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January/February 2023

Implementing environmental justice—The ABA EJ Task Force

Gwendolyn Rebecca Keyes Fleming and Lawrence Kaleb Pittman

Summary

  • Discusses the passage of the environmental justice resolution from the ABA and the creation of an Environmental Justice Task Force.
  • The Task Force was created to aid the ABA in advancing environmental justice principles and considerations in programming, policies, and activities, as well as working with governmental bodies to establish law, regulations and other measures that reflect the right of every human being to dignity and a clean and healthy environment.
  • Recognizes that the largest association of lawyers in the country has a role to play in how environmental justice issues are framed and addressed.
Implementing environmental justice—The ABA EJ Task Force
Dusan Stankovic via Getty Images

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Martin Luther King Jr. declared that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This declaration could not be truer today. King’s last stand for civil rights was advocating for the working conditions of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, which exposed the need for economic equality and social justice. In Dr. King’s final speech before his untimely death, he asked “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them? That is the question.” Environmental justice issues are intersectional issues in that they are social, economic, or environmental issues intertwined with civil rights issues. Consistent with that notion, the late Congressman John Lewis often counseled that environmental justice is one of the leading civil rights issues of our time. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” EPA has set up a new Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Office to deal with environmental justice concerns. However, the opportunity to protect against and rectify wrongs in environmental justice communities does not happen just through EPA. The intersection of environmental concerns with social and other concerns explains why various federal agencies, such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services, are creating new Environmental Justice offices within their agencies to help solve the environmental justice issues that are layered within their respective missions.

In 1993, the American Bar Association (ABA) passed an Environmental Justice Resolution, and in August 2021, the ABA adopted a new environmental justice resolution that went beyond the initial aspirational statements and focused on putting action behinds those goals. This new resolution included the creation of an Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF or task force) to aid the ABA in advancing environmental justice principles and considerations in programming, policies, and activities, as well as working with governmental bodies to establish law, regulations and other measures that reflect the right of every human being to dignity and a clean and healthy environment. With the help of previous ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources (SEER) Chair Howard Kenison, and James May, a professor at Widener University Delaware Law School, then-ABA-president Reginald Turner appointed the EJTF as a 13-member body of environmental justice experts. It was important to all that the EJTF was comprised of lawyers and nonlawyers, active community representatives, gender equality, generational diversity, academic professionals, people of color, and individuals who were deeply committed to advancing environmental justice. Once the EJTF was formed, they charged forth, meeting monthly to prepare a report of recommendations to help advance the ABA’s commitments made in the 1993 and 2021 Environmental Justice Resolutions.

In the EJTF meetings, the members ask themselves a question similar to that which King asked in his speech: If they do not stop to help the ABA, the largest voluntary organization of lawyers in the world, advance environmental justice, what will happen to environmental justice initiatives across the country? The task force found it important, in an effort to promote credibility and accountability, to recognize some of the association’s historic shortcomings in the plight to help advance environmental justice at large. The EJTF recognized that the largest association of lawyers in the country has a role to play in how environmental justice issues are framed and addressed, as many of the attorneys wrestling with these complex issues are the same ABA members paying dues every year.

Understanding the human capital that the association contains, the EJTF began formulating a blueprint of jurisdictional statements to put forth to the ABA. These jurisdictional statements recommend action steps for the association and ABA entities, encouraging the facilitation of the exchange of information between ABA entities and public agencies and private organizations, utilizing the expertise within the association to assist with analyzing executive and legislative proposals to advance environmental justice, emphasizing greater cooperation and partnership with federal, state, and local government entities engaged in environmental justice issues, greater advocacy of environmental justice, active education of environmental justice issues to association members, seeking solutions on how to improve environmental injustice conditions, and integrating international environmental justice and Indigenous peoples’ issues into the association’s environmental justice efforts. As these may sound like lofty goals, the task force also laid out specific actions items and next steps to help push these jurisdictional statements forward.

Of course, these recommendations are not going to be accomplished overnight. The task force’s intention in laying out these jurisdictional statements is that they would be the beginning of a long-lasting task force committed to advancing environmental justice through the association. The current task force appointments run through August 2023, through the term of ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross, upon which the current task force members terms will be up for reinstatement, and the environmental justice torch will be passed to the next EJ champions. Until that time the current task force members will continue to advance the goals within the August 2021 environmental justice resolution.

With the help of the current task force, ABA SEER has instituted environmental justice vice chairs to serve as leaders on various SEER committees to help overlay environmental justice in committee programming. The task force has also engaged in conversations with congressional policy staff to support the advancement of environmental justice–focused policies and legislation. In addition, the task force members hosted a community engagement meeting during SEER’s 30th Fall Conference in Nashville, to understand local environmental justice issues and figure out how the ABA can support community-based environmental justice initiatives. The task force is committed to advocating for environmental injustice through the ABA.

Members of the EJ Task Force are: Latrecia Adams of the Black Millennials 4 Flint, Nadia Ahmad of Barry University School of Law, Scott Badenoch of the Environmental Law Institute, Gwen Keyes Fleming of DLA Piper, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Stacey Halliday of Beveridge & Diamond, James May of Widener University Delaware Law School, Richard Moore of the Just Transition Alliance, Quentin Pair of Howard University School of Law, Lawrence Pittman of the Environmental Protection Agency, Heather Tanna of the University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law, Cynthia Stroman at King & Spalding, and Ben Wilson, formerly at Beverage & Diamond and now at Howard University School of Law.

The EJTF has received special assistance from Robert Conrad at Arnold & Porter and Nicholas Targ at Holland & Knight and from ABA professional staff, Dana Jonusaitis of SEER and Paula Shapiro from the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

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