No community wants a toxic waste dump in its backyard or untreated sewage running through its streets. But they do not enjoy equal ability to fend off such health dangers. Affluent communities can afford protracted, costly and often successful legal battles; poorer communities, in the U.S. and around the world, too often find themselves powerless to do much of anything.
What can be and is being done about unequal protections from environmental harm was the subject of a Feb. 23 symposium, “Environmental Justice: Hearing Communities through the Economic Din,” sponsored by The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law.
Presented and moderated at the National Press Club by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, (left) lecturer-in-law at Catholic University, the roundtable discussion was co-sponsored by The D.C. Bar Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Section; the Environmental Law Institute; the Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment; and the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.
“We want a country where no subpopulation bears a disproportionate share of environmental risks and burdens,” said Dunn at the program’s open. “Once your eyes are opened to the needs and challenges of communities in developing nations, you can’t ever think about environmental justice in the same way.”
All of the program’s four panelists acknowledged that while concepts of environmental justice have advanced in the U.S. and around the world, implementation often lags far behind.
In the U.S., the EPA has produced Plan EJ 2014, a comprehensive framework or “toolbox” that offers methods, mechanisms, and systems that support environmental justice analysis, technical assistance, and community work.
“This document dispels any notion that federal environmental laws and environmental justice are mutually exclusive priorities,” said Scott Fulton (left), General Counsel, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Yet environmental justice, the speakers conceded, eludes a settled definition. It means different things to different cultures, nations, and communities.
That’s why regulators need flexibility in their response options, noted Susan Parker Bodine (below left), a partner, Barnes & Thornburg LLP, and formerly the EPA’s assistant administrator of the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.
“Rulemaking is the most difficult challenge for environmental justice because rules are of general applicability. It’s not site specific. Rules apply nationally,” she said.
Globally, the picture is mixed, according to Carole Excell, senior associate with the World Resources Institute. The adoption of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development in 1992 indicated a universal acceptance of the idea that the public’s voice must be heard in issues of environmental justice.
“All around the world there are environmental courts,” Excell (left) explained. “But these standards do not make access to justice available for communities living in poverty. “They’re still not delivering access to the poor.”
In short, the discussants concluded, a great deal of work lies ahead, both in America and abroad, to ensure that people lacking wealth or connections are able to shield themselves from environmental threats as well.
“Maybe with what we heard today, we can open a few more eyes,” Dunn concluded.
The program was the second in Catholic University law school’s 2011-2012 “Critical Insights in the Law and Law Practice” lecture series. Two more are scheduled at the National Press Club this spring: in April, “Current Pension Topics under ERISA,” and in May, “Religious Liberty under President Obama.”