Environmental Justice: How Sustainability Is About More Than Just the Planet

A MITASC story contributed by Natalie Northrup

I’ve been watching the U.S. Democratic debates recently, and the topics of focus are healthcare, police brutality, income inequality, and poverty. The focuses for the proposed solutions are generally reactive rather than proactive, and their main forces are direct government programs and economic controls.

The debates have very little focus on climate change, a fact which seems strange in light of the ways in which the crisis affects income inequality, the need for healthcare, and poverty. But this side of the climate crisis, and this side of our interaction with the environment is largely ignored in the proposals for a sustainable future. These issues of environmental injustice are not talking points in the debates. The ways in which manufacturing and industry affect communities demonstrates the unseen effects that come from industrial production and the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) attitude of those deciding the outfall of industrialization’s consequences.

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people allowing for “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work”[1].


This summer, I’m working at Stantec, an engineering consulting company, in their environmental group. We do a lot of remediation projects, and through this project work are exposed to many cases of environmental injustice. Sites we see often are in low income areas, near a body of water that serves as a drinking water source, or where people perform a daily job. These sites often contain elevated levels of contaminants like petroleum, chlorinated compounds, volatiles and more.

Stantec designs and assists with remediation projects to make these sites safer. From Brownfield site cleanups, to transforming old industrial buildings into affordable housing units, to water purification and vapor mitigation system implementation, the work that I’ve had the opportunity to assist with makes it possible to offer equal protection from environmental hazards and access to a healthy place to live and work.

With this work at the core of the environmental business line, Stantec truly works for, and designs for environmental justice.

This side of environmental work is new to me. Most of the publicly emphasized issues with environmental irresponsibility involve natural phenomena (rising water levels, increasingly intense and frequent storms and more extreme temperatures, among many). These events are serious, and seriously bring into question whether our behaviors are sustainable; it seems like most people by now have realized that we are not acting sustainably. But the focus on events that are likely to affect us all ignores the fact that we have been practicing unsustainable behaviors for decades, and communities have been feeling the effects.

At Love Canal, Niagara Falls, NY, the Hooker Chemical Company dumped tons of chemical manufacturing byproduct on a site that was then sold by the company, becoming the site of a school for the surrounding community. Kids and residents of the neighborhood experienced high levels of leukemia and birth defects among other health-related issues.

This environmental justice issue caused significant stress to a community that did not create the condition of danger and was not equipped with the tools to remedy it. The residents at Love Canal were stuck, because no one would buy their houses and move into the chemically contaminated area, the government wouldn’t buy the houses, and the residents couldn’t afford to buy a new house without selling their current house.

Love Canal is not the only site with issues of this sort. The waste effluent from DuPont’s Teflon manufacturing and well contamination from fracking fluid and natural gas extraction techniques are only two of many other circumstances where people with little say in the way manufacturing is run are dangerously affected by the processes.


Checking with the EPA definition, the residents at Love Canal, and other hazardous sites across the globe, were NOT offered “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards,” and they were NOT offered “equal access to the decision making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn and work.” A serious case of environmental injustice.

These issues affect the health of a community, they affect the wealth of a community, and they affect the relationship between the residents of a community and the forces that have control over their fate.

Environmental sustainability is not just about engineering new solutions, building clean energy infrastructure and recycling consumer goods. Environmental sustainability is about creating systems that work for everyone, systems that foster growth and health, and systems that preserve both the natural environment and the communities that characterize this world as the beautiful thing it has the potential to be.


[1] https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice



This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.