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At a kitchen table in the Waterfront South community of Camden, N.J., two community activists described their fight against the industrial and municipal pollution that has enveloped their minority neighborhood. Pausing, Bonnie Sanders said, “I do have to praise our attorney. She didn’t have to take this on. She took this from the heart.” Added Phyllis Holmes, “She does not frighten easily.” Their attorney, Olga Pomar of Camden Regional Legal Services, is lead counsel in South Camden Citizens in Action v. N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, No. 01-702 — path-breaking litigation in both the civil rights and environmental arenas. Last spring, Pomar and her team, which includes Michael Churchill and Jerome Balter of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Luke Cole of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco, won a federal injunction against the operation of a new cement plant in Waterfront South, now home to two Superfund sites and more than two dozen polluting business and municipal facilities. A federal judge, U.S. District Judge Stephen M. Orlofsky of New Jersey, for the first time held that the state had a duty — one that it failed — to consider the racial and ethnic composition of Waterfront South’s residents before issuing air permits to the cement plant. He added that the Pomar team had established a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But shortly after his ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Alexander v. Sandoval that there was no private cause of action to enforce Title VI. Orlofsky then held that the community group could use � 1983 of the 1964 act to enforce Title VI. The state’s appeal was heard this month by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled Dec. 17 that 42 U.S.C. � 1983 cannot be used to enforce a federal regulation “unless the interest already is implicit in the statute authorizing the regulation.” The viability of � 1983 has drawn intense scrutiny by the business, civil rights, environmental and governmental communities in that circuit. Pomar, 46, who has been with Legal Services for all but two of her nearly 20 years as a lawyer, came to Camden from Trenton, N.J., in 1994 specifically to do community development work. Legal services, she said, is a “great place” to do hands-on community work. “I liked the kind of immersion experience you get in this kind of work,” she said. In Camden, she first helped the community form a neighborhood organization to tackle neighborhood problems. Their meetings quickly focused on environmental issues. “We kept hearing over and over about the horrible smell from the sewage treatment plant,” she said. She taught the residents how to report odor violations to the proper agencies, but when the violations persisted, she helped the community find a lawyer — Balter. He won a settlement requiring $4 million worth of upgrades to the sewage plant to reduce the smell. After that battle, the residents learned from the Environmental Protection Agency that two Superfund sites were in the neighborhood and cleanup was necessary. “I helped them to make sense of that process but we had just barely dealt with that when we heard about St. Lawrence, the cement plant,” she recalled. When the organization’s efforts to stop the plant failed, it turned again to the courts. Pomar called in Balter, a longtime environmental attorney who had earned the trust of the community. He brought on Churchill, a veteran civil rights litigator. Cole, one of the top environmental justice litigators in the country, also joined the team. “Olga has been lead counsel with the major responsibility of doing the briefs,” said Balter. “And there has been an unlimited number of briefs in a very, very short period of time.” Pomar added, “We all brought very different experiences to the case and different reasons for why it’s so important. For Luke and Jerry, it’s an important environmental justice precedent. For Michael, it affects all other Title VI litigation. I’m so invested because I’m so invested in Camden.”

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