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Bridging the Gulf: Environmental Justice and Spill Restoration

Wednesday, July 24, 2019
Taylor Lilley

Taylor Lilley

Public Interest Law Fellow

Lovinia Reynolds

Lovinia Reynolds

Policy Analyst and Environmental Justice Coordinator

In honor of the Environmental Law Institute’s 50th Anniversary Year, each month of 2019 highlights a different key theme that represents an important aspect of our work. July is focused on environmental justice, a movement and a concept that encompasses efforts to highlight the disproportionately harmful environmental impacts experienced by vulnerable communities, as well as a commitment to ensuring justice for all people. The growing effort to identify environmental justice concerns and to develop solutions for communities closely aligns with ELI’s mission to make law work for people, places, and the planet, including through our work in the Gulf of Mexico region.

The environmental justice movement has always had roots in the South, beginning in 1982 with protests against a proposed plan to dump harmful chemicals in Warren County, North Carolina, a majority African-American community. These protests galvanized a national conversation around the disproportionate siting of environmental hazards in minority communities. The scholarship that followed, such as the 1987 United Church of Christ report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, served as confirmation of this disproportionate treatment and created a basis for widespread work dedicated to identifying and resolving instances of environmental injustice.

Since then, federal, state, and local governments have taken varying steps to address environmental justice concerns. Famously, Pres. Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, which required each federal agency to "make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations." While the concept of environmental justice continues to be associated with hazardous waste and industrial pollution, the environmental justice movement has grown to include access issues, varying representations of environmental contamination and degradation, and climate justice.

The Environmental Law Institute (ELI) began its work supporting communities and decisionmakers along the Gulf Coast shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Initially, the efforts of our dedicated “Gulf Team” were focused on demystifying the legal actions surrounding the spill. As time passed, this work evolved to include translating the steps in the funding processes that were established by the long-awaited settlement in order to help the public better understand how to participate in restoration. Though much of the Gulf Team’s work during the eight years following the spill has encompassed a wide array of communities, in September 2018 the Team rededicated itself to engaging vulnerable and underserved communities, specifically in Mississippi. 

The Team began its efforts with a listening tour, which allowed us to meet with leaders of community groups along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and learn about their particular experiences and the ways in which we might support them. (Read about our trip here.) During these conversations, we learned that the Gulf Coast region is unique in that it is an amalgamation of many scenarios that are commonly understood to be both symptoms and causes of environmental injustice. In addition to facing a growing number of natural disasters, the region must also contend with frequent flooding as a result of continued development, the lasting effects of contamination from various industrial sites, and, infamously, the wide-ranging effects of man-made disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill. 

It has now been almost a year since we began speaking with community members, and in that time we have had the privilege to hear countless stories about the challenges they face. While the particular concerns expressed were often individual, all echoed a desire to meaningfully participate in the processes that govern their lives and to be active participants in any potential solutions that might be proposed. (Listen to our recent podcast featuring members of the Gulf community).

This was certainly the case for Danny Le of Boat People S.O.S (BPSOS) and his community. Surprisingly to some, the Mississippi coast, and the Gulf Coast in general, is home to a large Vietnamese population. Based in Biloxi, BPSOS, along with other organizations, strives to advocate for the local Vietnamese community in a number of matters. Recently a portion of their advocacy has been dedicated to supporting the fisherman who have lost their livelihood due to seafood populations damaged by the spill. Danny, who has been active on this front for close to a decade, feels that the best solution to his community’s crisis will be one that involves them both in the decision making process and during implementation. The fishermen in Danny’s community have a vast amount of experience navigating the Gulf and evaluating the subtle trends in shrimp population, but like many environmental justice communities, their challenge lies in gaining an audience with decisionmakers and garnering support for their proposals.

Danny and his community are not alone; we heard these concerns echoed in African-American communities in Biloxi and Gulfport as well. Representing homeowners, the elderly, youth, local descendants of former slaves, and anyone else who might be concerned, the groups we met with all repeated a need for meaningful participation. Many individuals we met with began their career as advocates for their communities during the civil rights era, and have not stopped fighting since.

In Biloxi, the local NAACP has built a strong network of faith leaders, community members, and local organizations that often work together to tackle concerns. Listing flooding, suspicious water quality, and oppressive dust and contamination from construction among their chief concerns, the community knows exactly what they would like to see addressed. Their challenge, like Danny’s, is convincing decisionmakers and government officials to acknowledge their concerns and to support them as they endeavor to develop solutions.

In addition to feeling as though they lack support from decisionmakers, there is also a persistent lack of trust on the part of community members. After decades of oppression and discrimination at the hands of government actors, many community activists we spoke with in Mississippi are hesitant to place their faith in the hands of the same system that wronged them. However, this hesitancy should not be mistaken for defeat. While the dynamics that persist between community groups and decision makers may seem discouraging, the individuals we work with appear to be unwavering. We’ve also seen that where there is some fatigue, older generations who have fought for decades are guiding a new generation of activists. (To read our profile of one young activist, click here.)     

ELI’s time in the Gulf has taught us many lessons, but chief among them is the importance of public participation and of uplifting the voices of local community members. Incidences of environmental injustice thrive and persist in silence, but have difficulty surviving in the face of vocal opposition, especially when that opposition is backed by financial or institutional support. In our role as a partner for community organizations, the ELI Gulf Team works to provide guidance to communities to help navigate the restoration funding processes. Since a substantial part of engaging in environmental justice work is knowing the limits of what we can offer, we also serve as facilitators and work to build relationships among community groups, environmentalists and decisionmakers. Those of us who work as environmental practitioners must be conscientious in our endeavors and, where possible, support the work of local groups to protect and better their communities. It is their homes and neighborhoods that are jeopardized, and so it is their voices that must be heard.