Fighting for Racial Justice
NEW DEVELOPMENTS: July 2011-FRESNO, CALIFORNIA - After patiently waiting more than fifteen years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to resolve civil rights violations, Buttonwillow and Kettleman City residents have asked a federal court to compel Lisa Jackson, the EPA Administrator, to enforce the Civil Rights Act.
CRPE has pioneered the use of civil rights law in environmental justice disputes, producing guides for grassroots activists, coordinating pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce its own civil rights regulations, and representing client groups across the United States in civil rights complaints and lawsuits. Through the Civil Rights Campaign, CRPE advocates for enforceable local, state and national civil rights laws and policies to address and prevent disparate environmental impacts on low-income communities and communities of color.
CRPE’s civil rights advocacy began in 1991, when we filed a civil rights and environmental law suit against Kings County, California for permitting a toxic waste incinerator near Kettleman City. CRPE’s clients won that suit on environmental grounds. In 2001, CRPE was co-counsel in the historic civil rights case South Camden Citizens in Action v. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, in which a District Court judge held – for the first time in U.S. history – that an environmental agency’s permitting decision, although legal under environmental law, was a violation of civil rights law. Although the decision was overturned on appeal, it stands as a monument to the civil rights law’s potential to address the inequitable distribution of environmental harms if courts were no longer hostile to civil rights plaintiffs. CRPE continues the tactic of using civil rights and environmental law to challenge a project’s impact on our client communities in El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio v. Kings County, filed in 2010. In this lawsuit Kettleman City residents challenge the County’s approval of the expansion of the largest hazardous waste facility west of the Mississippi.
CRPE has represented dozens of community groups in administrative complaints to federal agencies under civil rights regulations to challenge a variety of environmental hazards, from toxic waste dumps (Kettleman City, Buttonwillow and Westmorland, California) to garbage dumps (numerous towns in rural Alabama) to chemical weapons disposal plants (Dayton, Ohio) to diesel bus terminals (Harlem, New York) to sewage waste treatment facilities (Corpus Christi, Texas) to hazardous waste recycling facilities (East Palo Alto, California) to nuclear waste dumps (Colorado River Indian Tribes, California and Arizona). CRPE has worked with these client communities to ensure that the civil rights complaints were deployed as part of an ongoing community campaign, to raise the profile of the groups involved and draw new adherents to local struggles.
CRPE has also coordinated the national effort to get the EPA to enforce its own civil rights regulations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including writing comments on EPA’s various Title VI Guidances: in 2000, CRPE submitted comments on behalf of more than 125 community groups, environmental justice organizations, coalitions, networks, Indian Nations and individuals, from 33 states and Puerto Rico. CRPE also served on the EPA’s Title VI Implementation Committee, which advised EPA on how to enforce civil rights laws.
CRPE has published numerous articles and book chapters on using civil rights law in the environmental justice context, including works that are instructional (such as “Community-Based Administrative Advocacy under Civil Rights Law: A Potential Environmental Justice Tool for Legal Services Advocates,” 29 Clearinghouse Review 360 (1995) and “Environmental Justice Litigation: Another Stone in David's Sling,” 21 Fordham Urban Law Journal 523 (1994).) as well as descriptive and analytical (for example, “Using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to Protect Cultural and Natural Resources,” a chapter in Natural Resources and Environmental Justice (K. Mutz, G. Bryner, D. Kenney eds.)(Island Press, 2002)) and prescriptive (“Stop Gutting Civil Rights,” 17 The Environmental Forum 50 (September-October 2000)). CRPE’s advocacy around EPA’s civil rights record has also included a scholarly analysis of EPA’s civil rights record (“Civil Rights, Environmental Justice and the EPA: The Brief History of Administrative Complaints Under Title VI,” 9 Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation 309 (1994)) as well as a detailed critique of EPA’s first civil rights decision on the merits (“‘Wrong on the Facts, Wrong on the Law’: Civil Rights Advocates Excoriate EPA’s Most Recent Title VI Misstep,” 29 ELR News & Analysis 10775 (1999)).