What is deemed the environmental justice movement grew from hundreds of local struggles, events, and social movements. The earliest environmental injustice to occur in California was the loss of Native American lands during Spanish colonization in the 18th century. Environmental injustice in California can also be traced to the farm workers' fight for the implementation of workplace protections, including protection from toxic pesticides, organized by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s.
Initial recognition of environmental injustice in the United States and the beginning of the environmental justice movement was sparked in the early 1980s in the rural, low-income, and primarily African-American town of Afton in Warren County, North Carolina. Warren County became the focus of national attention after residents set upon 6 weeks of nonviolent protest and marches against the siting of a hazardous waste landfill and the disposal of 6,000 truckloads of soil laced with toxic chemicals at the landfill. The community lost the battle against the state, but their fight is considered the first major milestone in the national environmental justice movement by environmental justice advocates.
The environmental justice movement brought to light the concept of "environmental racism" in which low-income and racial minority communities tend to be located closer in proximity to environmentally hazardous or degraded environments than the general population. Several studies in the 1980s revealed race as a factor in the siting of hazardous waste facilities and toxics-producing facilities in primarily poor, African-American and Latino communities. Growth of the environmental justice movement became apparent in 1991 when two foundational documents of the environmental justice movement, the "Principles of Environmental Justice" and the "Call to Action," were produced at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. The summit, which met in Washington, D.C., brought together environmental justice leaders from the U.S. and other nations for the first time and demonstrated that environmental justice issues were being recognized by the U.S.
In California a major milestone for the environmental justice movement occurred in 1988 in Kettleman City, a predominately Latino, low-income farmworker community. The city, already host to one of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfills, became the proposed site for a toxic waste incinerator. However, after three years of protest the project proponent withdrew its proposal.
To begin addressing environmental justice issues, the U.S. EPA established the Environmental Equity Workgroup in 1990, which produced the report Reducing Risk in All Communities that provided recommendations for addressing inequities that racial minority and low-income populations face in bearing a higher environmental risk burden than the general population. One recommendation included creating the Office of Environmental Equity (now the Office of Environmental Justice), which was established in 1992. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, directing federal agencies to develop environmental justice strategies that address human health and environmental impacts in minority and low-income communities. President Clinton identified Title VI of the Civil Rights Act as one of several federal laws that can help prevent minority and low-income communities from being disproportionately burdened by pollution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, proposed by John F. Kennedy, was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson to outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and is foundational federal legislation that can help address environmental justice issues.
In 1999 California became the first state in the nation to put environmental justice considerations into law when Governor Gray Davis signed SB 115 (Solis, Chapter 690, Statutes of 1999). The bill provided the procedural framework for environmental justice in California and directed CalEPA to conduct its programs, policies, and activities with consideration to environmental justice. SB 89 (Escutia, Chapter 728, Statutes of 2000) was enacted shortly after, calling for a strategic path to advance environmental justice and requiring CalEPA to establish the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to assist in developing a strategy for identifying and addressing gaps in existing programs, policies, or activities that may hinder the achievement of environmental justice in the state.
California has continued to address environmental justice issues through legislation requiring state agencies to consider environmental justice in their policies, programs, and activities. This includes the passage of SB 1542 (Escutia, Chapter 1003, Statutes of 2002), requiring the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CalRecycle’s predecessor) to assist jurisdictions and businesses with environmental justice considerations in the siting of solid waste facilities. This also includes AB 2312 (Chu, Chapter 994, Statutes of 2002), establishing CalEPA’s Environmental Justice Small Grant Program, and SB 535 (de León, Chapter 830, Statutes of 2012), requiring revenue generated from California’s carbon cap-and-trade program to benefit California’s disadvantaged communities. In 2015 CalRecycle developed its Environmental Justice Principles and Environmental Justice Strategic Plan, which guide the department in incorporating environmental justice considerations into programs, policies, and activities to ensure fair treatment and access for all people and communities.