In 2016, a University of Chicago Law School clinic began working with East Chicago, Indiana, residents in their fight for a safe cleanup of the soil contamination that has harmed the area for decades. In a different project, the same clinic represents Soulardarity, a nonprofit that helps residents in the Detroit area launch their own solar energy projects, advocate for reliable electricity service, and more.
On the surface, the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic’s two projects are very different. One involves solar power and electricity; the other addresses land contamination. The work in Detroit supports a nonprofit 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, though, is a focus on equity in environmental protection—a focus that marks the Abrams Clinic as a leader of a larger movement within the field.
In East Chicago and Detroit, the Abrams Clinic is advocating for communities that are particularly vulnerable to environmental harms and that often don’t have a voice in the conversations that affect them most.
“These are communities that have historically been underserved,” said Clinical Prof. Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Clinic. “And they are rightfully entitled to be treated more equitably. We’ve got to confront that and ask, ‘How are the systems set up that perpetuate this?’”
There has been a notion, 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 offered the pressing issue of climate change as an example: the work with Soulardarity advocates for renewable energy, thereby reducing the demand for coal-fired power plants and natural gas plants. The East Chicago project is also shaped by the changing climate; higher water levels in Lake Michigan lead to higher groundwater levels in Northwest Indiana, which can increase the spread of contamination and expose more individuals to toxic chemicals in East Chicago.
“The cutting edge is to be able to combine both,” Templeton said. “That can be done—and that’s actually what we have been doing.”
Taking on these projects has involved building long-term relationships with the communities they represent, learning their experiences and concerns, and addressing a wide variety of issues over the years, he added.
“We’re broadening the scope of our work,” Templeton said. “What we’re doing is consistent with what others at the forefront of the legal community working in the environmental justice movement are doing, which is that we’re invested in the community. We’re not just here to deal with one emergency issue or one case and then move on. We are addressing a fuller range of environmental and public health challenges faced by these communities.”
Social justice and the environment
For the last 10 years, the Abrams Clinic has worked on some of the most pressing environmental law issues in Chicago and across the Great Lakes region. The clinic has addressed everything from endangered species protection, to clean air and water, to the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, and much more—all while offering students invaluable hands-on experience with environmental law policies and procedures.
When Templeton joined the Law School as the founding director of the Abrams Clinic in 2012, he arrived with a longstanding interest in environmental justice. In 2009, as the cabinet-level director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, he created a team to address environmental justice issues throughout the state. At the Law School, Templeton found there was a great deal of student interest in tackling environmental justice issues as well.
“We have been involved in this work for over five years with both Soulardarity and East Chicago,” Templeton said. “There are many students who have an interest in this type of social justice work, as you can see from the Law School clinics more generally. But people have not always known that you could do this work in the environmental space.”