By Chris Patrick, staff writer
What is environmental justice?
This was the question panelists tackled at the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review’s annual spring symposium, cohosted by Virginia Coastal Policy Center (VCPC) on February 26. The event’s focus was environmental justice, which can be tricky to define even for those immersed in environmental law.
“I didn’t know exactly what environmental justice was going into the symposium,” says third-year W&M law student Thomas Russell, who is also part of the Environmental Law and Policy Review and a VCPC student. “But I learned a lot and the examples given by the panelists are really interesting.”
The US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) definition of environmental justice is the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The point of this “fair treatment and meaningful involvement” is to ensure everyone protection from environmental health hazards. But the symposium’s first panel, which included a member of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, went beyond the textbook definition to explain environmental justice. They added that it’s also about giving communities the power to make their own decisions about their surroundings.
“It becomes about education leading to empowerment,” said Erica Holloman. Holloman is the project coordinator for the Southeast CARE Coalition, an organization that addresses environmental concerns in the southeast community of Newport News, VA. According to her, when communities are educated with information specific to their community’s issues, they’re able to use terminology that makes their voices more likely to be heard.
The southeast community in Newport News is considered vulnerable to recurrent flooding and sea level rise because of its location and socioeconomic composition. Holloman said that although only 0.5% of real estate in Newport News is predicted to be affected by sea level rise and recurrent flooding, all 0.5 % of that real estate is in the southeast community—where the median income of residents is less than half of other parts of the city.
To tackle some of the challenges of environmental justice in Newport News, the Southeast CARE Coalition partners with the VCPC to work on policy analysis questions that could lead to the community’s empowerment. VCPC work has evaluated the impact of sea level rise on the community, considering possible adaptations, and explored how community members can be involved in building resiliency.
The issues of environmental justice go beyond recurrent flooding, too. Panelists cited examples of environmental justice issues beyond recurrent flooding, such as the halting the improper use of pesticides threatening farmworkers’ health and ensuring that states justly implement the Clean Power Plan. As panelist Lenneal Henderson, adjunct professor of government at W&M, told attendees: “Almost any policy area that you’re dealing with has an environmental justice component to it.”
An extension partner of Virginia Sea Grant, VCPC at William & Mary Law School provides policy and legal analysis to its partners on coastal resource and community issues in its mission to educate and train the future lawyers and leaders of tomorrow.