The Heart of Environmental Justice

As an attorney for the DOJ and EPA, Quentin Pair (’71) helped develop environmental justice practices within the federal government.

Quentin Pair ('71) meets with BU Law students
Mr. Pair met with students in BU Law’s Black Law Students Association and Environmental & Energy Law Association on a recent visit.

Quentin Pair (’71) had been a senior trial attorney for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for 18 years before he began working with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice. Shortly after he started the temporary post, he received an angry phone call from an official in the Army Corps of Engineers. The office was investigating the construction of a dam in Virginia that would disturb the water supply and fisheries of the Mattaponi, a local Native American tribe.

Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, directs each federal agency to incorporate the principles of environmental justice into its mission statement and to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of agency actions on minority and low-income populations. The dam project, Pair notes, was approved without consulting the tribe, and would have infringed on a buffer zone established by a 1677 treaty between the region’s Native American tribes and King Charles II of England.

“[The Army Corp official] was hopping mad,” Pair says, so they decided to cool down and meet to discuss the project. “I’ve got EPA people on my side of the table, lawyers and executives, and this guy is sitting across the table from us with his boss, and in walks this one-star general, the Corp’s supervisor for the dam project. And he goes around and sits next to me. He is the district commander for the Corps, and he said ‘I’ve read the Executive Order, I don’t think we’re in compliance, and I’m not signing off on this.’ ”

“And that was my introduction to environmental justice.”


Pair’s father was the first black doctor in West Chester County, New York. While he wanted his son to follow him into practice, Pair was more inclined to the humanities than science. “Chemistry took care of that,” he says, “and I decided that maybe science was not my forte.” But with a wife and young daughter, and with the support of his father to continue his education, he took the bar exam and applied to several law schools. BU Law “had the good judgement” to accept him.

“It was here that I found that I really liked the law,” he says. After successful summer positions working for IBM and PepsiCo/Frito-Lay, Professor Paul Liacos, who later became chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, recommended Pair for a position with Bellen, Belli and Bailey representing soldiers in military courts throughout Europe. Five years of trial practice in Europe translated into a criminal practice in Washington, DC. But in 1980, when hazardous waste regulations under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act went into effect, Pair’s extensive court experience put him in line for a job prosecuting violations for the Department of Justice (DOJ).

His career with the DOJ spanned the next 35 years, during which he prosecuted cases referred to his office by the EPA for the enforcement of federal environmental laws. He prosecuted and settled the first cases involving the EPA’s superfund program, which funds the cleanup of the country’s most contaminated land, was appointed the special prosecutor for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, and helped the DOJ establish the Environmental Crimes Section.

Quentin Pair ('71) meets with students
Mr. Pair met with students in BU Law’s Black Law Students Association and Environmental & Energy Law Association on a recent visit.

Addressing injustices

Pair didn’t know much about environmental justice before he began working on those cases with EPA. Nobody did. When he worked on the case with Mattaponi, neither the chief of the tribe nor the lawyers for the state of Virginia were aware of the movement. Nevertheless, he hit the ground running. “When I came back to the DOJ I felt this was something we had to promote,” he says.

Over the next few years, Pair worked both inside the DOJ and across federal agencies to foster understanding of environmental justice issues. He helped implement an environmental justice policy to make sure it was an important feature of the DOJ’s work. In each attorney’s recommendations on how to proceed with a case, Pair and his team institutionalized a section that required a comment on any environmental justice issues that might arise in the case. “Not every environmental case had an environmental justice issue, and not every environmental justice issue would be litigated by the EPA,” he says, “but we wanted the attorneys to think about it.”

“The heart of justice is equality,” Pair says, so justice looks different for each impacted community. “It’s not about spreading pollution to each community equally, but about sharing the responsibility for providing a clean environment to all populations.” The decisions for siting these polluting facilities aren’t made by one person. There is no single bad guy. But the processes for decision making have led to three out of four harmful facilities being placed in communities of color, according to a 2007 study. The discrimination may not be purposeful, but the result is the same. “Justice in those cases is getting these waste sites out of communities. Or coming to an agreement as a whole community on how to treat the waste so it’s not affecting communities. How do we spend resources so that nobody is affected?”

The challenge is the lack of an environmental justice law under which to prosecute. “The authority to do the work is in the Executive Order,” he says. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which bars discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in programs that receive federal funding—is another tool for communities to seek justice from government agencies.

But, he notes, the work is worth it. In his settlements, it was critical to have input from the community on what they felt the problems were and what the solutions might look like. “Environmental justice is about trying to protect the poor and disenfranchised,” he says, “those who don’t have a voice. We cannot have environmental justice for all until we address environmental injustices.”

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