The Potential

What if communities had access to legal support?

Many cite the struggle by the predominantly African-American community of Afton, North Carolina, to prevent the disposal of 60,000 tons of soil contaminated with PCBs in the nearby landfill as a decisive moment in the birth the environmental justice movement. And it was. After state officials refused to take action, the community did something unexpected: it fought back. For weeks, Afton residents lay down on the roads to prevent the trucks carrying the waste to pass. Five hundred people were arrested—the first arrests over a landfill siting.

AftonPerhaps fewer people are familiar with Leroy Jones. A 16-year-old in the segregated oil company town of Norco, Louisiana, he was mowing his neighbor’s lawn in the summer of 1973. When he restarted the mower engine, a spark ignited the oil that was leaking from a Shell pipeline. The resulting explosion burned down his neighbor’s house and killed his neighbor; residents recall Leroy running down the street, body on fire. At his funeral, witnesses claim that Shell representatives gave Leroy’s mother a check for $500 for her loss.

What if, in the cases of Afton and Norco, the community had had better access to understanding regulations that might have prohibited or delayed the dumping? Or access to expert witnesses? Such resources may not have resulted in a different outcome, but they would have certainly provided the community with alternatives other than risking lives and living with chronic exposure to toxic chemicals, and might have provided resources to empower it for future challenges. The same goes for Northwood Manor, Hinckley, the South Bronx, Appalachian communities combating mountaintop-removal mining, Dimock, the dumping of nuclear waste on the lands of Native American nations, and on and on. Not only could billions in cleanup costs have been avoided, but communities might not have had to suffer for years from the destruction of their environment and harms to their health, while not knowing what rules applied and what toxins infected them.

We have the lawyers and the tools

The major obstacles to providing legal support – lack of capacity and lack of coordinated communication – can be overcome. There are thousands of attorneys admitted to the bar each year (not to mention thousands who are now un- or underemployed), hundreds of law firms looking for pro bono work, and many attorney emeritus looking to volunteer in meaningful ways.

Courtesy of Economix

Courtesy of Economix

The legal profession also must change, if it wishes to remain relevant to its members and as a profession in the coming decades. Luckily, there are increasing tools and initiatives working to address this issue. The role of technology in making legal resources more available and the process more transparent is growing, and there are more and more  online tools designed to make it easier to access legal support without lawyers.

Building pathways for meaningful participation also has implications beyond the environmental justice movement. LEG seeks to create an online hub and physical space to connect existing legal resources to organizations in need and to provide access to self-help legal resources. This, in turn, might provide support and replicable models for other areas of social justice.