Harvard Environmental Law Society

Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?

By Curt Spalding, EPA Region 1 Administrator

At the end of March, I was very pleased to participate in an Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard Law School to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on EJ, and to dialogue with stakeholders across all backgrounds about the future for EJ.

spaldingEnvironmental justice is critical to EPA’s mission: to protect human health and the environment.  Unfortunately many low-income communities and communities of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and its health effects which create barriers to opportunity and a need for greater access to the benefits that healthy communities provide.

In Region 1 we continue to work hard to find new and innovative ways to incorporate EJ into all of our programs, policies and activities. Our programs and staff are helping improve communities through our Brownfields program; working to eliminate lead poisoning in our poorest communities; cleaning our urban rivers; encouraging environmental justice leadership among our state and federal partners and promoting climate change education in low-income and diverse communities, among many other efforts.

But while we continue to strive to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable communities, opportunities like the Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard remind me that there are many brilliant and hardworking people Untitled-1across the country coming up with many different innovative ways to advance environmental justice. I heard some very inspirational stories from activists like Hilton Kelley who shared his story about his community of Port Arthur, Texas and about its continued fight for clean air and water.  I also heard stories from community organizers like Mela Bush from the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition who helped bring public transportation options to the Fairmount Line in Boston.

At the conference we also talked about climate change, which is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today, especially in Region 1. We have learned from storms like Hurricane Sandy that coastal areas need to begin building resilience in their communities, they need to adapt infrastructure and come up with mechanisms to handle sea level rise and storm surge.  City officials from Bridgeport shared their innovative approaches as a city taking ground breaking steps to improve resiliency and advance the community through an initiative called Rebuild by Design.  The city is taking design proposals to develop a resilience framework that focuses on protecting Bridgeport against climate change and flooding caused by storm surge and rainfall, while also stimulating environmental restoration, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization.

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

A key theme that came out of the conference was to look ahead.  Conference participants focused on answering tough questions, such as how we can collectively make visible differences in EJ communities now and into the future.  From my experiences at the conference and from talking with these many EJ advocates and stakeholders reinforced for me how important it is to holistically look at how a community can be sustained and how we can work collaboratively to help a community make progress.  It’s about capacity building, and using strong networks of people to move projects forward.  It’s about education and empowering communities.

I was excited to see these forward thinking and innovative approaches across the country, and I know that all of us that attended from Region 1 are grateful for the opportunity. It certainly reminded me how important it is to gather all of the brilliant minds out there to share their innovative solutions to advance environmental justice.

About the author: Since joining the EPA leadership team in February 2010, Spalding has been leading a holistic approach to finding environmental solutions in New England. He’s emphasized efforts in community engagement, sustainability, environmental justice and green economy. Spalding has focused our efforts in the region on three cross-cutting initiatives: climate change, stormwater and community prosperity.

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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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

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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.

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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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.