Environmental Justice


What is the legal basis for Environmental Justice?

The recipients of federal aid have been required to submit assurances of compliance with, and the USDOT must ensure nondiscrimination under, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many other laws, regulations, and policies. In 1997, the Department issued its USDOT Order to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations to summarize and expand upon the requirements of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice.

The department's planning regulations (23 C.F.R. 450) require metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and states to "seek out and consider the needs of those traditionally underserved by existing transportation systems, including, but not limited to, low-income and minority households."

The USDOT Order 5610.2 (1997) clarifies and reinforces Title VI responsibilities and addresses effects on low-income populations; the FHWA Order 6640.23 (1998) supports Executive order 12898.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and FHWA 23 U.S.C. 109(h) require that any impacts on communities, including low-income communities, must be routinely identified and addressed.

This proactive approach by USDOT and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to the implementation of Title VI will reinforce compliance with other related requirements, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, 23 U.S.C. 109 (h), which addresses the social and economic impacts of statewide and metropolitan planning.

To achieve the goals of these orders, ADOT must ensure that disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority and low-income populations do not exist in programs, policies, and other activities. 

What is Environmental Justice, and how does it relate to Title VI and other regulations?

The three fundamental EJ concepts are to:

  • avoid, minimize, or mitigate disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects, including social and economic effects, on minority and low-income populations.
  • ensure the full and fair participation by all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process.
  • prevent a denial, reduction, or significant delay in the receipt of benefits by minority and low-income populations.

Title VI declares it to be the policy of the United States that discrimination on the ground of race, color, or national origin shall not occur in connection with programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, and authorizes and directs the involved federal departments and agencies to take action to carry out this policy. Title VI prohibits discrimination: whether intentional or where the unintended effect is unduly burdensome.

The USDOT Order 5610.2(a) clarifies and reinforces Title VI responsibilities as well as addresses effects on low-income populations. The goal of the USDOT Order 5610.2(a) is to prevent disproportionately high and adverse effects to minority and low income populations through Title VI analysis and Environmental Justice analyses conducted as part of Federal transportation planning and NEPA provisions. It also describes the specific measures to be taken to address instances of disproportionately high and adverse effects and sets forth relevant definitions to ensure that programs, policies, and other activities do not have a disproportionately high and adverse effect on minority or low-income populations.

What types of activities require Environmental Justice considerations?

Environmental Justice applies to all programs, policies, and activities, including, but not limited to: contracting, system planning, project development, implementation, operation, monitoring, and maintenance. In project development, Environmental Justice should be considered in all decisions whether they are processed with an Environmental Impact Statements (EIS's), Environmental Assessments (EA's), Categorical Exclusions (CE's), or Records of Decision (ROD's). 

Potential impacts to the human environment should drive the processing option decision as much as potential impacts to the natural environment. Impacts to both the natural and human environment are to be given comparable consideration throughout transportation decision making. Minority and low-income populations should be identified as early as possible and their concerns should be examined and addressed, preferably in planning.

Because the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI extend to all programs and activities of state DOTs and their respective sub-recipients and contractors, the concepts of Environmental Justice apply to all state projects, including those which do not involve Federal-aid funds, whether Advance Construction, Design Build, or not.

Communities are constantly changing, so evaluation of human impacts must be given continuous attention throughout planning, project development, implementation, operation, and maintenance. Mitigation of any sort can cause negative as well as positive impacts. Be aware of who is being impacted and how.

How is Environmental Justice addressed in Planning and Project Development?

In the Planning process:

At the start of the planning process, planners must determine whether Environmental Justice issues exist and use data and other information to: (1) determine benefits to and potential negative impacts on minority populations and low-income populations from proposed investments or actions; (2) quantify expected effects (total, positive and negative) and disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority populations and low-income populations; and (3) determine the appropriate course of action, whether avoidance, minimization, or mitigation. If issues are not addressed at the planning stage, they may arise during project development, or later when they could be more difficult to mitigate and delay project decisions.

Environmental Justice is an important part of the planning process and must be considered in all phases of planning. This includes all public-involvement plans and activities, the development of Regional Transportation Plans (RTP's), Transportation Improvement Programs (TIP's), Statewide Transportation Improvement Programs (STIP's), and work programs (such as the Unified Planning Work Programs). A truly integrated and effective planning process actively considers and promotes Environmental Justice within projects and groups of projects, across the total plan, and in policy decisions.

In the NEPA process:

Environmental Justice should be considered and addressed in all NEPA decision making and in Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), Environmental Assessment (EA), Categorical Exclusion (CE), or Record of Decision (ROD) documentation.

NEPA establishes a national environmental policy and provides a framework for environmental planning by federal agencies who conduct environmental reviews to consider the potential impacts on the environment. The lead federal agency, the FHWA in the case of highway construction, works cooperatively with other federal and state agencies during the review process emphasizes the importance of expedited transportation project delivery while being good stewards of the environment.

The Executive Order and the accompanying Presidential Memorandum call for specific actions to be directed in NEPA-related activities. They include:

  • analyzing environmental effects, including human health, economic, and social effects on minority populations and low-income populations when such analysis is required by NEPA;
  • ensuring that mitigation measures outlined or analyzed in EA, EIS, and ROD documents, whenever feasible, address disproportionately high and adverse environmental effects or proposed actions on minority and low-income populations;
  • providing opportunities for community input in the FHWA NEPA process, including:
  • identifying potential effects and mitigation measures in consultation with affected communities; and
  • improving accessibility to public meetings, official documents, and notices to affected communities.
  • ensuring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ascertained, as per Section 309 of the Clean Air Act, that other agencies have fully analyzed environmental effects on minority communities and low-income communities, including human health, social, and economic effects.

What types of impacts are considered under an Environmental Justice analysis?

All reasonably foreseeable adverse social, economic, and environmental effects on minority populations and low-income populations must be identified and addressed. As defined in the Appendix of the USDOT Order 5610.2(a), adverse effects include, but are not limited to:

  • Bodily impairment, infirmity, illness, or death;
  • Air, noise, and water pollution and soil contamination;
  • Destruction or disruption of man-made or natural resources;
  • Destruction or diminution of aesthetic values;
  • Destruction or disruption of community cohesion or a community's economic vitality;
  • Destruction or disruption of the availability of public and private facilities and services;
  • Vibration;
  • Adverse employment effects;
  • Displacement of persons, businesses, farms, or nonprofit organizations;
  • Increased traffic congestion, isolation, exclusion, or separation of minority or low-income individuals within a given community or from the broader community; and,
  • The denial of, reduction in or significant delay in the receipt of, benefits of DOT programs, policies, or activities.

How are Minority and Low-Income Populations identified?

The two terms "minority" and "low-income" should not presumptively be combined. There are minority populations of all income levels; and low-income populations may be minority, non-minority, or a mix in a given area. As the definition of minority indicates, even minority populations can be of several categories. When such distinctions exist, appropriate assessment, discussion, and consideration should be provided using appropriate and accurate descriptors. Within documentation, an Environmental Justice discussion may appear either with discussion of other demographic information (other protected-group and general area information), assessment, and consideration, or as a separate discussion. As in any public document, specific information about any one individual or any very small group should not appear in the document to protect privacy; however, backup data should appear in the files. Descriptions in such documents should be statistical, group, or location-based.


The USDOT Order 5610.2 on Environmental Justice defines the five minority groups addressed by the Executive Order:

Black (a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa) 

Hispanic or Latino (a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race) 

Asian American (a person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent) 

American Indian and Alaskan Native (a person having origins in any of the original people of North  America, South America, including Central America, and who maintains cultural identification through tribal affiliation or community recognition) 

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (people having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands)


The FHWA Order 6640.23 defines low-income as "a household income at or below the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) poverty guidelines."

The HHS poverty guidelines are used as eligibility criteria for the Community Services Block Grant Program and a number of other Federal programs. However, a State or locality may adopt a higher threshold for low-income households as long as the higher threshold is not selectively put into practice and includes all persons at or below the HHS poverty guidelines.

In compliance with the USDOT and FHWA definitions of low-income populations, ADOT considers census block groups with a median household income below the HHS poverty guideline for a family of four, as low-income populations. Census block groups with a median household income only slightly above the guideline may also be considered, as appropriate on a case by case basis.


Disproportionately high and adverse effects, not size, are the bases for Environmental Justice. A very small minority or low-income population in the project, study, or planning area does not eliminate the possibility of a disproportionately high and adverse effect on these populations. What is needed is to show the comparative effects on these populations in relation to either non-minority or higher income populations, as appropriate.

Some people wrongly suggest that if minority or low-income populations are small ("statistically insignificant"), this means there is no Environmental Justice consideration. While the minority or low- income population in an area may be small, this does not eliminate the possibility of a disproportionately high and adverse effect of a proposed action. Environmental Justice determinations are made based on effects, not population size. It is important to consider the comparative impact of an action among different population groups.

The Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice and the USDOT Order 5610.2(a) on Environmental Justice refer exclusively to “populations,” while the White House distribution memo refers to both “communities” and “populations.” The USDOT Order defines a “population” as:

  • any readily identifiable group of minority or low-income persons who live in geographic proximity; or
  • geographically dispersed persons, such as migrant workers or American Indians.

Therefore, depending on the context and circumstances, a proposed action could cause a disproportionately high and adverse effect on a population even in cases that lack clearly delineated neighborhoods or communities.

Neighborhood and community boundaries and impacts, however, should be considered in planning, programming, and project development activities, whether or not there are minority or low-income populations involved. Most importantly, the public should always be involved in defining neighborhood and community through the public-involvement process, since the identification or definition of neighborhood and community boundaries can be subjective.

Data Sources:

U.S. Census data has specific definitions of minority groups and can be useful for determining minority populations. Census data is available at the census tract, census block, and block group level. The types of data sets and resources available from the U.S. Census Bureau are summarized on their website at http://www.census.gov.

Other data can supplement U.S. Census data, if it has a sound basis and gives an accurate assessment of income levels. In some instances, population characteristics can be derived from information available from MPOs, councils of government, and city or county agencies. Other local sources of information include State and local tax and financing agencies, economic and job development agencies, social service agencies, local health organizations, school districts, local public agencies, and community action agencies. Whatever is used for income, the source and basis of the information and what it represents should be identified. It is recommended that each situation be evaluated in context.

However, state and local data sets may prove more useful for developing up-to-date profiles of minority populations. Analysts should be resourceful in seeking out supplemental sources of information. Some of this information, however, may vary widely in quality, level of specificity, and format. Therefore, it is important when collecting information that analysts recognize when data was collected, the data sources used, and data reliability. The FHWA's 1996 publication, Community Impact Assessment: A Quick Reference for Transportation, identifies potential sources of information that can be used to develop community profiles. The guide is available by calling FHWA Headquarters at (202) 366-0106.

No matter the source, analysts should use the most up-to-date data available, understand the basic assumptions used in each compilation, and recognize the purposes for which data were originally collected.

Should other vulnerable populations (e.g. elderly, children, persons with disabilities) be considered when addressing EJ?

Yes. Within the framework provided by Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, the USDOT Order 5610.2(a) addresses only minority populations and low-income populations, and does not provide for separate consideration of elderly, children, disabled, and other populations. However, concentrations of the elderly, children, disabled, and other populations protected by Title VI and related nondiscrimination statutes in a specific area or any low-income group should be discussed.

For community impact assessment, concentrations of the elderly, children, the disabled, or similar population groups (i.e., female head of household) could also experience adverse impacts as the result of an action. All impacts on sectors of the community, including minority and low-income populations as well as impacts on the community as a whole, should be routinely investigated, analyzed, mitigated, and considered during decision making, similar to investigations of impacts on minority populations and low- income populations. 

All NEPA processing documentation should:

  • address all impacts to the human and natural environments; and
  • describe any mitigating protections or benefits that would be provided by Federal or State law, or as part of the action.For example: 
    • the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as amended (42 U.S.C. 6101, et seq.), prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in programs receiving federal financial assistance,
    • While persons with disabilities are protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. 794 and 49 C.F.R. Part 27.7).

What tools or activities can assist in Environmental Justice?

Community Impact Assessments:

The USDOT Order 5610.2(a) on Environmental Justice asks whether a proposed action or plan causes disproportionately high and adverse effects on minority populations and low-income populations, and whether these populations are denied benefits. A framework of analysis that can determine how a proposed action or plan could differentially impact different populations is required. Community impact assessment can provide this framework.

Community impact assessment is an integral part of planning and project development. Community impact assessment is a process to evaluate the effects of a transportation action on a community and its quality of life. Its information should be used to mold the plan and its projects, and provide documentation of the current and anticipated social and economic environment of a geographic area with and without the proposed action. The assessment process consists of the following steps: 

  • define the project, study, and planning area; 
  • develop a community profile; 
  • analyze impacts;
  • identify solutions; 
  • use public involvement; and 
  • document findings. 

Public Involvement:

Public involvement is an integral part of transportation planning and project development decision making. The USDOT Order 5610.2(a) on Environmental Justice directs state DOTs to provide minority populations and low-income populations greater access to information on, and opportunities for public participation in matters that may impact human health and the environment. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) also emphasizes the meaningful involvement by all the public in transportation decision making.

Effective public involvement in the planning process and the project-development process can alert state and local agencies about Environmental Justice concerns so that they do not result in surprises during the project-development stage. Continuous interaction between community members and transportation professionals is critical to successfully identify and resolve potential Environmental Justice concerns.

State, regional, local, and tribal agencies should all have public-involvement procedures established that provide for consideration of Environmental Justice. These procedures should provide an inclusive, representative, and equal opportunity for two-way communication resulting in appropriate action that reflects this public involvement. Environmental Justice should be considered in all aspects of planning and project decision making, including the design of both the public-involvement plan and the proposed facility.

Contact Us 

Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns related to ADOT’s Environmental Justice policies or practices. 

ADOT Civil Rights Office
206 S. 17th Ave., MD 155A
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Phone: 602.712.8946 

Danielle Valentine
Civil Rights Compliance Manager

Jesse Zaragoza
Civil Rights Program Manager
Title VI and Environmental Justice

Josie Olmos
Civil Rights Specialist