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August 09, 2023

ABA task force issues blueprint for advancing environmental justice

Law and policy can rectify injustices related to the environment, crumbling structures and other inequities in communities of color and lower-wealth white communities, said speakers at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.

The program featured the release of the ABA Environmental Justice Task Force report, “Blueprint for Advancing Environmental Justice in and by the American Bar Association,” which highlights the ABA’s role in combating the disparate impact of environmental policies and practices on poor communities, people of color and tribal communities.

Gwen Keys Flemming, co-chair of the task force and a partner with DLA Piper LLP in Washington, D.C.,  said the group worked for 18 months to identify ways the ABA ”could take advantage of this historical opportunity to make an indelible impact on promoting environmental justice, not just in the practice of law but also by helping to emphasize the dignity of millions of vulnerable communities across the nation who unfortunately suffer under the disproportionate impact of adverse human health and environmental consequences.”

Flemming said this is a moment of transformational change for environmental justice and the ABA.

Panelist Mustafa Ali Santiago, executive vice president of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., agreed. “We have to make sure that we are diligently being focused, that we are applying the law and that we are making sure that we have the health sets of infrastructures in place to help folks that have been polluted. Communities want to be able to breath clean air, they want to drink water that is as close to being pristine as possible, they want to be able to plant food … and for their children to be able to play without fear of being impacted,” he said.

Santiago said justice is making sure clean water, clean air and reliable infrastructures are a reality for all communities. “The injustice is in how we got there and how do we make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes of the past, that we are laser-focused on being able to help people move from surviving to thriving.”

The panel also included Brenda Mallory, from the White House Council on Environmental Quality in Washington, D.C., and Ignacia S. Moreno, CEO & principal with The iMoreno Group PLC in McLean, Virginia. Quentin C. Pair co-chairs the task force.

The blueprint incorporates the 2021 charge from the ABA Board of Governors to the task force to develop recommendations and action items for implementing Resolution 513, which calls on the association to advance environmental justice principles in its programs, policies and activities and to work with governmental bodies to establish laws, regulations and other measures that “reflect the right of every human being to dignity and a clean and healthy environment.”

The action items include:

  • Prepare a report that identifies environmental justice issues for action by the ABA, including filling gaps in policy; encouraging ABA entities to develop new policies; identifying legal education needs; and sharing best practices with members, law schools, legal organizations and law firms.
  • Facilitate collaboration and information exchanges among constituent ABA entities and with relevant public agencies and private organizations.
  • Serve as a clearinghouse among ABA entities regarding environmental justice activities, policy proposals, advocacy, publications and resources.
  • Study and analyze federal, state, tribal and local executive and legislative branch proposals addressing environmental justice.
  • Work with appropriate federal, state, tribal and local government entities that address environmental justice issues, including the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
  • Advise and assist the ABA Governmental Affairs Office on environmental justice advocacy and responses to government actions.
  • Educate members of the bar and the public on environmental justice issues.
  • Identify how to improve conditions related to environmental injustices.

The task force proposed two additional action items: recognizing tribal sovereignty and supporting environmental justice across the globe.

The blueprint is not a “one-size-fits-all” plan and “cannot be implemented solely by the Resolution 513’s sponsors… Successful deployment and implementation require engagement of all levels of ABA leadership as well as membership,” the task force said.