To answer this question, we need some background. History can help us understand the present.
In the 1970s, the United States government enacted three major environmental laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act. Elected representatives passed this environmental legislation to increase regulations regarding air, water, and toxic substances.
In a Public Service Recognition Week publication, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) listed the many ways the government works for citizens and other residents. It pointed out that:
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) keeps workplaces safe for all employees.
- The Clean Air Act guarantees a commitment to safe, breathable air.
- Federal law prohibits discrimination of any kind.
- Public water systems provide safe drinking water.
Minority Communities Do Not Always Enjoy Environmental Laws’ Protections
While these agencies and policies set forth a legal precedent for these environmental regulations, authorities often fail to ensure their equal enforcement, and people of color and those in poor communities suffer as a result.
A New York University (NYU) School of Law article notes that this disproportionate effect, known as environmental racism, restricts access to healthy environments where victims live, work, and play. Because of unjust practices, minorities have a higher chance of suffering from poor air quality, environmental toxins, and the effects of unhealthy drinking water, such as high lead levels in their blood.
Environmental justice lawyers work to balance the scale of justice by influencing environmental policy change that encourages equality and the fight against injustice.
Environmental law #1: the Clean Air Act
In 1970, the United States passed 42 U.S. Code § 7401, also known as the Clean Air Act (CAA). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the comprehensive law regulated emissions from both mobile and stationary sources and allowed the agency to create National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
As part of the CAA’s amendment in the 1990s, bipartisan legislators agreed to strengthen the enforcement of the Act and establish more progressive NAAQS. However, as of 2022, people of color experience the impacts of pollution more severely than their white counterparts. This data demonstrates that EPA regulations have their shortcomings.
Environmental law #2: the Clean Water Act
Two years after the CAA, the U.S. passed 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq., or the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972. This key piece of environmental legislation originated in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which enacted general legislation regarding the protection of the country’s water supply. The CWA amended the original act, adding elements such as:
- The establishment of pollution control programs, including industrial wastewater standards
- The development of national recommendations for water quality criteria for surface water pollutants
- The banning of the discharge of a pollutant into navigable waters except under strict circumstances
Despite the implementation of these measures decades ago, many Americans still face water contamination issues, particularly in poor areas and cities with large minority populations. This may include residents of Flint, MI, as well as Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newark, and Milwaukee, as well as many other cities across the country.
Camp Lejeune, a Case Study
Several instances throughout history demonstrate the importance of the Clean Water Act. One such example is the story of Camp Lejeune. This military base, and its surrounding satellite bases, had contaminated water supplies from August 1953 to December 1987.
The contaminants present in these water supplies caused many medical conditions, including:
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Liver cancer
- Other life-altering conditions
Historically, the service members present on these bases only had one option: they could rely on the Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012. This act allowed veterans to seek disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
However, as of summer 2022, Congress is working to pass the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021. This act, if passed, will permit those affected by the water contamination at Camp Lejeune to file lawsuits against the U.S. government. These lawsuits could reimburse victims for medical expenses and lost wages, among other damages.
If you’re curious about the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021, consider speaking with a lawyer. They can advise you on the Act and explain if it applies to your circumstances.
Environmental Law #3: the Toxic Substances Control Act
Passed in 1976, 15 U.S. Code § 2601 et seq. gave the EPA the authority to mandate companies to maintain recording, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements, as well as restrictions on certain chemicals. Other provisions of the legislation, known as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), include the jurisdiction of the EPA to:
- Require manufacturers, importers, and processors to test chemicals if the EPA suspects risks
- Maintain the TSCA inventory of over 83,000 chemicals
- Require certification reporting and other requirements when importing or exporting chemicals
- Require industries to report any TSCA violations
However, the TSCA does not apply to many types of industries in which people of color and lower socioeconomic status frequently work, such as in food, drug and cosmetics manufacturing, and pesticides.
According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), many minorities and those living in poverty face a much higher risk for disease caused by environmental factors, such as hazardous chemicals or dangerous workplaces, than those in other populations.
A Lawyer Can Help You Understand Major Environmental Laws
Despite the rights ensured by the three major environmental laws, the government has failed to provide widespread protection throughout the country, and those in minority groups and who live in poverty often fall between the cracks.
At Ben Crump Law, PLLC, our attorneys believe that your income level, the color of your skin, or any other factor should never determine the value of your safety, health, and well-being. We can help you fight for justice and compensation.
We can represent those who’ve experienced environmental injustice, like the individuals who were stationed at Camp Lejeune. Contact us today to speak with our legal team about your free case evaluation.