Small-Town Teacher Turned Environmental Crusader to Headline UF Environmental Law Conference

GAINESVILLE, Fla. —A small-town schoolteacher who became an environmental crusader – and took on one of the world’s largest oil companies – will tell her story to University of Florida students, faculty and others this month.

Margie Eugene Richard, who won the 2004 Goldman Prize for Environmental Justice for her fight against the Shell Chemicals plant in her hometown of Norco, La., will be the keynote speaker at the Public Interest Environmental Conference at UF’s Levin College of Law, to be held Feb. 24-26.

“A pervasive theme this year is the social justice aspects of environmental issues,” said conference organizer Adam Regar, a student at the law school. “Margie Richard, the first African-American to win the Goldman Prize, is a great example of someone engaged in the fight for environmental justice.”

The student-run conference, now in its 11th year, will bring together environmental activists, lawyers, and scientists from around the world to discuss Florida’s most pressing environmental problems and the legal issues they create. This year’s conference, titled “Hurricanes, Humans, and Habitat: Reclaiming, Rethinking and Rebuilding Our Environment,” covers a wide range of issues – from the state of the world’s oceans to the tone of this year’s Florida Legislature. Organizers say Richard’s speech will be one of the conference’s can’t-miss events.

Richard grew up in Old Diamond, a historically African-American community in the shadow of the Shell Chemicals plant in Norco. After a 1988 accident at the plant killed seven workers and spewed millions of pounds of chemicals into the air, Richard, then a middle-school teacher, founded Concerned Citizens of Norco. The grassroots group pressured Shell to pay resettlement costs for people who live near the plant. Richard and her group are credited with helping secure a $5 million community development fund from Shell, as well as relocation funds for the entire neighborhood of Old Diamond.

“A lot of activists start out the way Margie Richard did – by organizing to fight environmental problems in their own communities,” Regar said. “What makes Margie Richard noteworthy is that she took on a large corporation and was successful in getting much of what she demanded.”

Richard will speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 in the Touchdown Terrace at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The conference will also host Costa Rican presidential candidate and economist Ottón Solís, who served as Minister of Planning and Economy in the Oscar Arias administration and founded the Citizens’ Action Party, a third-party movement in Costa Rica that emphasizes social equity and environmental issues. Solis garnered 17 percent of the vote in Costa Rica’s last presidential election. Solís will deliver an address on international free trade agreements and their effect on the environment at 6 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The conference will also host 19 separate panel discussions on a broad range of pressing environmental issues. Panel topics include:

  • The War Against Citrus Canker. A discussion of Florida’s citrus canker eradication program, the rights of landowners, and proper compensation for trees that have been destroyed to stop the spread of canker.
  • Got Merc? Regulating, Mitigating, and Litigating the Levels of Mercury in the Fish We Eat. How does mercury get into fish? How much fish can a person safely eat? And what happens if you consume to much mercury? A toxicologist, an ecologist and others will answer those questions.
  • The Inside Scoop. State Sen. Rod Smith (D-Alachua), state Rep. Thad Altman (R-Melbourne) and others will offer a sneak preview of the environmental issues being discussed at this year’s session of the Florida Legislature
  • Whose Right to Regulate? Interagency Conflicts in Permitting Authority. A look at the complex and sometimes confusing world of environmental permits, where federal, state and local jurisdictions overlap. Panelists from a variety of government agencies will explain what their permits authorize – and what they believe other agencies’ permits allow.
  • From Cattle to Concrete. A discussion of development pressures facing rural landowners as Florida’s farmlands give way to spreading suburbs.

Attendees will gather Feb. 26 for a “grand finale” panel discussion about overfishing, the decline of ocean wildlife and the collapse of ocean ecosystems. Titled “The State of Our Seas,” the discussion will focus on two recently released reports on the ocean crisis – one by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and another by the non-profit Pew Oceans Commission – and their very different prescriptions for healing the world’s seas.

The event is sponsored by the Environmental and Land Use Law Society and the Center for Governmental Responsibility at UF, in cooperation with the Public Interest Committee of the Environmental and Land Use Law Section of the Florida Bar. UF law students, faculty, and members of the media may attend for free. Others can register for the entire conference at a cost of $110, for panel discussions at a cost of $85, or for the keynote address at a cost of $35. For more information, contact Adam Regar at aregar@ufl.edu or Ashley Cross-Rappaport at cross711@ufl.edu, or call 352-392-2237.

Published: February 15th, 2005

Category: News

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