The Need

Environmental injustice is real – and happening everywhere

That lower-income communities and communities of color disproportionately suffer from environmental degradation and pollution is not news. One need only look at a map of New York to see that its waste treatment plants and waste transfer stations are clustered in lower-income areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, as are bus depots and heavy industry. Green spaces, on the other hand, are in short supply in areas like the South Bronx. Unsurprisingly, these areas see higher rates of disease; for example, rates of death from asthma are three times the national average, and it is estimated that in some neighborhoods in the Bronx 20% of children have asthma.

asthmaAfrican Americans living in New York’s poorest neighborhoods have a lower life expectancy than any other racial or income group. But grim statistics are not isolated to urban areas or communities of people of color—an overlay of coal mining and poverty levels in West Virginia reveals a strong correlation between the poorest areas and the areas of heaviest coal mining activity. West Virginia

Climate change is adding an additional layer of inequality: some of the populations most vulnerable to its effects are lower-income communities living in older public housing in coastal areas and depend on jobs threatened by extreme weather disruptions.

Yet lack of access to justice affects not just those denied access, but every aspect of our society, and environmental injustice results in harms everyone pays for. The refusal by some state and local governments to prepare for climate change or provide resources for communities to do so will result in billions of dollars of damage and in significant population displacement of coastal communities—from all income ranges. Lack of access to urban planning and industrial siting decisions leads to communities with severe health concerns, which in turn leads to lost work days, increased strains on health care systems, and government expenditure that does not address the underlying issues.

Not having access to legal resources is blocking change

The Legal Services Corporation estimates that out of the 60 million Americans who qualify for civil legal services, 80% will never get it, due to lack of capacity. Nearly 3/4 of low-income Americans and 2/3 of moderate-income Americans with identified legal needs either ignore their problem or try to resolve it without assistance.

The result of this structure is a situation where small groups with potential for outsized impact will be unnecessarily constrained. It also means that many organizations with legal needs can neither afford to meet them, nor, in some cases, even properly articulate them.

Statistics are similar for nonprofit environmental organizations. An informal survey of New York-based nonprofit organizations providing any kind of legal service show few including support for environmental issues as part of their mission (and fewer still on issues related to environmental justice):

  • 150+ organizations in New York State offer some legal aid/assistance;
  • 8-10 focus directly on environmental issues;
  • 4-6 address them in some capacity;
  • 4-6 include an explicit) focus on environmental grassroots issues.

NYS LSP by type

Of the more than 1500 organizations listed nationally in the Public Service Jobs Directory, 125 were tagged as “environment” focused, or about 8%.

In a recent survey of grassroots organizations working to combat environmental injustices, almost 100% of respondents said they had a legal need in the past year that they were unable to meet. The needs were both transactional (incorporation and corporate structure, employment and labor law, real estate, networking) and mission-related (litigation, policy work, community advocacy).

Below is a table from a recent survey, which ranks the legal needs faced in the past year by surveyed organizations.

In the past year, has your organization Yes
Contacted a legal service provider? 100%
Engaged in legal research? 100%
Worried about legal liability? 100%
Sued/been sued? 90%
Wanted help with organizational management? 93%
Thought about changing its legal structure? 82%
Had a landlord dispute? 66%
Tried to hire an expert witness? 63%
Had a contract dispute? 55%
Had an immigration issue? 43%
Had a labor dispute? 33%
Mission-Related  
Participated in a government agency decision-making process? 97%
Wanted to know more about a government agency decision-making process? 95%
Participated in any local ordinance/agency procedures? 71%
Hired an attorney? 52%
Filed a legal complaint? 48%
Filed a permit appeal? 33%
Filed a zoning complaint? 19%