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While this may seem like an issue for legal scholars, it has very real importance for regions like Appalachia, where I work. Coal mining has caused widespread ecological and health damage here for more than a century, alongside other industries such as chemical manufacturing and, recently, natural gas production.

Many Americans elsewhere view Appalachia’s environmental health conditions with ambivalence or outright classist indifference, and some have written us off as a “national sacrifice zone.” But our environmental struggles echo conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Niger River Delta oil fields and other places that are trying to limit harms from extractive industries.

In my work, I have proposed reframing Appalachia’s concerns as a struggle for “environmental human rights” – the idea that all people are entitled to a healthy environment. Characterizing these problems as violations of environmental human rights can open up new and more robust legal remedies. It also means that environmental harms will be viewed more vigorously as moral issues. We view them that way at West Virginia University College of Law’s new Appalachian Justice Initiative, which is working to secure a better future for our region.

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