Light ahead for our environmental justice work

by Allison Milionis | Apr 29, 2021

Environmental Justice word cloud

Nearly 30 years ago, President Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to “identify and address” adverse environmental impacts from federal projects on vulnerable communities. However, because it wasn’t a law, communities didn’t have legal recourse to fight if federal agencies didn’t act with their best interest in mind.

Little changed after that. If anything, environmental injustices are exacerbated by climate change and the fact that President Trump cut funds for the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice while he was in office.

But it seems a seismic shift is underway. The new climate-focused executive order by the Biden administration looks promising. By taking an “all of government” approach, Biden’s goal is for all decision-making across the federal government to be viewed through an equity lens.

Dr. Robert Bullard, the “father of environmental justice,” and an appointed member of the new White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council is hopeful. Dr. Bullard has been speaking out and writing about environmental justice for over four decades, making the case in books and lectures that vulnerable communities have been disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and degradation.

In a Grist online Q & A, Dr. Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, spoke to the importance of having the communities most impacted by pollution and climate change be a central part of the conversation around solutions.

Says Dr. Bullard: “The environmental justice that we developed in 1991 is that people who are most impacted must speak for themselves and must be in those rooms when decisions are being made about their self-determination, their communities, and their livelihoods. And I’m seeing a lot of that happening, filtering up. And that’s a good thing, as opposed to being top-down and being somehow told that this is how we’re going to do it.”

I think there’s growing recognition that protecting our environment is protecting people, and protecting our communities is protecting the environment.

Courtney Johnson

Executive DIrector, Crag Law Center

20 years’ commitment to environmental justice

In the 20 years Crag has provided legal aid to communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been committed to helping communities get a seat at the table when combatting polluting development projects. We’ve let our clients and partners lead, playing the supporting role in their fight against companies and development plans that threaten community health and culture.

One of our early environmental justice cases was working alongside the indigenous Iñupiat people of the North Slope of Alaska. When the sea where they’ve hunted whale for more than 1000 years was threatened by Dutch Royal Shell oil wells, we challenged the behemoth company in court and won. 

Closer to home, we’re working with local groups and impacted communities on projects such as the I-5 Expansion and Portland Harbor Cleanup to help strengthen their organizing efforts and advocate for legal solutions on their behalf. And in December 2020, we cheered alongside the community of Chiloquin, Oregon, after they claimed a victory over Klamath County for failing to justify a decision to put new sewer ponds on forested lands outside of town. Working on behalf of community members who had been denied a meaningful opportunity to have their concerns heard, we took the challenge to the Land Use Board of Appeals which agreed that the County had failed to address the impact the sewer plant and pond would have on community health, quality of life and the beloved wildlife that thrive in the area.

 

The wind at our backs

In an Earth Day interview on KBOO radio, our executive director, Courtney Johnson said: “I think there’s growing recognition that protecting our environment is protecting people, and protecting our communities is protecting the environment.”

As the funds begin to flow and policy opportunities arise as a result of the Biden administration’s encouraging goals to achieve environmental justice for all, we believe we’re well-positioned to support communities and groups who are more than ready to sit at the table with decision-makers. It’s exciting to imagine what the future may look like for members of society who have borne the brunt of the worst instincts of companies and government.  

Allison Milionis

Allison Milionis

Allison Milionis is a writer and editor, and long-time supporter of Crag’s work.  She was born in the Pacific Northwest, left to experience life in a big city, and then returned 20 years later to put her roots back into the rich soil of her beloved PNW forests and fields.