The anthropology of environmental injustice must be contextualized within the greater focus of environmental anthropology and medical ecology. Often associated as an applied discipline, environmental anthropology built upon the approaches of cultural ecology (Little 1999:261). Cultural Ecology and its associated theoretical and methodical framework were formulated in the 1950Õs by Julian Steward (Sponsel 2007). The 1960Õs to the 1980Õs saw the transformation from cultural ecology to an ecologically based anthropology through the work of anthropologists such as John Bennett, Roy A. Rappaport and Andrew Vayda (Sponsel 2007). In the 1990Õs, environmental anthropology widened as its scope to incorporate the historical, political and spiritual into its research of human ecology (Sponsel 2007).
During this time several other key events took place. Marine Biologist Rachel Carson wrote, Silent Springs, a book that exposed the negative implications on the use of DDT in 1962. Ten years later, the U. S. banned the use of DDT. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 prohibiting the use of federal funds to discriminate based on race. In 1971, the PresidentÕs Council on Environmental Quality annual report acknowledged that racial discrimination adversely affected the health of urban poor and the quality of their environment. Then in 1987, the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice issued the famous Toxic Waste and Race in the United States Report, which was the first national study to attempt to show a correlation between waste facilities locations and race.
The most visibly historic case of environmental injustice, and often credited with the creation of the environmental justice movement, is the Warren County PCB Landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. It is where the environmental movement met the civil rights movement. The population of Warren County in 1980 was 54.5% African-American with an average per capita income of around two-thirds of the rest of the State (Colquette and Robertson 1991:157). In 1979, the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, along with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 4, selected Warren County as the site to deposit PCB contaminated soil, which was declared by the EPA to be a threat to public health (Bullard 2004).
In 1982, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a lawsuit to block the landfill but lost the case (Bullard 2004). The citizens of Warren County, along with civil rights groups, environmental groups and religious groups, protested the delivery of the contaminated soil to the landfill (Bullard 2004). Over 500 people were arrested and jailed during the protest (Bullard 2004). The plans moved forward and the toxic waste was placed in the landfill (Bullard 2004). Two decades later, State and Federal sources paid to detoxify the contaminated soil at the Warren County Landfill to the tune of 18 million dollars (Bullard 2004).
Two more recent cases, which received much attention within anthropology, are those surrounding Hurricane Katrina and the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster. Both events could be labeled as some of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Wright has done research into both disasters and how issues of race impacted the unequal distribution of recovery resources and how they created structural biases for the marginalized (Wright 2011:4). Wright describes the political and socioeconomic reasons why these environmental disasters have had disproportionate environmental effects on the poor and people of color of the Gulf Coast (Wright 2011:4). What has been cleaned up, what gets left behind, and where the waste is disposed has Ōmore to do with politics and class than with toxicology, epidemiology, and hydrologyĶ (Wright 2011:4). The environmental effects of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were neither natural nor accidental (Wright 2011:8). They exemplify public policies that result in low-income and minority communities risk perceptions.