The Biggest Environmental Justice Wins of 2016

By Yessenia Funes Dec 23, 2016

In what has been a political rollercoaster of a year, environmental and climate justice advocates must now brace for a sobering reality—the presidency of a man who says climate change is a hoax. "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive," tweeted President-elect Donald Trump in November 2012. Four years later, he has selected Ryan Zinke, Rex Tillerson and Rick Perry to cabinet positions, men with a proven track record against climate change.

In light of what could be the consequences of these appointments, Colorlines has compiled some of the environmental justice movement’s wins this year—many organized and led by communities of color—as a reminder that there still are sucesses that impact laws on all levels of government. 


February 5

  • The state of Michigan fired Liane Shekter Smith, former chief of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance unit, for her involvement in the Flint water crisis. This followed her suspension a couple of weeks earlier. Under her watch, the state department didn’t implement corrosion controls when it changed the city’s water source, which directly led to the breakdown of the pipes and, ultimately, lead in the drinking water.

April 22

  • On Earth Day, 175 nations came together to sign the Paris climate accord during the Signing Ceremony in New York City. While the agreement is nonbinding and has been criticized by environmentalists for its lack of climate justice focus (especially in regards to nations in the Global South that will face the brunt of climate change impacts), it is the first time so many countries have come together to seriously address climate change. 

May 9

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled May 9 that a permit for the largest proposed coal export terminal in North America would infringe on the treaty-protected fishing rights of the Lummi Tribe in Washington state, protecting their land and waters. The battle involved many Washington-state tribes coming together, including the Suquamish, Swinomish and Tulalip, after Pacific International Terminals announced in 2011 that coal would be transported through the terminal. 

June 7

  • Californians beat the oil and gas industry in a local fracking ban. Butte County, in the heart of northern California, approved Measure E with nearly 72 percent of the vote. The measure prohibits the use of land for the process or for its byproducts disposal. It also requires that all existing fracking sites disclose all information, such as which chemicals were used used, to the public. Butte became the fourth California county to ban the process.


  • Newark, New Jersey, passed a “first-in-the-nation” environmental justice ordinance on July 7. The Environmental Justice and Cumulative Impacts Ordinance analyzes development more stringently to avoid adding pollution to the city, where one in every four children currently has asthma. The ordinance explicitly discusses environmental justice and how race factors into it. Through it, the city seeks to: "Protect the health of all residents, regardless of race, culture or income, from exposure to pollution linked to adverse health effects, including the cumulative impacts that may be worsened as an unintended by-product of new development or redevelopment, and to ensure the enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies in a manner consistent with the principles of Environmental Justice." 

  • On July 19, the Oakland City Council held its second and final vote to ban a coal export terminal. The win was the result of movements that have historically been at odds with each other—environmentalist, labor groups, fair housing and economic justice—banning together under the coalition No Coal in Oakland, as CityLab reported.

August 2

  • Another California county banned fracking. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously against the practice, making this the first ordinance in the Bay Area. While no fracking was occuring in Alameda County, the ban will keep it at bay.

September 24

  • Gov. Jerry Brown passed several bills and legislation this year to protect the state’s low-income communities of color, but on September 24, he signed one that will bring the movement into state politics. AB 2616 requires that one of the California Coastal Commission members reside and work directly with the communities impacted by pollution and other environmental health hazards. The commission is responsible for regulating coastal power plants and offshore oil and gas development. It was the state’s fifth environmental justice-oriented legislation this year.

October 12

  • The international environmental organization Greenpeace endorsed the Movement for Black Lives’ platform. This was signficant because traditional environmental organizations have historically avoided mentioning race—one of the biggest criticisms from more grassroots environmental groups such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Houstonians Against Tar Sands. "For most of our history, the environmental movement has left communities of color behind and failed to lift up the voices of those most impacted by environmental injustice," the endorsement reads. "We cannot allow that anymore."


  • Measure Z, a fracking ban voted on by residents of Monterey County in California,  passed with more than 55 percent of the vote on November 8. It not only bans future fracking, but implements a plan to phase out existing land use for the purpose of extractive drilling.
  • On November 16, the Interior Department cancelled 15 energy leases in Montana on nearly 23,000 acres of land considered sacred to Montana’s Blackfeet Nation and the Blackfoot tribes of Canada. This came after 30 years of tribes pushing against the government and energy companies to cancel the leases. Ultimately, developer Devon Energy decided to comply with the tribal requests and backed out of the leases on its own. 
  • A week after the Blackfeet secured their win, on November 25, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York became the first tribe to take down a federal dam. The Hogansburg Dam dam obstructed the passage of salmon and sturgeon, and now, the St. Regis River will run free—as will its fish. The dam removal is a part of the Mohawks’ cultural restoration program that will bring the St. Regis and St. Lawrence rivers back together, restoring fishing groups for the Native New Yorkers. 

December 4

  • In what is, arguably, the biggest victory of 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers rejected the final permit needed to complete the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline. While we know the incoming administration will have the legal means to try and reverse the decision, the Corps’ decision shows the power of the global #NoDAPL movement in getting the Obama administration to reverse its stance on the $3.78 billion oil project.