Four Decades of Work on Environmental Justice at Duke

“We can draw attention to disparities (both current and potential) that may otherwise go ignored in spaces where environmental decisions are made,” Emanuel said. “The work that we do at Duke can inform decision-making on these issues while amplifying the voices of communities that are often impacted by decisions but are rarely consulted in any meaningful way.”

Environmental policy scholars are joined by faculty from across the university to work on this issue. Duke law professors Ryke Longest and Michelle Nowlin co-direct the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, a joint venture between Duke Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment that addresses environmental justice from a legal perspective.

More than a decade ago, student teams from the clinic worked with community groups to prevent the construction of a Navy jet landing field which would have damaged environmentally sensitive wetlands in eastern North Carolina.

The student team and community members also prevented the building of a coal-burning cement kiln next to a river already substantially polluted by mercury, helped to develop policies that advance organic and sustainable agriculture and played a significant role in establishing policies that protect children in North Carolina’s licensed day-care centers from lead in drinking water.

Environmental injustice and instances of systemic racism persist, decades after such practices were outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The linchpin legislation provided the legal framework that enabled the federal government to address environmental malpractice as a civil rights issue.

Two instances of environmental injustice hit close to home: the devastation of the historically Black Hayti district in the shadow of downtown Durham in the 1960s to build highway NC 147, and low-income East Durham neighborhoods where historic disinvestment has led to “nuisance flooding” because of inadequate pipes and culverts.

Kay Jowers, who directs Just Environments at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, said the goals of environmental justice advocates are challenged by similar practices that were established across the United States during segregation.

“This is about the built-in environment that already exists,” she said. “So we are not going to wipe the slate clean with the existing landfills. We cannot rebuild all the housing stock in Durham.”

Duke’s history includes creating housing covenants in Durham that furthered environmental inequalities, something Jowers said is crucial to acknowledge.

“It’s important to be sensitive to the role institutions have played in the impact of racially restrictive covenants,” she said.

Jowers said the community work done by Just Environments is “keen to go beyond traditional, often extractive, research dynamics to foster more mutually beneficial, reciprocal, and just relationships with communities.”