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Making the Case for a Right to a Healthy Environment for the Protection of Vulnerable Communities: A Case of Coal-Ash Disaster in Puerto Rico
Michigan Journal of Environmental & Administrative Law
  • Sarah Dávila-Ruhaak, UIC John Marshall Law School
Publication Date

The connection between the environment and human rights is not a surprising one. The enjoyment of human rights depends on a person’s ability to live free from interference and to have his or her rights protected. The interdependence of human rights and the protection of the environment is manifested in the full and effective enjoyment of the right to a healthy environment. This article argues that in order to protect vulnerable persons and communities facing environmental harm, a human rights framework—specifically the right to a healthy environment—must be applied. A human rights approach complements environmental justice work, recognizing that individuals and communities affected by environmental harm are rights-holders entitled to protection. Such communities are left out of important decisions about their environment and the effect of environmental harm in their lives. Individuals most vulnerable to environmental harm are often members of poor, rural, and disenfranchised communities. The destruction of the environment disproportionately affects these communities, preventing them from accessing basic natural resources, clean water and sanitation, adequate housing, food security, and access to health and medical assistance. Additionally, intersecting forms of discrimination exacerbate exclusion and marginalization. A human rights approach to environmental justice emphasizes the need to protect affected communities and holds the State responsible for recognizing their vulnerability and providing heightened protection. This article seeks to show that while the human right to a healthy environment has not been widely recognized, a robust juridical framework enables environmental justice advocates and affected communities to vindicate the rights of vulnerable communities. The case study of coal-ash contamination in Puerto Rico and the harms suffered by affected communities there anchors the argument for why advocates should use a human rights framework to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. The case of Puerto Rico is illustrative of so many poor, disenfranchised, and vulnerable communities around the world, affected by environmental harm and in need of a human rights-based framework.

Citation Information
Sarah Dávila-Ruhaak. "Making the Case for a Right to a Healthy Environment for the Protection of Vulnerable Communities: A Case of Coal-Ash Disaster in Puerto Rico" (2020) p. 379 - 432
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