Lessons Learned from the Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic’s First Annual Environmental Justice Symposium

The Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic recently held its first annual Environmental Justice Symposium, which took place on February 9th 2018 at the Duke University Law School. The theme of the symposium was access to water and sanitation in underserved communities and was an effort to bring to light some of the most prominent environmental justice issues afflicting underserved populations. The symposium included a panel discussion and several breakout sessions.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice (EJ) as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. The concept of environmental justice also means that people are involved in developing safeguards that protect them and their communities against industrial and commercial operations that may be damaging to the environment in which they live. EJ includes issues like water quality, which was the main topic of this symposium, health, and pollution, among others.

Panelists discuss their experiences working on water quality EJ issues across the country. From left to right they include: Catherine Flowers, Colin Bailey, and Omega Wilson. Photo Credit: Duke Law School Facebook.

The Panelists

The panel discussion included Catherine Flowers, Omega Wilson, and Colin Bailey, environmental justice community organizers who operate in different areas of the United States and focus on water and sanitation services. Catherine Flowers is the executive director and founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise which leads projects for the improvement of infrastructure in low-income communities in Alabama. Her work is focused primarily in rural areas. Ms. Flowers is also involved in the Equal Justice Initiative which aids poor communities with legal advice to uphold environmental justice principles. Colin Bailey works for the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) as their executive director and managing attorney in California. Mr. Bailey and the EJCW have been influential in defending California’s notable Human Rights to Water policy that was passed in 2012. Omega Wilson helped found the West End Revitalization Association, a non-profit organization that works on improving access of marginalized communities to amenities that are foundational to public health. Mr. Wilson’s work takes place all over the Southeast.

Key Takeaways

In response to a question regarding the influence of the political environment on advocacy endeavours, the panelists made several interesting points. Ms. Flowers responded by stating that she has perpetually straddled the fence between republican and democrat but that many people focus on EJ issues in urban areas, generally of democratic constituencies, although rural areas experience injustice as well. Thus, a key takeaway is that there should be a greater emphasis on the needs of rural communities, as well. Mr. Wilson responded that there is always a political agenda and that this agenda is not always accepting of EJ advocates, whom are often seen as “troublemakers” at various levels of city governance. In essence, the panelists explained that the political environment does have an impact on EJ issues and that allies are not always allies as everyone has their own particular interests.

A second question posed by the moderator asked what role impacted communities have in the fight for environmental justice.  The panelists responded by saying that listening to individuals in these communities is key as their experiences may be counter to the “official narrative” of a particular situation. Additionally, panelists suggested that advocates and organizers should focus on building relationships with these community members, as well. They said there is a need to develop trust with people in EJ communities by involving people who are recognized and already trusted within the community. Mr. Wilson described an example in which his organization was trying to collect water samples for water quality tests; however, it was difficult to get people to let random organizers into their homes to test their water. Therefore, building trust, especially through the involvement of community members themselves, is crucial. Mr. Bailey made a similar point about the need to build capacity at the community level so that knowledge grows and disseminates within the community.

Participants gathered together in groups to discuss the regulatory barriers and solutions to solving some of the most prominent EJ water quality issues. Photo Credit: Duke Law School Facebook.

Regulatory Approaches Breakout Session Notes

One of the breakout sessions at the symposium was about the regulatory barriers and solutions to the water quality challenges faced by underserved communities. Among the barriers that the breakout group discussed was a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations in environmental justice communities, which in turn yields greater contamination and reduced environmental quality of resources such as water. The group also discussed the general lack of water quality testing in these communities. This lack of monitoring can allow environmental issues to worsen since it is difficult to regulate and impose penalties if there is no monitoring or water testing being done. Participants also described how there are EJ communities in which the pipe systems have deteriorated over the long term with very little maintenance; at this stage, corporate businesses can easily buy these underserved and undervalued parcels and benefit greatly, sometimes to the detriment of existing communities.

Successful regulatory approaches to EJ issues are varied. One participant suggested that local, rather than statewide, mandates and regulations may be more effective at grasping the nuances and issues of the local environment. Others suggested increased scrutiny as it pertains to companies–such as power plants, oil refineries, and hog industries–locating in environmentally sensitive areas, along with greater transparency in legislation and the corporate influence in policy making can help address these issues. Additionally, grants, rather than long-term loans, could be utilized to implement water infrastructure improvements in EJ communities. An important point that came from this discussion was the potential criminalization of civilian regulation violators, which can have real consequences on individuals’ lives; ensuring that existing members of the community are aware of the regulatory requirements is essential, especially as advocates encourage better monitoring and enforcement.


The Environmental Justice Symposium was an opportunity for participants to  better understand and unpack some of the implications, barriers, and solutions that characterize issues of environmental justice. Of particular interest was the water quality, inequality, and marginalization challenges that the panelists at this symposium grapple with in their respective communities and regions. The panelists brought to light the implications that the political environment can have as they navigate EJ endeavours and the role that community members play in these efforts. Audience members were also able to brainstorm and discuss some of the regulatory barriers and solutions to environmental injustices throughout the nation.

About the Author: Kathia Toledo is a candidate for the master’s in City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There, she is pursuing the Land Use and Environmental Planning Specialization. Kathia is particularly interested in the dynamic between varying urban landscapes, sustainability, and planning. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a Bachelors of Arts in Geography and Environmental Studies and a minor in Urban Planning. Her hobbies include creative endeavors like urban sketching and photography, biking on the American Tobacco Trail, and exploring new cities and towns.

Featured Image: Duke Environmental Law & Policy Clinic’s First Annual Environmental Justice Symposium. Photo Credit: Duke Law School Facebook.