So what is environmental justice? Definitions vary from country to country, but in the US the Environmental Protection Agency states that environmental justice is: "the fair treatment of people of all races, income, and cultures with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies, and their meaningful involvement in the decision-making processes of the government". The environmental justice movement is relatively new and only emerged in the 1980s, partially prompted by the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, when more than 3500 people died after a toxic gas leak from a pesticide plant.

But pinning down what is an act of environmental injustice is no easy task. Sometimes it is necessary to find ways of equating environmental crimes with other more familiar types of crime. For example, Michael Lynch from the University of South Florida in the US and Paul Stretesky from Northumbria University in the UK, have coined the term "corporate environmental violence", to emphasise the damage that pollution can cause.

"The point of that term is to suggest that pollution – especially in its everyday forms – creates types of victimization, or what we now call green victimization, and that we often overlook the fact that persistent pollution (and most pollution is persistent) should be examined as long-term acts that produce violent harm," said Lynch, whose study is published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

Right now, acts of environmental injustice are occurring all over the world, ranging from contamination oozing out from hog farms in North Carolina in the US, to mining conflicts in Latin America and concern over fracking and the third runway at Heathrow in the UK. Some of these injustices are documented on the Environmental Justice Atlas, but many more go under the radar.

"Polluting the ecosystem and causing harm to human and to nonhuman species in those ecosystems has become an acceptable social practice," said Michael Long from Northumbria University. But as some of the cases on the Environmental Justice Atlas demonstrate, people are starting to recognise their environmental rights, and are fighting back via protest and demonstration.

However, proving that a particular kind of pollution is dangerous to human health does not seem to be enough to force a clean-up. Stretesky believes that this is partly because of the structure of environmental laws. "Many environmental laws contain what can be called ‘balancing clauses’," he said. "Those clauses direct law-makers to consider the trade-off between public health and profit-making when they engage in environmental law-making, and generally what wins out is profit over public health." Unfortunately it is only catastrophic disasters, like Bhopal, that seem to force issues of environmental justice to be addressed.

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