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Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Toxic Waste and Race

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Lovinia Reynolds

Lovinia Reynolds

Research Associate

Over 30 years ago, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States confirmed that race was the primary factor in determining the location of siting toxic wastes. Published by the United Church of Christ, the report’s release set in motion a movement addressing environmental health and social justice now known as environmental justice (EJ). In the decades to follow, EJ became institutionalized in our government agencies with the formation of the Environmental Equity Working Group at EPA in 1990 and Executive Order No. 12898 signed in 1994. Outside of government, the report catalyzed the formation of grassroots groups to address issues of environment health in their communities. The EJ movement also reorients the mainstream definition of environment. It frames the environment as not simply the woods, mountains, and ocean, but as our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our homes.

Since the initial release of the 1987 report, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) has played a role supporting the work of grassroots organizations, local governments, and lawyers in the EJ movement. Our reports have identified and explained laws that grassroots organizations can use to validate EJ claims and provided guidance for finding and using valuable resources for EJ work. Our book division, ELI Press, has published Environmental Justice: Legal Theory and Practice, now in its fourth edition. In our programmatic work, ELI has helped Gulf communities leverage funds from the BP Oil Spill, contributed to developing sound policy on indoor air quality, and worked to develop policy on brownfield redevelopment in Washington, D.C. 

Industrial Power Plant

As the EJ movement moves into the 21st century, issue areas have evolved and expanded to address not only toxic hazards and pollution, but also issues such as affordable housing, equitable access to healthy food, and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on EJ communities. New technologies offer opportunities for engaging residents in data collection, and social media networks offer new means for raising awareness and building movements. While environmental injustices have always existed, our digitally connected world makes stories of polluted water and destructive hurricanes present and tangible. As the EJ movement evolves, ELI’s role must also evolve to best help EJ communities identify and leverage these new available resources.

In a recent interview marking the 30th anniversary of Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, principal author of the report, Charles Lee, notes that one of the significant challenges facing the EJ movement is nurturing the next generation of leaders. These new leaders must be flexible enough to “work in both communities and institutions, armed with stellar technical and legal skills and guided by audacious vision and commitment.”

ELI is working to foster these leaders by collaborating with leading law schools in Washington, D.C., to expose the next generation of lawyers to EJ issues and solutions. Our partner schools have included Howard University and Georgetown University law schools, and in our next event, Environmental Justice in the 21st Century on October 15, ELI is collaborating with American University’s Washington College of Law. The event will feature the authors of the original 1987 United Church of Christ report, Charles Lee and Vernice Miller-Travis in an effort to honor their work and inspire the next generation of EJ leaders. These two pioneers in the movement bring a wealth of experience from their consequential work in advancing EJ. They will be joined by Professors Ezra Rosser and William J. Snape, whose work focuses on native sovereignty and fossil fuel climate impacts.

Building dynamic EJ leaders is no small feat, and is only one of the many challenges ELI will confront as the EJ field continues to advance in achieving environmental equity. We look forward to providing spaces to hold essential conversations in EJ and will continue to reflect on and evolve our work in this crucial space.

The event will be held on Monday, October 15, from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM. The event is free and open to the public, but registration by October 11 is required.

Event details and RSVP information can be found here: Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Threats and Opportunities Part III.