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Environmental Lawyers Take Action: The Legal Fight for a Safe and Healthy Earth

The United States has a long history of placing hazardous waste sites and other sources of pollution within disadvantaged communities largely composed of low-income minorities. These communities are exposed to an inordinate amount of toxic chemicals in the water they drink, the soil where they grow food, and the air that they drink. Environmental policies are in place that allow these communities to take legal action against these environmental burdens. Environmental lawyers help these minorities fight to achieve protection against the destruction of the Earth’s natural resources for long term sustainability. Here is how environmental justice law is being used to fight for a safe and healthy Earth.

Environmental Justice Law: What Is It?

Environmental justice law aims to protect low-income populations and minorities against the pollution of their communities in order to help them maintain a clean and healthy environment. Communities of color are more likely to suffer chronic health conditions from air pollution, water contamination, and lead poisoning. Extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change can be more devastating for minority communities, who typically receive less disaster relief funding. According to research, three out of 5 black individuals live next to industrial plants and toxic waste sites. Communities that are below the poverty line experience more toxic chemicals in their air than their counterparts.

The origins of environmental justice began in the early 1960s when Latino farm workers protested against harmful exposure to pesticides. African Americans in Tennessee opposed environmental injustices regarding pay for garbage workers. It became more of a well-known political movement in 1982 in North Carolina. The state’s government decided that Warren County would be the perfect place to dump 31,000 gallons of soil laced with toxic industrial compounds. The residents of the rural county at the time were mainly low-income black individuals.

Fearing that the groundwater would be contaminated and affect adult and child wellness, the residents began protests and marches over a period of six weeks. More than 500 people were arrested during the nonviolent street protests. The people in Warren County lost their legal battle after a series of public hearings, three lawsuits, and multiple scientific studies. However, the situation drew national media attention and revealed greater issues to the entire country. Minorities were finally given a platform to voice their concerns for environmental cleanup as advocates discovered more pollution producing industrial facilities placed in severely low-income communities of color.

Environmental burdens have continued to plague these communities. In 1994, President Bill Clinton set an executive order in place that inspired policy planning and regulatory actions against environmental discrimination. Communities can turn to the Department of Justice to address grievances against unequal protection under environmental justice law. Lawsuits are considered under violation of civil rights. Environmental justice lawyers can also be used to make changes to government policies to ensure fair treatment for all individuals.

Current Environmental Justice Issues

The current climate crisis is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The planet’s resources that sustain life can become depleted in a short amount of time if sources of pollution and human mismanagement continues. There are a few main issues that environmental justice law is addressing that are creating the most impact. Deforestation is on the rise as the U.S. population grows by approximately two million people per year. More land surveying and utilization are needed in order for these people to build places to live and farms so they can eat.

Air pollution remains a major environmental issue in cities with large populations. Global warming contributes to air pollution as rising temperatures create wildfires in various locations in the United States and around the world. These wildfires release carbon into the air and destroy wildlife habitats and food supplies. Air pollution has become even more of a concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, as this pollution can help transport infected molecules from person to person. Preliminary research suggests that air pollution can lead to higher mortality rates.

Every day, people dump around two million tons of sewage into waterways, causing water pollution to drinking water. Sewage treatment relies on chemicals to purify the water that gets funneled into drinking sources. The mass market of over two million tons of plastic each year is another one of the biggest environmental justice law issues. Plastic isn’t recyclable and takes over 400 years to decompose. Meanwhile, it continues to create significant damage to soil and wildlife habitats.

Current environmental justice law is poorly governed by policymakers to make the necessary changes to slow down the climate crisis. Cutting down greenhouse gases effectively would require a major investment in low-carbon technology. The majority of businesses are run by a single individual and contribute to pollution because facilities can be built cheaply in low-income areas. Without investment in green technology, these businesses ultimately create unfair environmental burdens on minority populations. Food waste also contributes to these environmental concerns.

Environmental Justice Lawyers Take Action

Environmental justice law attorneys take action in a variety of ways to keep the Earth and its inhabitants safe and healthy. They help challenge or defend current laws and negotiate settlements. These lawyers can also act as critical consultants for designing environmental justice law policy initiatives. The demand for these environmental lawyers has risen significantly over the past few years. Communities have taken action against the military for levee deterioration from flooding.

Actions have been taken against corporate perpetrators for the construction of hazardous sites without the proper environmental controls. Businesses are gathering lawyers to protect their own environmental interests. As climate change continues to become a pressing issue, more and more cases are developing to mitigate the damages being done to the planet. Lawyers help demand that the violators take corrective action and provide compensation to the people who have been directly affected. Some lawyers are working on a pro bono basis to help those who may not otherwise be able to afford their services.

One of the biggest recent examples of how environmental justice law attorneys are taking action is the water crisis situation in Flint, Michigan. Soon after the city switched to the Flint River as its main water supply in 2014, residents began noticing foul-tasting and discolored water. Early testing revealed high levels of lead levels, but the results weren’t released until the fall of 2015 to the general public. Email exchanges discovered later revealed that major utility executives knew about the lead poisoning risks months before the city publicly admitted the problem. These executives had recommended to the city to change its water supply in the email exchanges.

Currently, the situation has still not been resolved. With the help of a water crisis law firm, Flint residents are still demanding accountability. Since the crisis began, they have been forced to choose between filtering the water themselves or buying bottled water. Federal and state funding has paid to replace almost 10,000 lead service lines, and a few hundred more still need to be checked. There is a $641 million settlement from various lawsuits from city residents that is being considered by a federal court.

Plans for Legal Enforcement of Ecocide

Attorneys in international environmental justice law are currently working on creating a legal definition for ecocide. The goal is to criminalize the global destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems. This crime would be on the same level as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The current effort has gained support from some European countries and small island nations. Once a legal definition is decided, the hopes are to bring it to the International Crime Court to be added as an amendment.

The International Crime Court has previously promised to make certain environmental destruction crimes a top priority, such as the exploitation of natural resources and habitat management. There have been no official investigations of ecocide so far. Lawyers are still working on what specific crimes would be included for prosecution. Ecocide basically treats corporate exploitation of natural resources as hurting the planet like it would hurt a human being. This would cause these entities to revamp how their industries are operating to avoid legal consequences and financial responsibility for damages.

One of the main environmental justice law issues associated with ecocide is that crimes would need to be attributed to a single individual in order for the International Crime Court to prosecute. Most corporations are designed to diffuse legal responsibility among multiple individuals. The International Crime Court would lack the means to prosecute a single director. Substantial changes to how the court functions would be necessary for environmental justice law enforcement. Specific definitions of what actions constitute a level of ecocide is also needed.

The intent for prosecuting ecocide is to direct it towards specific events that cause mass destruction and inhibit the space enjoyment of the affected region’s inhabitants. An example of a catastrophic practice of ecocide might be a major oil spill that causes costly water damage restoration efforts for decades. Deep-sea trawling has been attributed to decimating underwater ecosystems. Rampant plastic pollution, fracking, industrial chemical dumping, and radioactive contamination from nuclear facilities could all fall under ecocide as well.

To establish the law of ecocide, there needs to be a proven relationship between the destructive act, the human harm it caused, and how much time it took for that damage to manifest. Impoverished communities with limited resources may be unfairly held accountable for land exploitation due to food scarcity and limited resources. Extensive environmental damage can also be unintentionally caused. Prosecuting unintentional ecosystem damage can be considered unfair and inappropriate. Some countries who have prosecuted ecocide within their own borders have imprisoned people for a minimum of 15 years.

What Can You Do?

There are many things that you can do to help make the Earth safer and healthier. Research environmentally friendly architectural products carefully before making any serious home renovations. Find out where companies obtain their raw materials for the furniture and cabinetry you buy for your home. Consider buying food that is free from pesticides, genetic engineering, and antibiotics. Find more environmentally friendly ways to travel on a daily basis, too.

Instead of driving your car, you may want to think about riding your bike to work or using public transportation. Limit the number of airplane flights you take if you can. Protect the soil around you by using natural lawn care services, and consider growing your own food in a garden as well. Volunteer to help environmental justice law groups in their fight. Write to your local and state politicians regarding policy changes that can be made to better protect the environment.

Reuse and recycle items instead of simply throwing them away. Help with environmental cleanup activities in your local community. Educate yourself on the current environmental problems and the importance of natural resources. Use modern energy-saving devices to reduce electricity and water usage. Clean your home with products that are free from toxic chemicals.

Utilize reusable bags instead of paper or plastic when you go grocery shopping. When going to a restaurant, ask if they have reusable beverage containers for your drink instead of plastic cups. Consciously choose to spend your money at businesses that are taking actions to be environmentally responsible. Help plant trees in your local community to reduce greenhouse gases. Dispose of hazardous materials according to the regulations where you live. Consider purchasing second-hand instead of brand new products.

Environmental justice law is making great strides in helping to keep the planet safer and healthier. There is much more work to be done, but many activist groups are helping to shed light on important issues. By tackling these issues head-on, disadvantaged groups of individuals can be protected against corporate greed. You can help with environmental justice by taking personal actions to reduce your carbon footprint and by speaking up about injustices you see in the world around you. The more people who get involved, the more likely it will be that we can all continue to enjoy everything Earth has to offer for years to come.

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