Even as the Biden administration commits to environmental justice, people in the Fifth District of Louisiana’s St. James Parish are mobilizing to stop a Formosa plastics plant accused of environmental racism in the majority-Black community.

The controversy offers a textbook case for those looking to understand environmental justice and environmental racism.

The environmental justice movement began in the 1980s in majority-Black communities in the South exposed to toxic industrial waste. Often, government negligence failed to keep communities safe. In other cases, the government itself caused the pollution.

The movement began after the state of North Carolina disposed of PCBs — harmful pollutants that can cause cancer and other health problems — in Warren County, a low-income majority Black county, despite protests and lawsuits from residents there. They chose Warren County even though the site did not meet the EPA’s safety criteria.

Following this, both the U.S. General Accountability Office and the United Church of Christ conducted studies and found that people of color were more likely to live near hazardous facilities than white people.

That’s what environmental racism refers to: when people of color are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards than white people — and less likely to enjoy environmental benefits like outdoor recreation.

Environmental racism is a form of systemic racism. It is not about people expressing hatred for one another. It’s about society being set up in ways that, regardless of the reason, disproportionately benefit white people and harm people of color.

Science often places a crucial and contested role in environmental justice issues. As is the case with the Formosa plant in Louisiana, both sides claim that science is on their side.

The company, which stands to profit from the new plant, claims there is no scientific proof that the plant will cause cancer. Note that they did not claim there is scientific proof the plant will not cause cancer. (Do you know how to find no scientific proof something causes cancer? Don’t study it.)

Meanwhile, university scientists say the chemicals the plant will emit do cause cancer. Who to believe? A corporation with a profit incentive or an academic scientist whose career benefits only by producing good science?

Often, power and money matter more than truth. In the Flint water crisis, residents began raising the alarm immediately when the water coming out of their taps gave them rashes and made their hair fall out. Even after residents recruited scientists who conducted positive tests for lead, the government continued to claim that the water was safe.

It took 18 months, a mountain of scientific evidence, and a $4 million donation from the Mott Foundation before the government conceded and re-routed the water supply. However, the Flint GM plant had the power to negotiate with the government to fix its water a year sooner. Cars received better protection than children.

One way polluters use science to tip the scales against victims of environmental injustice is to place the burden of proof on the people who are being harmed. Do you assume the Formosa plant is safe until there is airtight proof that it causes cancer after it has already done so and people have died? Or do you require Formosa to prove beyond a doubt that its plant will not cause cancer before you allow it to operate?

Environmental justice cases often involve some people benefiting while others are harmed. When some gain while others pay the price, who gets to decide?

Ending environmental injustice requires allowing all stakeholders meaningful participation in decision-making. That means that those with more money and power don’t get disproportionate influence over the decisions.

Environmental justice is about democracy, pure and simple.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.