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October 01, 2003

The Environmental Justice Clinic at the Golden Gate University School of Law: Profile of Environmental Justice Activism

by Alan Ramo

A global independent energy producer applies to add a third fossil fuel power plant in a predominantly low-income African American community in San Francisco. The Port of Oakland proposes to expand its operations, doubling the number of diesel truck trips through a similar neighborhood in West Oakland. The U.S. Navy shuts down military bases without properly containing and cleaning up the accumulated toxic wastes flowing into San Francisco Bay. Government agencies permit gas stations, auto paint shops, waste recyclers, and waste incinerators to flourish in communities of color without adequate pollution controls. These assaults on local communities are the daily grist of Golden Gate University School of Law's Environmental Law and Justice Clinic.

Golden Gate, an ABA-approved law school, established the clinic in 1994 to teach law students how to practice law skillfully and ethically. Taking its cue from the U.S. environmental justice movement, the clinic seeks to address the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards in communities of color. Clinic seminars stress the socioeconomic underpinnings of environmental problems in addition to traditional lawyering skills and substantive law. Because the lack of power often is one seed of environmental racism and injustice, faculty emphasize client empowerment in all interactions with community organizations and select clinic cases only after close consultation with clients.

California's flawed experiment with electricity deregulation spawned a major area of clinic work, because independent companies sought to build new power plants in those communities already overburdened with fossil-fuel pollution-in many cases the very companies charged with creating the energy crisis by withholding energy from their existing plants. Air pollution, which causes the most diseases and ravages those in low-income communities who are most exposed to diesel buses and factory wastes, also is a clinic focus. The Clean Air Accountability Project clinic seeks to enforce permits and government promises to clean up airborne pollutants touted in required state implementation plans.

The clinic seeks to provide communities the tools they need to ensure compliance. For example, the clinic successfully sued the federal government to post all federally enforceable air pollution laws on the Internet. Another successful project now requires the local air district to inform the public about ongoing violations by polluters. The clinic's ultimate goal is that the students who work on our cases now will become, as lawyers, resources for these communities in the future.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.6.

Alan Ramo

Alan Ramo is presently a professor of law at Golden Gate University School of Law, where he directs the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic and the LLM in Environmental Law graduate program.