When lawyers and community come together, progress happens
By Abby Wallace
This month I was very pleased to be able to profile one of our newest member organizations, though we have worked in alliance with them for years. A huge welcome to the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC) to the Michigan Environmental Council family! Executive Director Nick Leonard was kind enough to sit down with me and share his insights about the GLELC’s history, mission, and current projects.
The GLELC was established in Detroit in 2008 by a group of dedicated individuals who shared a common mission: to safeguard Michigan's natural resources and protect the rights of communities affected by environmental issues.
For many years, the GLELC partnered with the Wayne State Environmental Law Clinic, sharing leadership and staff and mainly focusing on issues around Great Lakes water quality and habitat protection. However, the organization operated with limited resources and largely relied on volunteer support and collaborations with other environmental groups to achieve its goals.
2014 marked a significant turning point for the organization as it hired their its staff attorneys, including Nick. In 2016, the GLELC embarked on a path of independence, emerging as a standalone organization for the first time, fully embracing its unique role in the environmental law landscape.
In 2018, Nick Leonard assumed the position of Executive Director, and under his leadership, the GLELC took a fresh and decisive turn by shifting its focus towards environmental justice issues. Nick and staff recognized the importance of prioritizing the perspectives of people of color and organizations led by people of color due to the disproportionately adverse impacts that environmental contamination often has on these communities.
The GLELC partnered with organizations grassroots environmental justice groups like the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and the Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (a fellow Environmental Council member) to amplify the efforts and capacity of those organizations. In 2019, these groups were instrumental in the fight to shut down the Detroit Incinerator, which had impacted air quality and created noxious fumes and odors in some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in Detroit for over thirty years.
Today, the core of the GLELC's legal advocacy is the principle of community lawyering. This approach seeks to empower community residents, environmental advocates, and policymakers across Michigan to collaboratively create effective, multi-faceted strategies that address pressing environmental issues and drive systemic change. The GLELC is dedicated to providing high-quality legal services to individuals and organizations alike, regardless of the scale of the environmental issue at hand.
In addition to community lawyering, the GLELC offers a diverse range of services to help Michigan communities develop comprehensive strategies to address environmental issues. It challenges local, state and federal decisions in court; files lawsuits against private corporations for environmental noncompliance; and ensures that governments comply with civil rights regulations through administrative complaints. The nonprofit also educates communities, giving presentations on the legal perspective of different environmental issues, authoring comprehensive reports, and giving trainings to effectively participate in public hearings and meetings and submitting Freedom of Information requests. Additionally, the GLELC works in the policy space, collaborating with coalitions to develop model laws and regulations and offering policy research support to identify best practices.
The GLELC is currently focused on some critical issues.
Unfortunately, the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has a troubling history of approving permits that have negative impact on low income and communities of color. The GLELC strives to push back against these decisions and hold EGLE accountable for protecting Michigan’s most vulnerable residents. Nick and team have repeatedly brought civil rights complaints to EGLE regarding licensing and permitting decisions that negatively impact environmental justice communities to ensure EGLE’s decisions don’t result in discriminatory effects in communities of color.
Additionally, the GLELC has been active in addressing ozone pollution in Southeast Michigan, pushing back on EGLE's attempts to disqualify certain ozone days caused by wildfire this past summer. The past few years have seen a rapid uptick in climate change fueled wildfires across the North American continent and last summer the fires in Canada resulted in the worst air quality summer ever recorded in Michigan. The wildfire issue isn’t going away so the GLELC is fighting to ensure the state's response aligns with public health and environmental justice goals.
The organization also works on issues relating to drinking water affordability and contamination, particularly by lead. In 2021, it authored a petition to the federal Environmental Protection Agency demanding that the department address the unfolding lead water crisis in Benton Harbor. Benton Harbor is a majority-Black community that had been experiencing elevated levels of lead in its drinking water for years. Even with the lessons learned from the Flint water crisis, the state was still moving slowly to address the issue. The petition to the EPA spurred the agency to act quickly to protect Benton Harbor residents.
Finally, the GLELC has also been active in the fight for affordable water for all, in particular pushing for income-based water rates, which have been written off time and time again because of claims that such a model would violate the Michigan Constitution. (Spoiler alert: They don’t!) I’d recommend checking out the GLELC's report on the topic if you’re interested in learning more.
In all, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center has traversed a remarkable path since its inception in 2008. The organization has evolved into the preeminent environmental legal advocacy entity in Michigan, committed to empowering and protecting environmental justice communities through the intricate web of legal avenues. Its dedicated team of attorneys and unwavering mission have positioned the GLELC to make a substantial and lasting impact on Michigan's environmental landscape and, more importantly, the lives of those profoundly affected by it.
We at the Environmental Council extend our warmest welcome to the GLELC as a member and express our profound appreciation for its extraordinary work, both past and ongoing.