Everyone should be able to benefit from the lands and waters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed equally. However, lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color often endure greater environmental health hazards such as polluted water and air, extreme heat and loss of green space, and in many cases, were not chosen for environmental restoration due to racist policies. Environmental justice work seeks to mitigate those disparities and make it so a broader range of people are included in decisions related to environmental protection and restoration.

What is environmental justice?

In general, environmental justice refers to the belief that all people—regardless of race, ethnicity, class, disability or nationality—should equally share in both environmental benefits and burdens. Environmental justice focuses on fair treatment of all people, to ensure that one group does not disproportionately bear the negative effects of an activity or policy. Environmental justice also focuses on meaningful involvement: giving people the opportunity to participate in making decisions that will affect their communities.

How does environmental justice impact the Chesapeake Bay?

Lower-income communities and communities of color in the Chesapeake region often suffer disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards and enjoy fewer environmental benefits than wealthy or majority white communities. This may include:

  • Lead contamination in water, paint and soil

  • Air pollution

  • Water pollution

  • Health disparities

  • Food access

  • Affordable housing

  • Representation and participation in decision making

  • Diversity in leadership positions

Water and air pollution

Some of the largest pollution sources, like trash incinerators, large-scale agriculture and factories that release harmful chemicals, have been historically built in lower-income areas or communities of color. This occurs in both urban and rural settings. Cities across the Chesapeake Bay watershed host incinerators and landfills that handle trash coming from neighborhoods across the state, which results in dirtier waters and poorer air quality. In rural areas, pollution produced through agriculture contributes to poor air and water quality. In both these instances, communities with fewer resources and social capital are less able to defend themselves when the air they breathe and water they drink or swim in becomes polluted.

Lack of green space

In cities across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, particularly neighborhoods of low-income, there are far fewer trees and parks and far more concrete and asphalt. This disparity creates significant health issues. Places with fewer trees can be up to 16 degrees hotter than those with trees, leading some urban areas to reach life-threatening temperatures during the summer. Areas with less vegetation also have worse air quality, which can lead to health conditions such as asthma. Parks and green space also provide mental health benefits that those living in low-income urban areas don’t benefit from. Research has shown that access to nature—whether that’s a park or just a row of trees—can lower levels of stress and anxiety.

Representation in restoration

In the Chesapeake Bay region, organizations and government leaders pursuing environmental restoration tend to be mostly white and belong to medium to high income households, and therefore do not represent the communities where some of the highest levels of pollution occur. This becomes an environmental justice issue because the lack of representation impacts where funding for restoration projects get spent. Additionally, there is a history of restoration projects for low-income neighborhoods, such as tree plantings and park construction, being planned by people who are not from and do not represent the community. This results in wasted resources because the projects do not fit the actual needs and desires of those who live there.

An African American student uses binoculars at a park in Baltimore
Once a dumping ground of industrial waste, Masonville Cove in Baltimore, Maryland is now a thriving outdoor space due to years of investment and restoration. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

What’s being done to support environmental justice in the Chesapeake?

Restoring degraded waterways

In areas where local streams and rivers have become impaired due to years of pollution and neglect, state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofits can step in to perform environmental restoration. This could include reducing the original source of pollution, repairing a waterway’s eroded banks, connect the waterway to its natural floodplain, and planting trees and shrubs in the surrounding area. In instances where areas have been contaminated due to toxic chemicals produced by nearby industry, areas may qualify as a federal Superfund site that provides resource to clean up the area. Many of the Chesapeake’s most degraded waterways are found in urban areas near current or former factories, wastewater treatment plants and other sources of pollution, which tend to be in lower-income communities that predominately non-white. For these neighborhoods, degraded streams and rivers can impact drinking water and make the waterways too polluted for fishing and swimming.

Expanding urban tree canopy

To combat the lack of trees and green space in low-income communities and communities of color, organizations and local leaders work to plant “street trees” and open up parks in easily accessible locations. In Baltimore City, for example, nonprofits such as the Baltimore Tree Trust coordinate with neighborhoods that have been historically neglected to provide them with trees that will reduce heat and lower energy costs. In Washington D.C.’s Ward 7, parks like Marvin Gaye Park, which has been the location of various tree plantings and community events across the years, serves as a critical green space in a highly urbanized area.

Land conservation

Protecting forests, shorelines and other natural spaces from being developed almost always benefits the health of nearby streams and rivers. But in many cases, conserving land also protects the history and culture of communities of color. In 2022, 465 acres of land at Fones Cliffs that was once owned by the Rappahannock Tribe was given back to the tribe and restored to its original name of Pissacoack. The land, which is sacred to the tribe, will be open to the public but is considered permanently conserved. Just outside Washington, D.C., the Bull Run Mountain Nature Preserve is home to numerous sites of historical significance to African Americans living in the area. Across the Chesapeake region, there are various other instances of land conservation benefiting both the environmental and the history and culture of people of color.

More diversity in restoration groups

At the Chesapeake Bay Program, we are working to increase the percentage of people of color at the partnership by 25% and people of color in leadership roles by 15%. Similar organizations have also made quantifiable goals based on the diversity of their staff and are leading initiatives to encourage more people of color to study and seek careers related to environmental restoration. Nonprofits such as Minorities in Aquaculture represent movements to empower people of color to benefit from the Bay’s natural resources and join the conversation around restoration.

Thoughtful engagement

Organizations and local governments working to restore the Chesapeake Bay have become increasingly cognizant of the need to partner with communities where they are planting trees, creating parks or restoring streams and wetlands. Instead of coming into communities with a plan already in place, organizations begin by asking community members what their needs and concerns are and incorporate them into the decision making process along the way. One example of this is the restoration of Masonvile Cove in Baltimore, Maryland. Once a dumping ground for industry and nearby residents, the site now has a fully restored wetland, thriving wildlife habitat and an educational center. Since planning began in 2004, community members have been involved in the process. As restoration started, community members and school students were invited to volunteer planting grasses and are continually engaged going forward.

Using data

At the Chesapeake Bay Program, we are committed to including Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice into all areas of restoration and conservation. To better help our workgroups identify how their work can align with DEIJ, we developed the Chesapeake Environmental Justice and Equity Dashboard. This tool is built specifically for the partners of the Chesapeake Bay Program to better understand how the work they do related to wildlife, land conservation, public access and more can result in a more inclusive and equitable region. On a national scale, the EPA created the tool EJSCREEN which identifies communities who may face a higher risk of environmental harm. In the Bay, EJSCREEN could help target programs, policies and funding toward communities in need of increased environmental protection, access to health care, improved infrastructure and climate resilience.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ)

DEIJ is a set of four distinct social issues that includes environmental justice. When it comes to the Chesapeake Bay, this efforts related to DEIJ could include:

  • Increasing the diversity of those making decisions about how the Chesapeake Bay watershed is conserved and restored across its many communities.

  • Furthering equity by allocating the appropriate amount of resources necessary to reduce environmental burdens in communities of color.

  • Fostering inclusion by creating meaningful opportunities to recruit, engage and involve people who have been historically excluded, underserved or unfairly impacted by state and federal policies and programs.

  • Moving toward environmental justice by supporting projects that add value to low-income communities and communities of color and prevent them from bearing an unequal share of negative environmental impacts.