The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
November 16, 2020

Advancing Environmental Justice Through Pro Bono

“Whether by conscious design or institutional neglect, communities of color in urban ghettos, in rural ‘poverty pockets,’ or on economically impoverished Native-American reservations face some of the worst environmental devastation in the nation.” 
Dr. Robert Bullard

The coronavirus has laid bare the urgent need for environmental justice and its relevance in combating institutional racism. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other people of color and low-income communities. The institutional and structural inequalities in this country have put certain communities at a disadvantage to combat this virus.[1]

What is Environmental Justice?

During the 1980s, grassroots environmental organizations recognized disparities in the location of pollution and toxic wastes. Policymakers and corporations, choosing certain geographical areas to place polluting and waste disposal facilities, made decisions that prioritized their economic benefit to the detriment of communities of color and low-income communities. These intentional decisions were facilitated by discriminatory practices and policies, such as housing segregationracist zoning practices, and infrastructure development (or the lack thereof) that marginalized and oppressed Black and Brown people. Although racially discriminatory environmental practices are currently addressed through a patchwork of  federal laws and policies, including the Fair Housing ActTitle VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Executive Order 12898 (February, 1994)National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and 42 U.S. Code § 4332, the legacy of discriminatory policies continue and still affect communities of color today. 

Due to increased exposure to toxins, communities of color and low-income communities experience adverse health outcomes with less access to care. These concerns led to the development of the term, “environmental justice,” and the rise of the environmental justice movement to better protect marginalized communities.  

The Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment[2] and meaningful involvement[3] 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.”  

Examples of environmental issues relating to environmental justice include “any environmental pollutant, hazard or disadvantage that compromises the health of a community or its residents.” Frequent environmental issues relate to: 

Pro Bono & Environmental Justice

Several law firms have become active in environmental justice pro bono work and have made a significant impact on communities of color and low-income communities. Below are some victories achieved by pro bono lawyers:

  • Housing: Proskauer’s* pro bono team, contributed to the attainment of the federal order that required the New York City Housing Authority (“NYCHA”) to “implement enhanced procedures to ensure the effective and timely remediation of mold and excessive moisture.” This order impacts more than 400,000 New Yorkers who live in the NYCHA apartments, the largest public housing authority in the country – 150,000 of whom live in areas that experience the highest rates of asthma in NYC.
  • Waste: Hughes Hubbard & Reed*, co-counsel for several local New York communities, successfully defended New York City’s “waste equity law” against a challenge from the waste industry by filing an amicus brief. The city ignored environmental reviews to pass a law that would increase traffic and air pollution.
  • Water: White & Case* successfully reached a settlement for students in Flint, Michigan. The children have been exposed to lead in their drinking water for 18 months during the Flint Water Crisis. 

Examples of Partner Organizations

Sample organizations that directly work on environmental justice pro bono matters:

  • Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment (CRPE) is a national environmental justice organization providing legal, organizing, and technical assistance to grassroots groups in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest environmental law organization working to protect people’s health, preserve places and wildlife, advance clean energy, and combat climate change.
  • Green Pro Bono offers pro bono legal help for green social entrepreneurs. They connect attorneys with different climate change NGOs based on their preferred area of law.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) is a non-profit organization fighting for racial justice through litigation, advocacy, and public education. 
  • New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) is a non-profit organization that helps eliminate the unfair burden of environmental hazards in low-income communities and communities of color. 

Sample organizations that do not provide legal services, but work to further equity in the environment:

  • MN350’s mission is to unite Minnesotans to bring about sustainable energy and create “a just and healthy future for all.” Their vision also seeks to dismantle “systems of racism, gender oppression, the dispossession of indigenous people, and predatory capitalism.”
  • OPAL works to advance environmental justice in areas such as transportation, air quality, energy, and housing in Oregon. 
  • Urban Sprouts provides safe, low-barrier pathways to improving the health of San Francisco communities.
  • Louisiana Bucket Brigade fights to free neighborhoods from industrial pollution and advance the transition towards clean energy. 
  • Community to Community works to empower under-represented people and restore justice to food, land, and cultural practices.

For more information about advancing environmental justice through pro bono, please contact PBI at pbi@probonoinst.org

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

** The information contained within is for informational purposes only. The organizations listed have not been vetted or endorsed by Pro Bono Institute.

Hat tip to PBI intern Emily Tran for her significant assistance.


[1] For example, low-income communities and communities of color are often located in areas with heavy industry, coal-fired power plants, and highly trafficked roads, which tend to have lower air quality, including higher concentrations of small particulates (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns across or PM2.5). Science has shown that exposure to higher PM 2.5 levels contribute to higher incidences of asthma, heart disease, and other health conditions that increase a person’s COVID-19 mortality rate. Thus, it is not surprising that there is a strong correlation between higher COVID-19 higher mortality rates and those exposed relatively high levels of PM2.5. Studies have shown that those in poverty had a 1.35 times higher burden from the emissions than the overall population. Health disparities for Blacks revealed a 1.54 times higher burden than the overall population.

[2] Fair treatment means “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”

[3] Meaningful involvement means:

  • “People have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health.
  • The public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision.
  • Community concerns will be considered in the decision-making process.”

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