Federal courts have consistently held that Americans do not have a constitutional right to a clean environment and efforts to use civil rights laws to protect poor and minority communities from harmful pollutants have failed, said Veronica Eady, J.D., senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Speaking at the Fordham Environmental Law Review symposium at Fordham Law School on March 2, Eady said that in the 1990s environmental justice movement turned to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fight the clustering of toxic facilities near poor and minority communities. However, the effort to link environmental justice and civil rights has proven fruitless in the courts.
“Over the years, we’ve had a complete failure of civil rights laws and what I would argue is that it may be that the cart came before the horse,” said Eady, who is also an adjunct professor of law at Fordham. “There is a question whether the civil rights laws even contemplate protecting people based on environmental harm. We didn’t have our first environmental laws as we know them today until 1969 and thereafter, and so maybe the cart — civil rights laws — came before the horse.”
Eady’s presentation comes on the heels of the introduction of a bill, the Environmental Justice Act of 2007, in the U.S. House of Representatives that would protect minority and low-income communities from the “disproportionate burden” of pollution and other environmental hazards.
Eady said that 2007 marks the 25th anniversary of a watershed moment in the environmental justice movement in the United States when a black community in North Carolina and civil rights activists fought the construction of a PCB landfill. However, court victories have been few and far between. The movement first sought to use the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourth Amendment, but federal courts have consistently held that that there is no right to a healthful environment in that or any other constitutional amendment.
“So we’re not in very good shape here,” Eady said.
More promising is the effort to view the right to a healthful and clean environment as a basic human right. She cited a petition filed by the New Orleans-based public interest law firm Advocates for Environmental Human Rights on behalf of the mostly black residents of Mossville, La., with the Organization of American States in 2005 as a positive development. The petition claims that the U.S. government is violating the human rights of Mossville residents by allowing 14 major industries in their neighborhood to harm public health and welfare.
By Victor M. Inzunza