Looking Back and Moving Forward on Environmental Justice: Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society Hosts National Conference

By Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal


For decades, grassroots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. The environmental justice movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low income communities and communities of color are beset by more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to nutritious food.

Twenty years ago, government began to respond. In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which made Environmental Justice a national priority and gave activists hope that politically underrepresented communities overburdened by environmental harms would soon have a voice and vehicle for bringing about justice. State governments began responding, too. In 1994, only four states addressed environmental justice by law or executive order. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy, demonstrating recognition of environmental justice as a critical issue deserving government attention. For more details see EJ Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014, a report by the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society (HELS) will be hosting the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference on March 28–29, 2014, with the theme “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?” The conference will focus on three themes: progress on the goals of environmental justice, the social justice aspects of today’s national, and international environmental movements, and strategies to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in future environmental work.


The two-day conference will feature speeches from leaders in the field, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice;” and Professor Gerald Torres, who, as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, worked with communities to help draft the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. The conference will also feature seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy. Topics will range from strategies for achieving environmental justice to food justice and access to clean energy.

The EPA has been instrumental in helping HELS plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners will facilitate breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions will engage conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement and moving forward. We will share the outcomes of these discussions more broadly with federal representatives after the conference.

Although much progress has been made over the past twenty years, there is still plenty of work to be done. Living in an environmental justice community can have a severe impact on health and quality of life. Zip code is a strong predictor of health, and too often the heaviest environmental burdens and the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents are concentrated in the same zip codes. The California EPA reports that the 10% of California zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32% of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1% of energy jobs and only gained .01% of the revenue from energy sector profits.

There is clearly a need for continued action to work towards achieving environmental justice goals. The 2014 NAELS Conference promises to make a valuable contribution to the conversation on environmental justice by reflecting on past challenges and successes in the movement, and by bringing together current and future advocates to plan for the next 20 years of work in the field.

To learn more about the 2014 NAELS Conference, please visit the HELS website for the conference. To learn more about environmental law at Harvard Law School, please visit the Environmental Law Program website.

About the Authors: Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal are students at the Harvard Law School, class of 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Smells Like Progress: Growing Up in Cancer Alley

By Dr. Beverly Wright

My journey towards understanding environmental justice began during my early years growing up in the area known as ‘cancer alley’ in Louisiana. After I learned about the disparties of pollution problems in poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, people who looked like me, I dedicated my life to overcoming these injustices. Now, as an educator, I understand my role and its importance in stimulating the minds of young people, propelling them into becoming involved in their own destiny. Exposure to, and involvement in advocacy work does just that. I am gratified to have a hand in nurturing the next generation of environmental justice advocates and professionals.

On the frontlines today, there is no greater challenge to our future, or should I say to our continued existence, than the issues surrounding climate change and global warming. Furthermore, people of color and the poor (specifically where I live, African-Americans) are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and therefore their involvement in the solution is critical. After attending several international climate summits over the years, I found the presence of African-American youth and students to be quite limited, and in recent years I have resolved to change that dynamic.


This is what has driven me to organize a collaborative with the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and to launch the 1st Annual HBCU Student Climate Change Conference held this year. Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice hosted the 1st Annual HBCU Climate Change Student Conference entitled Bridging the Gap Between Climate Change Theory and Experience. Over 100 students from 10 universities, as well as faculty, staff, and environmental leaders from across the country came together to discuss the devastating effects climate change is having on vulnerable communities.

Conference participants toured East Plaquemines Parish, a coastal Louisiana community that has been devastated by four hurricanes and the BP oil disaster since August of 2005. Rev. Tyronne Edwards, President of Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Braithwaite, LA, discussed grassroots recovery efforts that his organization has been involved in since Hurricane Katrina.


One of the sessions brought together a diverse panel of presenters including nationally recognized environmental justice researchers, a hip-hop activist, community organizers, and emerging HBCU climate justice student leaders to address campus sustainability, the socio-economic impacts of climate change, community resilience and adaptation, public health, flood risk management, and mental health implications of disasters.

The three day conference also included an undergraduate and graduate student poster session, and climate change sessions for middle school students from the Dillard University Emerging Scholars – STEM Program.

I’m so proud of the conference and the transformation I saw in the young people who attended. The HBCU students, many of whom are from vulnerable communities, were challenged to become the next generation of leaders in environmental and climate justice advocacy. I wake up each day focused on affecting such transformation. It is my belief that democracy requires an educated populace, and that the survival of the Earth will require an environmentally conscious citizenry. It is our job as educators to make this a reality.

About the author: Dr. Beverly Wright is a professor of Sociology and founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), formerly at Xavier University, now at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. The DSCEJ is one of the few community/university partnerships that addresses environmental and health inequities in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, known as Cancer Alley. For over fifteen years, she has been a leading scholar, advocate and activist in the environmental justice arena. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Live Streaming Available

By Tom Damm

So why do volunteers put in the time, effort and some expense to wade through streams, scooping up water samples and batches of tiny bugs?Stream-Monitoring

Mostly, it’s “for the love of their local stream,” says Bill Richardson, regional monitoring coordinator in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Water Protection Division.

Bill is helping to coordinate a training conference in Shepherdstown, WV, that will bring together volunteer monitoring groups to share strategic plans, recruiting tips and success stories.  Registration for the August 9-10 conference sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is open until July 26. Abstracts can be submitted until July 12.

Trained volunteers play an essential role in assessing the condition of local streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands.

You’ll see them slogging along in hip waders or hunched over stream banks to collect samples that help indicate the quality of the water.  They use test kits to measure total nitrogen and phosphorus, special nets to troll for aquatic insects, and hand-held meters to check for levels of dissolved oxygen, pH, and temperature.  Others are busy scribbling field observations of habitat, land uses and the impacts of storms.

The data can help state and local agencies screen water for potential problems, establish baseline conditions or evaluate the success of cleanup practices.

Sound like something you’d be interested in?  You can find volunteer monitoring programs where you live by accessing this link.  For more information on monitoring, contact Bill Richardson at

About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Save the Date: Energy Roundtable Conference

washingtonaqueductBy Matt Colip

Drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately 3% of energy use in the United States, and are typically the largest energy consumers in communities, sometimes accounting for 30% of total energy consumed. Energy as a percentage of operating costs for drinking water systems can reach as high as 40% and is expected to rise in the coming decades. So you may want to give your neighborhood wastewater treatment plant a heads-up about a way it can save money and save energy.

EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection are sponsoring an Energy Roundtable Conference in Harrisburg, PA.  This event is for wastewater treatment operators interested in reducing their facilities’ energy costs and ultimately carbon footprint, and will highlight several areas related to energy efficiency.  This innovative and collaboration-oriented event will start with a primer on Understanding Your Energy Bill, followed by a Discussion of Tools to Assess Energy Use, Energy Audits, and Available Funding Sources.  This conference is not your run-of-the-mill lecture – no, we want to hear from real, live wastewater treatment operators and help others learn from success stories at saving energy and reducing costs!  This event will be an open discussion roundtable.  If you are an operator and would like to be involved in the Roundtable as a “Champion” of energy efficiency or as a Mentor, please send an email to the contact below.

Here are the essential details:


May 8, 2012

Penn State University– HARRISBURG CAMPUS

Science & Tech Building – Room 128

777 West Harrisburg Pike

Middletown, Pa.

For more information on energy efficiency, please visit our website. For information about this event, please contact Walter Higgins at, or by phone at 215-814-5476.  We hope to see your water treatment operator there!

About the Author: Matt Colip works in the region’s NPDES Enforcement Branch and focuses primarily on enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. Originally a Texan, turned Pennsylvanian, Matt graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., with a BA in Special Studies – Public Health and is currently working on an MS in Environmental Protection Management at Saint Joseph’s University. He is also interested in technologies that promote efficient living, strives to practice what he preaches, and is moving to a house on a pervious pavement street in Philadelphia. Matt’s love of bicycling took him on a solo cross country tour (riding from San Francisco to the New Jersey shore) as well as around Puerto Rico and across Ohio with colleagues and friends.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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