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September 02, 2021

Environmental justice: What is it? What does it mean for you – and your clients?

A new era of environmental justice is upon us, according to panelists at the 2021 American Bar Association Annual Meeting, who explained during an Aug. 4 CLE Showcase Program what the movement is about, and what it means for you.

It’s no secret that environmental policies have a disproportionate effect on underrepresented communities and people of color, said panelist James R. May, a law professor at Widener University Delaware School of Law, citing the example of toxic waste storage facilities that are often built in or near disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Environmental justice is about challenging that reality, they said.  

It’s about fair treatment and the meaningful involvement of underrepresented citizens in the environmental laws, regulations and policies that impact them, said May.

And “meaningful involvement” means having members of those disadvantaged communities at the table when laws are being developed, implemented and enforced, he underscored, noting the importance of bringing together “all people,” regardless of race, color, national origin and income.

May explained that the confluence of several factors spurred a sense of urgency and the call for environmental justice: the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous climate change-related disasters and demands for racial justice stemming from the killing of George Floyd, among them.

And the movement is only widening, panelists said.

Several states have already begun to tackle environmental justice concerns using a patchwork of executive orders, draft legislation and administrative initiatives, said panelist Gwen Keyes Fleming, a former EPA official.

But, most notably, Fleming said there is a renewed focus on the federal level.

“The Biden administration has redoubled its efforts to really bring the tenets of environmental justice and equity and the elimination of systemic racism to the fore,” Fleming said, telling attendees that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are a team that’s “attempting to put the money where their goals are” with their “whole-of-government” approach to policy.

This attention to justice and inclusion won’t dissipate any time soon.

Panelist Ben Wilson, chairman of the environmental practice group Beveridge and Diamond in Washington, D.C., said he advises his clients to embrace environmental justice, not run the other way.

It is important that your clients understand that “the government is keeping score… environmental activists are keeping score” Wilson explained. So, “it behooves our clients to keep score, [too] — to be able to demonstrate how their project will benefit the environmental justice community.”

But Wilson said that incorporating the principles of environmental justice isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

A “program that works for someone in the chemical industry, may not work for a big-box store or may not work for oil and gas or the health care industry,” Wilson elaborated.  He said lawyers should build an environmental justice program that makes sense for their particular entity.

Lawyers are driving the environmental justice movement forward.

“Lawyers have a unique ability to work with engineers and scientists and others to solve a problem,” said Wilson. “There is no movement, if you will, without lawyers.”

“The Era of Environmental Justice: Prioritizing Protection and Remedies for Underrepresented Communities” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.