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You Can Call Me Al

Justice For All: Social inequities are often exacerbated in environmental crises.
NRDC attorney Al Huang gets to know the Gulf Coast locals as he helps fight legal battles on their behalf

Three weeks after oil began gushing up from beneath a deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico, NRDC attorney Al Huang found himself sitting in a small church in Biloxi, Mississippi, listening to the concerns of locals whose lives and livelihoods were already being affected by the spill. As the head of NRDC's environmental justice program, Huang was there to offer legal advice to those in need.

A group of six Vietnamese-American fisherfolk, speaking through a translator, explained to Huang that BP was offering them less compensation than English-speaking fisherfolk had been offered. What could NRDC do? they asked. Huang copied down their stories and later went to the heads of the environmental and civil rights divisions of the Department of Justice to request an investigation into the alleged inequity.

That meeting in the church was one of several that Huang and his NRDC colleagues would attend over the course of the spring and summer. Like most, it was organized by the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, a consortium of regional nonprofit groups that, despite their various foci, have one thing in common: concern for the environment. Huang and NRDC helped to establish the fund in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, creating a network of local activists who could best identify where money and help were needed most. Now, as was the case after Katrina, the consortium guides the work Huang does in the region.

Five years ago, members of the Gulf Coast Fund called up Huang and told him that the moldering remains of the Katrina disaster were going to be buried on the eastern outskirts of New Orleans in a landfill called Chef Menteur. The landfill was not lined, yet it was slated to receive all sorts of debris, primarily the remnants of bulldozed homes: broken TVs, jugs of bleach, and every other type of household waste you don't want seeping into your groundwater. With Huang's help, the consortium won the battle to shut down the landfill.

Since then, Huang has become a walking Rolodex of Gulf Coast contacts, serving as the primary point of connection between NRDC -- scientists, advocates, lawyers, and donors -- and groups on the ground. And if a reporter calls looking for information on the health effects of the spill, Huang is ready to provide the phone number of someone with a story to tell. Recently, NRDC decided to go one step further by creating a special program within the organization to channel donations directly to local groups.

As of early August, the organization had raised $132,000 from members and supporters for the NRDC Gulf Recovery Fund. Every dollar contributed was sent directly to the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, which in turn has distributed those funds to communities and nonprofit groups throughout the region.

Back in his New York office in late July, Huang sifted through his in-box, picking out e-mails from Gulf Coast Fund members who had sent him information about waste disposal. "The booms and oil-laden water have to go somewhere," he said. Huang and his collaborators are working quickly to gather information about the ultimate burial grounds for much of this debris, just as they did after Katrina. "It's up to the community leaders to tell us which sites are near their schools, their homes, and their drinking water so that we know where to focus our energy."

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Dan Rosen is an OnEarth intern and a graduate student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He has written for several publications, including The Star-Ledger and The Fort-Worth Star Telegram, and for Major League Baseball Publish... READ MORE >