I learned last week that my friend and law school classmate Luke Cole had died in a car accident while vacationing with his wife in Uganda. Luke was an incredible guy with an infectious positive energy about him and the belief that he could change the world for the better. In a number of big and small ways, he did.
Luke became an environmental justice lawyer before most of us in the public interest legal field even knew what environmental justice was. He didn’t invent the concept, but he realized early on that communities of color—from American Indian reservations in the West to hog farming communities in the South to inner-city neighborhoods in the Northeast—were struggling with common problems of multiple environmental hazards and inadequate environmental protection. He realized, too, what government and private research would eventually confirm: that the racial character of these communities was the greatest predictor of the level of environmental degradation they would suffer. Greater than class. Greater than region of the country.
At a time when only neighborhood organizers and community groups were decrying this problem, Luke realized that lawyers could have a respectful, supportive role to play in addressing this deadly situation across the country.
Over the course of his 20-year career, Luke represented African-American and Latino residents of Camden, NJ, fighting the concentration of abandoned factories, a chemical plant, waste-treatment plants, automotive shops and a petroleum coke transfer station in their community. He represented the mostly-Latino residents of Kettleman City, CA in their campaign to stop Chemical Waste Management Inc. from building a toxic-waste incinerator. He defended the Timbisha Shoshone tribe in its effort to halt open-pit gold mining with cyanide on ancestral land in Death Valley. And he assisted the residents of Kivalina, an Inuit village in northwest Alaska, in a claim that a company’s zinc and lead mine had polluted the village water supply.
He had a huge impact, not only through his cases, but through his tireless and eloquent argument that equal access to a clean environment is a fundamental human right.
At the same time, Luke was funny. He was silly. He was the only guy in our law school class who used words like “stoked” and “gnarly” with no irony. He was a political cartoonist and he could be a bit cartoonish himself.
I last saw Luke in January at an inauguration party. He was beaming, joking, marveling along with the rest of us that our law schoolmate, Barack Obama, was now president. But he was quick to point out that we’d all have to stay vigilant. As always, his optimism was tempered by realism and a distrust of the powerful, whoever they may be.