Tackling environmental justice on the Front Range


Two years ago I relocated to Denver and inherited from a friend what might possibly be the best job in the world – the directorship of the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic.  In the two decades before my arrival, the clinic had established an impeccable reputation for its work fighting to protect endangered species throughout the western United States.  This work continues to be a cornerstone of the clinic’s mission today.  But coming from Los Angeles, where I wrestled with air quality issues for a good portion of my legal career, I was committed to championing a major new addition to the clinical program at DU.  It was time to position the clinic to take on what will undoubtedly be the region’s next environmental challenge – rapid urbanization along the Front Range.

Many experts are projecting that Denver and the Front Range will be the next Las Vegas or Phoenix in terms of population growth. The population that resides between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, if not all the way to Laramie, is projected to increase to 6 million or more over the next 15 to 20 years.  With increased growth will come more air pollution, as well as traffic congestion, waste management concerns, land use conflicts, and stormwater pollution into urban lakes, streams, and rivers.

Most importantly, we must begin to ask ourselves what all this growth will mean for our lower income neighborhoods.  Portions of the population in places like north Denver, Lamar, and Pueblo are already struggling with pollution from industry that surrounds them now.  Increased urbanization will make things worse unless our policymakers start making better decisions to address the environmental injustices the poor regularly face.

With this in mind, I am moving along three fronts in the clinic to create the Colorado Urban Project (CUP).  Starting last year, half of the clinic’s 12 students started working full-time on cases related to urban pollution and public health issues.  In addition, the law school offered its first class this past fall dedicated to studying the regulation of urban pollution in Colorado.  Finally, the clinic is working to build relationships with local politicians, community groups, and environmental advocates to build interest in addressing emerging urban environmental issues in our region.

CUP is still very much in its infancy, but good progress is being made.  Student attorneys are taking on mercury pollution from urban coal-fired power plants, working to eliminate residential childhood lead exposure, helping develop urban parks, and fighting to bolster state regulation of air pollution sources in the Denver region.  So far, the greatest challenge for CUP has, unfortunately, been the limited number of environmental and community organizations in the region desiring to partner with us on urban issues.

Colorado’s environmental organizations, like that of many Western states, have taken on so many noble challenges in recent years.  Lasting fights to save Otero Mesa, the Roan Plateau, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, the sage grouse, and others come to mind.  With regards to taking on challenges to address public health and environmental justice, however, the list is far shorter.  The reality is that right now the voice of citizens and advocacy groups is fairly limited on urban issues.  CUP, however, is in it for the long term and I am certain that the clinic will be able to amplify these voices considerably and be a known leader in shaping the environmental future of an urbanized Front Range.

Over the next year, I invite you – through this blog – to follow CUP's progress and to explore the many urban environmental issues facing communities, not only in Colorado, but also throughout the West.  We will, of course, critically examine existing environmental injustices along the Front Range, along with related political and regulatory controversies.  We will also look, however, at some of the successes stories in those communities fighting to protect public health and better their environment.  Through this, I also hope to learn more about what communities and organizations in the west are doing on the environmental justice front to both improve CUP and, hopefully, to build partnerships.


Michael Harris is Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  He has worked as a Senior Deputy District Counsel for the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles, as an Associate Environmental Counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and as a Project Attorney with Earthjustice.  He can be reached at elc@law.du.edu.