On Page 4 of their Trail Guide to Careers in Environmental Law, Harvard Law School notes that environmental lawyers go to court at state and federal levels regularly to represent government agencies, fight for the individual rights of citizens through lawsuits, and challenge agency actions.
What Environmental Lawyers Actually Do
In general, environmental lawyers work to establish and uphold policies that safeguard the rights of citizens through the protection of environmental resources. The specific focus of an environmental lawyer depends on the type of law they practice. Branches of environmental law involve different aspects of the same common goal of environmental justice (EJ).
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines EJ as a community-based movement that addresses the burden of pollution and lack of environmental resources suffered disproportionately by communities of color and those living in poverty. Examples of what environmental lawyers do include the following:
- Regulatory lawyers help draw up regulations and legislation regarding environmental affairs.
- Transactional lawyers help clients understand the environmental impact of certain monetary decisions and assist them in making responsible financial decisions.
- Litigation lawyers represent individuals or agencies in the enforcement of environmental law in civil cases.
- Public policy advocacy lawyers work to influence policies and legislation involving environmental issues.
Environmental lawyers can use the state and federal statutes they help to implement to the advantage of their clients by affecting change that encourages the health and well-being of all citizens while emphasizing their right to pursue legal action when an agency breaches that right.
The Many Roles of Environmental Lawyers
While an essential role in any kind of law, going to court accounts for only one of the many responsibilities of environmental lawyers. Their broad practice area requires a more inclusive set of skills related to activities both in and out of the courtroom.
According to the ABA, environmental lawyers once focused on general environmental laws when litigating issues related to environmental injustices. However, in the early 1990s, attorneys began using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to demonstrate the impact of environmental issues on people of color. Today, lawyers often sue government agencies and recipients of government funding on behalf of affected citizens.
Administrative Law Proceedings
In addition to civil courts, environmental lawyers also manage cases in administrative law, which oversees the development and operation of government agencies. In administrative court, lawyers can address decisions made by government agencies that affect the safety and well-being of citizens, particularly those of color and in lower socioeconomic brackets.
Other Professional Duties
In addition to taking cases to civil and administrative courts, many environmental lawyers engage in activities that influence the policies they support. Other duties of environmental lawyers may include:
- Lobbying for elected officials who champion environmental causes
- Advising policymakers on the legal aspects of their proposed regulations
- Drafting new policies and regulations regarding environmental preservation
- Developing new approaches to permitting
- Lending their knowledge to university think tanks
- Consulting with businesses about abiding by environmental laws
At every level, environmental lawyers work to make changes that protect the planet, and, in turn, help improve the lives of those directly impacted by ecological deterioration.
The Principles of Environmental Justice Affirm the Rights of Citizens
In October 1991, delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. formulated The Principles of Environmental Justice, which affirms the rights of people of color and those living in poverty to enjoy the same access to safe, clean resources as all other citizens. Some of the principles drafted by EJ leaders include:
- The right to be free from ecological destruction
- The demand for public policy free from discrimination or bias that respects the justice of all citizens
- The right to clean air, land, water, and food
- The right to participate at every level of the decision-making process
- The right to a safe and healthy work environment
- The need to rebuild communities that suffer from environmental injustice to ensure access to resources
- The opposition to military occupation as a means to repress and exploit specific groups
Environmental lawyers go to court for their clients to uphold these and other principles of EJ through the advocacy of private rights and the encouragement of fair regulations and policies.
Reparations in Environmental Justice Cases
The EJ movement also emphasizes the importance of protecting the rights of environmental injustice victims to receive full reparations for their injuries and losses. Individuals of affected communities have the right to hold those accountable for exposure to environmental hazards in civil court, and these cases often become class action lawsuits due to the number of victims who experience the same injustices.
Victims can pursue legal action if they suffered injuries and losses as a result of exposure to environmental toxins, such as:
- Lead and other drinking water contaminants
- Asbestos or radiation
- Radon and other dangerous gases
- Harmful chemicals
Camp Lejeune: An Example of Environmental Lawyers in Action
From the 1950s through the 1980s—a period of over thirty years—Marines stationed at one of the several Camp Lejeune installations were exposed to toxic drinking water. Their families, including children in utero, were also exposed. Affected installations include:
- Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune
- Marine Corps Air Station New River
- Camp Lejeune Greater Sandy Run
- Stone Bay Rifle Range
- And others
Staying on one or more of these installations for a period of at least thirty days increased the victims’ risk of developing cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and other life-altering or fatal conditions.
Since the ‘80s, affected Marines and their families have turned to environmental lawyers to help them receive justice after their unwitting, devastating exposure. These lawyers have provided timely assistance by:
- Reviewing each Marine’s case and outlining what their options are for pursuing justice
- Helping them apply for healthcare benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and appealing denials if their claim is rejected
- Determining if they are eligible to file a lawsuit against anyone
- Searching for evidence to prove their case in all applicable venues
Environmental lawyers are familiar with the law and how it applies in different situations, making it easier for victims of environmental injustice to get what they need.
An Environmental Lawyer Can Go to Court for You
At Ben Crump Law, PLLC, our lawyers often witness the unfair impact of environmental issues on communities that the government so often overlooks. Minorities and citizens living in poverty have the same rights as everyone else, and we can help you seek justice. Contact our legal team today to get started on your free case evaluation.