Protect the Health of Low-Income Communities

In cities and towns across America, low-income communities and communities of color are forced to shoulder pollution's heaviest burdens. And often they are not given their fair share of basic environmental amenities such as access to open space, healthy foods, and public transit. Statistics show that polluters are far more likely to target these communities—and their residents pay the highest price. Children who live near freeways, ports, and rail yards are five times more likely to have lung damage than kids who don’t.

Miriam Rotkin-Ellman

For more than two decades, NRDC has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with grassroots allies in the fight for environmental justice. We look to communities to define their own battles, then provide the legal tools and expertise to create the change they seek. We stay the course until justice is delivered and empower residents to create the healthier, more vibrant neighborhoods they deserve.

We also recognize that environmental justice comes from the ground up, so our partnerships should derive from and be accountable to the local community groups with which we collaborate. In order to ensure that environmental justice initiatives can be self-sustaining, these partnerships should also be committed to building short- and long-term institutional capacities within local and regional organizations. And they should be considered part of a larger movement while adhering to the movement’s established principles.

When dirty industries or negligent governments fail to honor the law, we take them to court—no matter how powerful the foe. And our innovative, community-focused legal work sets precedents for cleaning up pollution nationwide. Our attorneys used the Americans with Disabilities Act to require the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) to repair unhealthy mold conditions in public housing, where childhood asthma rates are nearly double those in other types of buildings. In a landmark settlement of a class-action lawsuit, NRDC helped to establish a civil right to breathe for thousands of NYCHA tenants suffering from asthma and living in apartments with unhealthy mold.

In 2001, when the Port of Los Angeles announced expansion plans, it did so without proper environmental review, despite being a major source of diesel pollution. Our challenge of these plans in court forced the port to make changes, such as plugging ships into electric power at the docks and switching to cleaner fuels. This lawsuit resulted in creating the first “green” container terminal in the world and served as the model for future port development locally, nationally, and in China. We learned recently, however, that the port has failed to implement several key pollution-cutting measures. We are now working with harbor-area residents to expose the port’s actions and ensure this never happens again. This case illustrates that we cannot let our guard down and that our commitment to environmental justice must be long-term.

With local groups in Chicago, NRDC brought national attention to refinery waste from Canadian tar sands oil, which was blowing into neighborhoods on the Southeast Side. With advice from NRDC health and policy experts, Chicago soon had laws on the books to protect its citizens from the toxic dust.

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