Clearing the Air: Australia, environmental justice and ‘toxic’ pollution

Here is a speech I gave at a public seminar hosted by Environmental Justice Australia on 8 July 2014 on the topic of air pollution and environmental injustice.


The focus of this evening’s seminar is the recently published ‘Clearing the Air’ report into air pollution by our hosts, Environmental Justice Australia.

However, I want to start my presentation by taking you back a couple of years to the report that saw this organisation shift its attention, and ultimately its name, towards concerns of environmental justice.

In that report, the final report of the Environmental Justice Project (pdf), the Environment Defenders Office (‘EDO’) – as it then was – explained an absence within Australia of a narrative – or movement – for environmental justice and a policy gap in the promotion of environmental justice principles throughout the country.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of environmental justice it is a term with an evolving definition: it is defined differently depending on context and perspective. What links the definitions, however, are two concerns about fairness.

First, fairness in terms of where environmental harms are situated. In this respect the concept is understood as having distributional or geographic aspects.

Second, a concern about fairness in decisions about projects or policies that are perceived as having environmentally harmful effects – wherever those effects may be located. So in this respect the concept is also understood as having procedural or political aspects.

When understood at its most basic level within these two terms, I am sure you will agree that for many decades these concerns about fairness have been evident in Australia. I am confident that each of you could recall a case, a project, a decision, a pollution event that either gave rise to concerns about distributional unfairness or procedural or political unfairness.

Some readers of the EDO’s Environmental Justice Project Final Report, however, suggested that the concept of environmental justice is novel to Australia: that the EDO’s work was the first time that environmental justice had been brought into view in Australia. That is not accurate. A review of the footnotes of the EDO report makes plain that there has existed and been recorded for a period of time in Australia events and literature on environmental justice.

In fact, the experience of air pollution in Australia allows you to trace environmental justice concerns for decades. The graphic locating geography hot spots of air pollution in the Environmental Justice Australia report, (pdf, see page 16), offers you an opportunity to reflect on how long those spots have been presenting distributional, unfair health problems to those communities. They have not just appeared over the past two years.

The principal messages in my presentation today, drawn from my research and also what I learned in putting together and recently teaching the subject Toxics, Waste and Contamination Law is that environmental justice concerns have played a part in our pollution laws over the past 40 years.

It is only now are we as a community of scholars and of individuals beginning to frame our laws as being directed to achieve environmental justice. The report we are discussing tonight is part of this movement; part of the trend.

I want to offer two potential reasons for this interest in environmental justice: not simply the concepts but also the words, the discourse, the phrase, the term.

First, we are seeing demands that human health impacts be a priority when governments respond to incidents and reports of degraded environments and, associated with that, a second potential reason (and this is somewhat preliminary and speculative) is the displacement, in the view of non-government entities, of sustainability as the predominant policy goal of environmental laws.

To reach these conclusions, however, it has been necessarily for me to take what is becoming an unconventional route to understanding what environmental justice means.

The conventional route is to see environmental justice as having emerged from the environmental racism movement in the USA, exemplified by the incident in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Warren County where abandoned chemical wastes were relocated in the face of African America led opposition to a tip created in the least wealthy and least white county in North Carolina.

A less specific, less limiting and arguably more global and less instantaneous, alternative starting point for the emergence of environmental justice is in the anti-toxics movement.

Political scientist John Dryzek traces the discourse of environmental justice to this movement and social scientists Buell and Szasz also separately reached this view.

For them ‘toxic’ was and is a word of political power and an expression and encapsulation of human health concerns. Szasz writes of toxic as ‘icon’, a rallying point. Buell writes of the ‘global rhetoric’ of toxicity predating the 1970s. Dryzek notes the difficulty in disproving toxicity: hence it has symbolic and political power.

Toxic was proxy – for justice, for fairness, for protection of human health. It remains so. You are also likely seeing it appear more in our environmental language. Alkon et al in recent scholarship in the journal Local Environment argue that we should not always be looking for environmental justice as a term to understand its meaning and force, but to be mindful of proxy terms.

So if you are looking for a narrative of environmental justice in Australia a search for concerns and complaints about toxicity can be a proxy. You are all likely aware of the long standing National Toxics Network. Some of you might be aware of the book Local Heroes edited by Kathleen McPhillips which recounts incidents of toxic pollution and threats around Australia, including at the periphery of Coode Island here in inner Melbourne. These, as well as some of those locations in the pollution hot spots map, are Australia’s early stories of environmental justice. They date for decades.

What is central in the toxics terminology is the human – toxic effects on humans. So having sketched out a path for you to see environmental justice as having resonated through our experience of pollution laws, I now want to turn to emphasise the centrality of human health to those concerns. To show the parallel experience of health and toxicity in our modern environmental laws.

If you look at the origins of the Environment Protection Act 1970 (Vic), you will see a focus on human health concerns within the broader community.

Former federal MP Lindsay Tanner, in his co-authored 1978 book, The Politics of Pollution, pinpoints the proposal for the Carrum sewerage treatment plan with an effluent pipeline into Port Phillip as a trigger for the public to demand a comprehensive pollution control regulatory system in Victoria: a system that would protect the “quality of life” of the public. Tanner’s book also records the election promise of the Bolte government to create the Environment Protection Authority in May 1970 in response to community demands for government intervention to control pollution for their benefit.

While these laws have changed over the past 40 years, particularly in the post-Rio legal sphere, and while governments have repositioned the laws to achieve environmental protection and meet principles of sustainability, recent reports analyzing the conduct of the Environment Protection Authority reiterate that in the community’s view these are laws ought to protect them, their well-being and their health, and that their health has been missing from the agency’s regulatory enforcement activities.

My research has also led me to suspect that if the community ever signed up to the concept of environmental sustainability it has since signed off.

With Annette Jones I reviewed submissions to human rights dialogues, which clearly (and perhaps naturally because of the subject matter) prioritized human well-being, particularly of the most vulnerable in the community, over environmental sustainability and protection concerns. This was so even when governments invited submitters to consider explicitly a right of ‘environmental sustainability’, as the Tasmanian government had proposed. There the Tasmanian people rejected that right in preference to a right to a healthy environment.

The issue of human health as a regulatory priority of pollution laws will be explored in a forthcoming volume of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law. In the introductory essay by Uhlmann, he notes that:

“I would submit that the environmental laws themselves are human-centric … Our environmental laws focus on the need for pollution prevention to protect public health.”

He argues that in contemporary times: “We regulate hazardous waste, … when it has the substantial potential to be harmful to “human health and the environment (in that order).”

Ulhman is not alone in suspecting an internal US change in approach to greenhouse gas emission regulation (with human health as its core) is symbolic as well as pragmatic. In the same volume he notes that Tracy Bach presents research that shows the community is more likely to accept greenhouse gas regulations if climate change is understood as a human health issue. Bach, an environmental pragmatist, argues that we should attempt to secure atmospheric environmental protection through human interest.

Elsewhere in the US, the need for change climate regulatory responses are framed in environmental justice terms in order to persuade regulators to require emissions reductions from power plants rather than letting markets do that work so that communities that host energy infrastructure should see real benefits and changes in the quality of the air that they breathe. President Obama, admittedly with limited alternatives, has responded in a manner that his advisors claim responds to environmental justice and the claims of environmental justice advocates to limit emissions in vulnerable communities.

So, I want to bring you back to environmental justice in Australia. Now, perhaps as a result of the EDO’s two-year old report, we are seeing a clearer and more conscious and deliberate engagement with the concept in Australia. Chakraborty and Green have produced and analysed National Pollutant Inventory data maps with social advantage data showing a clear and strong correlation in Australia between a lack of advantage and presence of potentially harmful pollutants.

Moreover, Felicity Millner (pdf) from Environmental Justice Australia has written about the need to achieve fair access to justice in the environmental law field in Australia. This organization may take on a role as justice advocate, a role that Alkon et al identified as important in driving the environmental justice narrative, and the Clearing the Air report challenges us to confront and come up with a way to respond to an environmental injustice.