Using Law to Rectify Environmental Injustices
Barry E. Hill - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Parent Article
Barry E. Hill

In 1987, the United Church of Christ released “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States,” a study documenting the close relationship between race and the siting of facilities handling hazardous materials. Two years later, Senior Attorney John Pendergrass was asked to help community members from the Baton Rouge area understand the rules relating to siting, handling, treatment, and disposal of hazardous waste in their region.

They were particularly concerned about what they saw as an unusually large number of chemical and waste disposal facilities located very close to their neighborhoods, and new health problems they were experiencing. Pendergrass joined them on a tour of several neighborhoods and observed facilities from the fence lines along with officials from the Louisiana attorney general’s office and the Department of Environmental Quality. At the time, this was seen as part of ELI’s mission to educate people about environmental law, but in hindsight was the start of its work on environmental justice: serving as an information resource to underserved communities.

In the mid-1990s, ELI launched a 12-year project, “Demystifying Environmental Law,” with funding from foundations and EPA. In partnership with the Southwest Network for Environmental and Social Justice, we developed a new model for training local leaders on environmental law and facilitated several workshops for communities in California, New Mexico, and Texas. In conjunction with the workshops, we created written materials sought by participants on how to work effectively with lawyers and on dealing with strategic lawsuits against public participation, so-called SLAPP suits. We also created a separate environmental law training program for environmental justice leaders on both sides of the Mexican border and developed the 2007 manual Environmental Enforcement in the U.S./Mexico Border Region: A Community Guide to Enforcement in Texas and Chihuahua.

In 2001, ELI published an in-depth study on using federal environmental laws to advance EJ goals, “Opportunities for Advancing Environmental Justice: An Analysis of U.S. EPA Statutory Authorities.” Building on this detailed report, we developed A Citizen’s Guide to Using Federal Environmental Laws to Secure Environmental Justice, and we partnered with the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice and EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice to create a video to help communities learn about and use environmental laws effectively.

ELI has also partnered with local environmental justice communities to address a variety of issues over the years. For example, our long-standing educational partnership in the Gulf of Mexico with local communities since the 2010 oil spill empowers environmental justice advocates and others to participate effectively in restoration and recovery processes. A multi-year project in partnership with Alaska Native communities has sought to protect their offshore subsistence resources. And ELI worked with groups in New Jersey to help ensure that brownfields redevelopment improved public health while fostering new economic opportunities.

ELI Press has published four editions of the seminal textbook and handbook authored by visiting scholar Barry E. Hill. Entitled Environmental Justice: Legal Theory and Practice, it is used in law school classrooms and clinics throughout the country where environmental justice courses are taught, and where law students represent communities. The Environmental Forum and the Environmental Law Reporter have also published numerous environmental justice-related articles from a variety of academics, government officials, and practitioners in the field.

At present, the Institute is piloting a new digital technology educational effort that would advance understanding of environmental injustices and how they may be constructively addressed. And ELI has begun a research effort to identify best practices used by local governments and corporations in dealing with environmental justice issues.

Center Brings Support to the Frontline Troops
Linda Breggin - Environmental Law Institute
Environmental Law Institute
Current Issue
Parent Article
Linda Breggin

Environmental programs deployed below the national level, a concept known as environmental federalism, have been a key focus of ELI’s work since the Institute was founded. What today is called the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs, however, was not formally established until 1986, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Over the years, the State Center has served as an umbrella for the myriad ELI programs and projects that involve subnational governments, both in the United States and overseas.

ELI’s special focus on state, tribal, and local environmental programs reflects the essential role they play in implementing and enforcing federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, in addition to their own laws, regulations, and policies. Key State Center objectives include fostering stronger state, tribal, and local environmental programs and supporting their role in environmental management and enforcement — through research, education, convenings, consultations, and publications.

For example, the State Center’s research work includes numerous ELI signature “50-state studies” on topics that include brownfields, state laws on hazardous waste cleanup, and indoor air quality, as well as a multitude of reports and briefs over the last half century. In recent years, ELI’s research has examined cutting-edge topics such as green infrastructure, environmental hazards at child care facilities, and floodplain acquisition and buyouts.

ELI also works on-the-ground at the local level helping cities to develop policies, ordinances, and other approaches to addressing environmental challenges. Since 2015, ELI has served as the project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Nashville Food Waste Initiative — a pilot project that works with the city and a wide range of stakeholders to develop and implement a holistic food-waste strategy, one that serves as a model for other cities. Local projects include prevention of waste, recovery of surplus food, and recycling of scraps.

Farther afield, a promising project will examine the potential for Inuits living in Alaska and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region of Canada to manage resources important for food security.

To build the capacity of state and local officials to administer programs, the State Center’s recent training efforts also have covered a wide range of topics — from wetlands in-lieu fee mitigation to Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Load programs. Earlier programs covered leaking storage tank rules, solid and hazardous waste enforcement, negotiating skills for Superfund settlements, enforcement of pretreatment requirements by publicly owned wastewater works, and combining cleanup orders under Superfund and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

ELI’s publications have provided resources for stakeholders, including The Environmental Forum’s “Around the States” column written by the director of the State Center for over 25 years. And topping off its decades-long efforts to support the effective functioning of cooperative federalism, ELI convened the Macbeth Dialogues and published the corresponding 2018 report on “Cooperative Federalism in the Modern Era.”

According to John Pendergrass, who directed the State Center for more than twenty years starting in 1990, ELI has filled a critical niche over the decades with its research and convenings that focus on cooperative federalism — the defining feature of our environmental protection system. He anticipates that “ELI will continue to play this vital role — studying while supporting and fostering dialogue on the respective roles and responsibilities of federal, state, tribal, and local governments.”

The work of ELI’s State Center is particularly important today. In an era of congressional gridlock, regulatory rollbacks, and reduced federal enforcement, state, tribal, and local governments have a critical gap-filling role to play in environmental protection. Today, many states are taking the lead on environmental problems, and local governments are often on the frontlines of dealing with emerging environmental threats like climate change.

Blight Revitalization Initiative for Green, Healthy Towns

ELI’s Blight Revitalization Initiative for Green, Healthy Towns (BRIGHT) identifies corridors of blighted, vacant, and environmentally-impaired properties in overburdened communities and supports the community and municipality in developing a revitalization plan. Combining community-level engagement with organizational and financial support from the private sector, government, and NGOs, BRIGHT catalyzes:

Petroleum Brownfields Resource Center

Nationwide, federal and state brownfields programs are striving to assess, clean up, and redevelop brownfields and vacant properties. However, implementation challenges continue to inhibit the success of these programs, and petroleum brownfields have especially lagged behind their hazardous waste counterparts in terms of the attention received and the degree of revitalization that has taken place.

States Make Significant Progress in Brownfield Remediation and Redevelopment
August 2013

(Washington, DC) — States across the country are reaping the benefits of years of experimentation with innovative new approaches to brownfields and petroleum brownfields remediation and redevelopment, according to a report released by the Environmental Law Institute. The study provides concrete examples of applied practices and programs currently in use throughout the nation, along with information about regulatory and procedural changes that states have successfully deployed.