Low income and minority communities across the country from Detroit to Los Angeles continue to struggle for environmental justice. The relatively strong pollution control laws and legal enforcement tools that work in most settings consistently fail to remedy the ongoing problem of toxic hot spots, dirty air, and polluted rivers that disproportionately afflict these neighborhoods. This week, a new Title VI Civil Rights administrative complaint was filed by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment against the California Air Resources Board over California’s greenhouse gas cap and trade program, which could concentrate more conventional and toxic emissions in already polluted communities. (For excellent commentary on the complaint, see Prof. Alan Ramo’s post, and counterpoints by Prof. Dan Farber and Prof. Shi-Ling Hsu).
Much closer to home, environmental injustice continues to put a terrible burden on Southwest Detroit. Former Wayne Law student Laura Rogers-Raleigh (who will be joining the Warner Norcross & Judd law firm this fall) has written a superb paper detailing how and why the environmental and civil rights legal systems consistently fail to protect these communities, and what can be done instead. Her paper, When all else fails: Can industry mitigate environmental injustice in Southwest Detroit?, takes a critical look at the expansion of Marathon Petroleum Company’s refinery in southwest Detroit and the company’s offers to purchase homes of affected residents as a form of corporate social responsibility. In a landscape of imperfect solutions, this can be a tool to help achieve environmental justice for some communities. But we need significant legal reform in this area to protect all citizens, regardless of wealth or race, from environmental pollution.