Yesterday I spoke at Pennsylvania’s first Environmental Justice Conference. First, let me say that this was a remarkable event, combining thought leaders from every area of this complex and critically important movement – academics, medical professionals, journalists, grass roots advocates, community organizers, and attorneys like me. It was an honor to participate in this dialogue.
What is environmental justice? The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection offers this definition: “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.”
This is a passionate discussion, and I can’t help but think of the many people whose lives have been directly touched by an environmental injustice. For instance, I think of communities like Ambler, Pennsylvania, where they continue to grapple with millions of tons of soil contaminated by asbestos dumped on the outside of town – sometimes called the “white mountain.” I’ve represented people with mesothelioma from this town. Met their families. Sat in their living rooms.
I think of the folks of Libby, Montana – and the environmental injustice that blanketed asbestos on their homes, streets, and ultimately in their lungs.
My panel offered a wealth of information from some exceptionally smart folks about the law’s role in helping manage and push these issues forward. Speakers included Daniel Isales of the US EPA Environmental Science Center, Adam Cutler of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and Joan Johnson, also of the US EPA.
What struck me as I met with people and listened to humbling stories like the one about the Harlem neighborhood where one-third of the children suffer from asthma due to the poor air quality, I was reminded yet again why it is I do what I do.
The plight of folks suffering from asbestos disease is one of the greatest tragedies and environmental injustices in the world’s history. Innocent people, too often in lower-income households and forgotten communities, were essentially poisoned by the companies where they were employed. Corporate profits were put above personal safety, and hard-working Americans were left to pay the price. From 1999 to 2005, more than 18,000 people died from mesothelioma.
For those that believe that personal injury lawsuits are clogging up our judicial system, I offer that while, yes, there are “frivolous” lawsuits – those are the exception. In fact, less than 10% of all litigation involves personal injury matters.
Furthermore, the legal system is a critical mechanism for providing equal access and recourse to American citizens. This is a cornerstone of our great country, giving a voice to those without power and creating a sense of accountability for those that do. Legal action can often be a catalyst to help curtail future wrongdoing. Asbestos litigation is a textbook example of this – forcing increased corporate responsibility for providing safe, asbestos-free work environments.
Bringing an injustice in front of a jury of your peers is truly the great equalizer, and good things come of it. Case in point: Ambler was recently added to the EPA’s National Cleanup List. While I can’t draw a direct line between asbestos lawsuits and the EPA’s action, I’d like to believe that litigation has helped bring additional attention to the community’s very serious issues.
I leave this conference with a renewed sense of dedication to our clients and a distinct sense of humility in the role we play in protecting the rights of those that have suffered an environmental injustice.