Yale Law Clinic and Communities Call for Action on Environmental Injustice

On October 23, 2017, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congressman Raul Ruiz (D-CA36) introduced the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, a bill to address racial and economic disparities in exposure to pollution and access to fresh air and clean water. The bill calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ensure access to clean air and clean water without regard to race or national origin, and would enshrine policies to protect vulnerable communities into law.

“We all have the right to a healthy environment,” said Yale Environmental Justice Clinic student Natalie Spiegel (FES ’18), who has been working with the clinic on this issue. “We all deserve a say in decisions that bring toxic pollution to our communities. This bill reflects the need for the federal government to do more, not less, to protect vulnerable communities.”

The Environmental Justice Clinic at Yale Law School represents and partners with environmental justice activists and communities in their struggles to enforce civil rights. As part of this project, the clinic has been working closely with Father Phil Schmitter, a board member and sacramental minister at The St. Francis Prayer Center in Flint, Michigan, who filed a major civil rights complaint with the EPA in 1992 and waited 25 years for the agency to complete its investigation.

In 2017, the EPA made a finding of discrimination in the St. Francis Prayer Center case that Schmitter filed, but it then closed the book on the case without requiring Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to reform its policies or practices, according to the clinic. The new bill would have allowed Schmitter and the residents of Flint, Michigan to go to court rather than wait decades for the EPA to make its finding of discrimination. Schmitter said he welcomed more attention being brought to this issue.

“Communities of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities across the United States have for too long been exposed to pollution from incinerators, refineries, landfills and other sources of pollution,” said Schmitter. “The Environmental Justice Movement has been fighting inequality in environmental protection to make sure that no community has to endure a disproportionate share of the health and socio-economic risks of pollution. This bill provides an insurance plan for coming generations against future environmental degradation.”

The bill also includes a provision requiring that applicants for permits to operate polluting facilities evaluate not only the potential impact of pollution from a single proposed facility in isolation, but the cumulative impacts of emissions from other nearby sources of contamination. One problem communities from Port Arthur, Texas to Newark, New Jersey currently face is that states often allow multiple polluting facilities to cluster in the same community, according to the clinic.

In Uniontown, Alabama, for example, residents are concerned that multiple sources of pollution are destroying their way of life, the clinic said. Residents filed a complaint against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in 2013 alleging that ADEM’s approval of a permit for a large landfill in their community was not sufficiently protective of the health and welfare of the community and had a disparate impact on the basis of race. Clinic students have been representing residents from Uniontown, including Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a group that was formed in response to this issue. The new bill would give residents like Calhoun and her community a meaningful day in court to challenge discriminatory environmental impacts of polluting industries.

“Everything that happens where people don’t want it goes into a poor or black neighborhood.” Ms. Calhoun said. “We have real concerns about the future of our community and our health. If local and state government isn’t listening, we need a stronger federal government to step in, and we should be able to enforce our rights in court.”

More information on the Environmental Justice Act of 2017 can be found at the following links:

Booker Press Release: https://www.booker.senate.gov/?p=press_release&id=685

Bill Factsheet: https://law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/Clinics/booker-ruiz_ej_act_of_2017_1-pager.pdf