Environmental Justice

Environmental degradation frequently causes disproportionate harm to low-income people who cannot move away from polluted neighborhoods or rural areas. The Environmental Justice movement strives to give voice to people who are currently unable to defend themselves.

Low-income urban people often cannot afford water filters, air filters or organically-grown foods. They often rely on inexpensive processed foods, unfiltered tap water, and sometimes eating fish from polluted waters for subsistence. In some cases, children grow up in inner-city neighborhoods with constant exposure to local air, water, and soil pollutants.

For example, PCBs and mercury are elevated in Fox River and Green Bay fish, which are often caught and stored by freezing, canning, or smoking. Air quality in northeast Wisconsin urban areas near industrial sites is subject to higher levels of particulates and sulfur dioxide. In neighborhoods close to paper mills, residents have reported a pungent sulfur smell which caused a choking sensation. Yet there are no monitoring stations for SO2 in the area.

Disadvantaged people, especially homeless, illiterate or transient people, often lack information and are unaware of the health risks associated with harvesting local foods.

For many years, local and state governments, and business leaders have downplayed the toxic contamination of the Fox River and Green Bay. As a result, the public, especially new residents and visitors, remain ignorant of local PCB health risks. For example other than public boat launches, very few fishing access points have been posted with signs warning anglers to limit or not eat their catch. Almost no postings are done at non-boat launch points of entry for ice fishing which is where low-income people have greater access to fishing.

The state has also chronically under-printed copies of the state fish consumption advisory, which is NO LONGER included with the fishing license guidebook. This deliberate and immoral lack of warning is especially harmful to low-income people who are less likely to seek online resources for this information.

Sometimes, rural residents are the victims. We often see cases in which industrial farming exposes them to contaminated well water, toxic air, and loss of intended use of their property. Factory farms have contaminated drinking water from excessive or improper manure spreading. Residents have reported smelling high levels of ammonia and complained of noise pollution from these practices. They complain about not being able enjoy their property as they intended. Rural residents seldom have the resources necessary fight these large factory farms and the laws to do so are seldom on their side.

Other at-risk groups include ethnic minorities who consume local foods, particularly fish and waterfowl, as part of historic or cultural traditions, sometimes linked to strong religious beliefs. The inability to consume local fish is a major social loss to these ethnic communities.

Low-income and ethnic minorities often lack the political power to demand corrections of these problems; therefore, it is the duty of the governments, and the wealthy and powerful to intervene to correct this situation.

Clean Water Action Council has acted to seek environmental justice in both urban and rural settings. In 2011, Green Bay residents asked CWAC to stop the construction of a gasification incinerator that proponents claimed will not have any toxic emissions when in fact at least 18 were identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In that case, we helped convince the city to revoke the conditional use permit based on a fraudulent application. See “Providing Support to Citizens Opposing Oneida Tribe’s Gasification Incinerator with a Legal Challenge to the C.U.P.,” Summer 2012 Newsletter, page 6.

Our greatest efforts in rural areas have focused on manure spreading and storage. In Brown, Door, Kewaunee, and Oconto Counties we helped convince 16 towns to ban manure spraying. See Ban Manure Spraying. In Oconto County, we helped convince the County Board to overturn a variance for a manure pit which would have allowed it to be built 90 feet closer to a roadway and property line.

We believe that local, state and federal governments must fund comprehensive public epidemiological health studies, which include the most exposed low-income populations, particularly regular local fish consumers. Such studies have not been done. If health problems are detected, those affected should be provided medical and legal assistance to help repair the damage to their health and gain personal compensation from the polluters.


Wisconsin State Legislature - https://legis.wisconsin.gov/senate/14/olsen/media/1394/72016-tourism-in-wisconsin.pdf

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry- https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov

Center for Disease Control https://stacks.cdc.gov
Search pcb in fish

© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311