainstream conservation groups did not help.
In 1990, the director of the Southwest Organizing Project, Richard Moore, issued a letter signed by some 100 community and cultural leaders saying that the big green groups lacked diversity, failed to protect minorities from pollution impacts and had histories full of “racist and exclusionary practices.”
The following year, 600 leaders of mostly minority grass-roots organizations met in Washington and laid the groundwork for the environmental justice movement.
Today, minority communities — black, Latino and Native American — along with low-income white neighborhoods still bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution. They are in the shadows of petrochemical plants and coal-fired power plants, the nation’s greatest source of stationary pollution, according to the Congressional Research Service.