Last month Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed an executive order promoting environmental justice across the state. The measure is a “historic act,” says Northeastern sociology professor Daniel Faber, whose research over the past decade helped jumpstart the dialogue around this issue early on at the state level.
Environmental justice refers to the principle that everyone deserves the right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in a healthy environment. Historically, minority and low-income communities have been disproportionately burdened with industrial pollution and the lack of regulatory enforcement, according to the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The executive order, which Faber assisted in drafting as part of the Massachusetts Environmental Justice Alliance, establishes an advisory council comprised of community stakeholders and requires state agencies to take action on environmental justice. These actions include developing strategies on how these communities can be protected through state regulatory authority over industrial and commercial projects.
For his part, Faber’s research has included developing a sophisticated methodology for evaluating the existence of racial inequities with respect to the environment, particularly those residents residing in communities with hazardous waste site and polluting industrial facilities. A study he co-authored titled “Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards 2005”—which updated and expanded upon a similarly titled 2001 study—presented findings that ecologically hazardous sites and facilities, ranging from power plants to incinerators to toxic waste dumps, are disproportionately located in low-income and working-class communities.
“In fact, the numbers were disturbing,” says Faber, whose study found that communities with a high minority population face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous sites and facilities that is more than 20 times greater than predominantly white communities.
Faber directs the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, which comprises scholars focused on environmentalism and who collaborate with policymakers and community and advocacy groups to provide research and guidance on environmental justice issues. His research and writings have also focused on climate justice, globalization, and environmental justice movements in the United States.
He says too often, communities are forced to deal with issues ranging from garbage and chemical waste dumping in vacant lots to air and water pollution to a lack of access to green space and parks. “For too long, residents in these communities have lived with substantially greater risk of exposure to environmental health hazards than the general citizenry,” he says.