What is Environmental Justice?

The term “environmental justice” varies from one situation to the next. Like “economic justice”, it can sometimes mean leveling the playing field between those who have access to vital resources and those who don’t. And it can also mean establishing legal protections for those who stand in the path of potential harm. In some cases, it means providing access to recourse and compensation to those who have seen their air, water, soil, or natural heritage contaminated by industry actors who deny the impact of their actions or refuse to clean up spills or repair damaged ecosystems.

In some cases, developing situations require an open-ended definition for the term, and one such situation—the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline-- is playing out as we speak. The path to environmental justice in this case has yet to be determined, since the story has been unfolding in real time for the past several years and on Thursday of last week, the controversial pipeline ruptured, spilling 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

This spill has taken place just as the Public Service Commission in Nebraska decides whether to grant a permit for a second pipeline owned by the same company, TransCanada. This is one of several spills and leaks in the pipeline since its highly disputed construction. For quick overview of the pipeline’s history and previous spills, catch up here. And for an update that took place on Monday, click here.


As the pipeline continues to spill and leak at various points along the path from Alberta to Nebraska, agricultural fields, waterways, public lands and private property all feel the impact, and the response of the TransCanada company to each spill—both present and future—remains uncertain. Will the Nebraska Public Service Commission allow a Canadian company to threaten the health and environmental safety of Nebraska citizens, farmers, and property owners? Who will take responsibility for the short-term cleanup and long-term damage caused by each incident? Will the prospect of pipeline jobs tempt state governments in Nebraska and South Dakota to protect the company legally or financially from citizens who seek retribution?

And most important, where will these people turn after each incident, present and future? Who will stand with them as they look for ways to protect their resources and recover what they’ve lost? Help us play a role in this effort and learn more about the unfolding events in South Dakota by contacting our office.