Law school clinic fights for environmental justice in East Chicago and Detroit

In 2016, a University of Chicago Law School clinic began working with residents of East Chicago, Indiana, in their fight to safely clean up soil contamination that has harmed to the region for decades. In a different project, the same clinic represents Soulardarity, a nonprofit that helps Detroit-area residents start their own solar energy projects, advocate for reliable electric service, and more.

At first glance, the two projects of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic are very different. One is solar energy and electricity; the other deals with soil contamination. The work in Detroit supports a non-profit organization; in East Chicago, the clinic represents concerned citizens living in an area that has long been part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, which cleans up contaminated sites. What they have in common, however, is a focus on equity in environmental protection, an emphasis that makes Abrams Clinic a leader in a larger movement in the field.

In East Chicago and Detroit, the Abrams Clinic advocates for communities that are particularly vulnerable to environmental harm and often have no voice in the conversations that affect them most.

“These are communities that have historically been underserved,” said clinical professor Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Clinic. “And they have a legitimate right to be treated more fairly. We have to face this and ask ourselves, “How are the systems put in place that perpetuate this?” »

There has been an idea, Templeton said, that environmental law clinics can either focus on environmental justice or another area of ​​environmental law, but he doesn’t see it that way. . These different facets of environmental law are so intertwined that it cannot be one or the other, he said.

Templeton gave the pressing issue of climate change as an example: work with Soulardarity advocates for renewable energy, reducing demand for coal-fired power plants and natural gas-fired power plants. The East Chicago project is also shaped by climate change; higher water levels in Lake Michigan lead to higher groundwater levels in northwest Indiana, which may increase the spread of contamination and expose more people to toxic chemicals in east of Chicago.

“The tip is being able to combine the two,” Templeton said. “It can be done – and it is in fact what we have done.”

Undertaking these projects has involved building long-term relationships with the communities they represent, learning from their experiences and concerns, and solving a wide variety of issues over the years, he said. he adds.

“We are expanding the scope of our work,” Templeton said. “What we are doing is consistent with what others at the forefront of the legal community working in the environmental justice movement are doing, which is to say we are investing in the community. We’re not just here to deal with an emergency issue or case and then move on. We address a fuller range of environmental and public health challenges faced by these communities.

Social Justice and the Environment

For the past 10 years, the Abrams Clinic has worked on some of the most pressing environmental law issues in Chicago and the Great Lakes region. The clinic covered everything from the protection of endangered species, to air and water quality, to the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, and much more, while providing students with invaluable practical experience of environmental law policies and procedures.

When Templeton joined law school as founding director of the Abrams Clinic in 2012, he arrived with a lifelong interest in environmental justice. In 2009, as cabinet-level director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, he created a team to address environmental justice issues across the state. In law school, Templeton found that students were also very interested in environmental justice issues.

“We’ve been involved in this work for over five years with Soulardarity and East Chicago,” Templeton said. “There are a lot of students who are interested in this type of social justice work, as you can see more generally in law school clinics. But people didn’t always know you could do this work in the environmental space.

Jon J. Epps