October 01, 2003

Monique Harden: Profile of an Environmental Justice Advocate

Monique Harden is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a nonprofit law firm that provides a full range of litigation and advocacy services to communities suffering from environmental degradation. The organization is a project of the Tides Center. Ms. Harden's successful legal advocacy on behalf of communities of color has resulted in important environmental justice victories.

As a lawyer and advocate for environmental justice in Louisiana, Monique Harden works with community organizations whose members live in the shadows of some of the most polluting facilities in the nation. For these citizens, the demand for a healthy environment is certainly consistent with the purpose and mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Harden has found that the organization's practices deny the necessary steps for achieving this vitally important goal, however. Most specifically, Harden believes that the agency's routine approval of permits that allow clusters of facilities to spew millions of pounds of toxic chemicals each year into nearby neighborhoods and residential communities denies the notion of "environmental protection." People of color disproportionately bear the brunt of such toxic pollution, leading to unequal environmental protection and environmental racism.The need to eradicate the contradiction between the EPA's mission and practices motivates Harden's legal efforts.

Harden argues that the EPA cannot protect the environment primarily through myopic regulations that fail to consider the aggregate impacts of pollution on the health and lives of people. Her experience in providing legal advocacy assistance to community groups demonstrates that environmental laws provide few legal bases to support the vitally important demand for a healthy environment. The toxic industrial facilities that have transformed several communities of color into "kill zones," in which the release of a toxic or flammable substance can be lethal to nearby residents, have the government's permission to operate.

For a growing number of groups in the United States and around the world, the concept of environmental protection is understood as a human right (exemplified by the September 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, for example). arden believes that lawyers must overcome the inconsistencies between governmental forms of environmental protection and fundamental human rights. She regards the EPA's obligation to prohibit racial discrimination that disproportionately burdens people of color with toxic pollution, pursuant to the Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Racial Discrimination and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as an important area of focus.

For too long, Harden argues, the EPA has merely given lip service to the problem of environmental racism. The time has long since passed for the EPA to incorporate human rights laws and standards into its practice of environmental protection.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.24.