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.