Demonstrators at a rally in Frankfort, Kentucky, Feb. 13, 2013, protest against mountaintop removal coal mining.

Do we have a fundamental right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat safe food? The idea of environmental human rights is receiving growing attention worldwide, driven by our global ecological crisis. But the United States has lagged behind in codifying these rights into laws and in successfully furthering them.

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.

Kayaking the New River, Fayette County, West Virginia. (

The idea of environmental human rights dates back to the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It follows other, more established conceptions of human rights, such as civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights, and often is classified as part of a so-called third generation of “newer” human rights.

Few international agreements explicitly refer to environmental human rights. At the national level, however, more than 100 countries around the world have constitutions that enshrine environmental rights to some degree, including Brazil and Kenya.

Only a handful of U.S. states, including Pennsylvania and Hawaii, have constitutions that explicitly incorporate environmental rights. What is more, these provisions were largely established decades ago and have had uneven success in their enforcement.

Appalachia’s environmental challenges

Appalachia is a classic exemplar of the “natural resource curse” – a theory developed by social scientists to explain why some places that are rich in extractable resources fail to develop. According to this view, outside capital interests that control these resources – in Appalachia, Big Coal – wield vast power, and often “capture,” or co-opt, regulatory agencies.

The coal industry has profoundly exploited our citizens and damaged our environment. The most extreme example is mountaintop removal mining – blasting off mountaintops to reach coal seams, and then dumping refuse materials into valleys. Across Central Appalachia, mountaintop removal has obliterated…