Environmental decisions can have major social consequences. If an environmentally fragile area is the last site in town that might accommodate some low- and moderate-income housing, there is a serious question of values to be addressed. As noted in Chapter 15, one person's environmental protection may be another person's unemployment. Again, what looks like a physical question rapidly reveals a social side.
The Question of Environmental Justice
In recent years there has been considerable interest among planners in environmental justice and the related issue, environmental racism. The central question is whether the poor and minorities bear a disproportionate share of the burden of environmental problems and, if so, why. Numerous studies have been done on the subject, and books and articles have been written about it. Some planning schools offer courses in environmental justice. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has become involved in environmental justice both in administration and in funding research. The department's statement on the subject begins as follows:
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. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or a socioeconomic group, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.15
Determining the facts of the matter may be difficult. Assume that a municipal landfill or incinerator is surrounded by low-cost housing occupied largely by minority-group members. Is that the result of intentional discrimination in choosing the site of the facility? Did it occur because, in the politics of making the location decision, the residents of the area had less political clout and, in effect, lost the game of "hot potato"? Or is the explanation more innocent—that the facility, its location chosen in a fair and reasonable way, reduced property values, and so over the years the area filled with residents whose low incomes limited their choice in the housing market? Answering those questions may require considerable digging into the history of the site and its surroundings.