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June 11, 2009

Luke Cole: In Memoriam

Luke Cole in Madagascar

The environmental movement lost one of its brightest lights on June 5 when environmental justice attorney Luke Cole was killed in an automobile accident in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. He was 46.

Authorities report that a speeding semi-trailer veered into Cole's lane and crashed into his car. Cole was on sabbatical with his wife Nancy, who survived the accident with injuries.

Cole was a pioneer in the field of environmental justice law. After earning an undergraduate degree with honors from Stanford, he worked for three years as a consumer advocate for Ralph Nader, then graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School.

As numerous friends and colleagues have commented on Daily Kos, Facebook, and elsewhere, Cole could have worked pretty much anywhere he wanted after law school and made a bundle. Instead he dedicated himself to helping grassroots groups across the country fight back against the disproportionate burden of pollution borne by poor people and people of color.


After Harvard, he moved to San Francisco, where he slept for the better part of a month on this author's sofa while studying for the California bar. Not long afterward, he co-founded the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE).

"[Environmental justice] law was not a well-understood concept at the time," Cole's colleague Brent Newell, legal director of CRPE, told the San Francisco Chronicle. But Cole soon met the man who would become his mentor: renowned poverty lawyer Ralph Abascal, who "gave Luke a phone and a desk." Together they founded CRPE in 1989.

Among Cole's accomplishments at CRPE are stopping toxic waste incinerators, hazardous waste facilities, factory farms, and tire-burning proposals, compelling oil refineries to use cleaner technology, bringing safe drinking water to rural communities, and stopping a garbage dump on Native American lands. He is the co-founder and editor emeritus of the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment, and the author, with Professor Sheila Foster, of From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (NYU Press, 2001).

Most recently, Cole was representing the Native Village of Kivalina, Alaska, in a groundbreaking case seeking damages from large greenhouse gas polluters including ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, 14 power companies, and one coal company for contributing to global warming, which was causing the village to subside into the Arctic Ocean.

In 2008, also on behalf of Kivalina residents, Cole and CRPE negotiated a successful settlement of a long-running lawsuit against a mining company whose operations were threatening the safety of the village's drinking water. Below, Cole in Kivalina last year.


A longtime Sierra Club member, Cole was well-known to many in the Sierra Club community. He was preparing to collaborate with the Club's Clean Air campaign at the time of his death.

"I will always remember Luke as a person who stood for environmental justice and never wavered," says Sierra Club environmental justice organizer Rita Harris. "He seemed to always be on the right side of the issue and helped strengthen the voices of those of us that seem to be screaming into a deep bottomless barrel. There are not many people that I would trust to argue for my life. Luke I would trust to fight for me, speak for me, and struggle alongside me."

In his private life, Cole was an avid traveler and bird-watcher. The photo atop this post was taken in Madagascar shortly before his death.

"He was on a quest to find the Red Owl," says Cole's mother, Alexandra. "He had just waded through leech-infested waters after a taxi ride and a motorcycle ride and was going to put on his boots and trek some more. He did find the owl. This photo epitomizes to me Luke in action, with his huge-lensed camera to capture the bird on film and his ability to take part in every adventure he set for himself."

Cole's family requests that any donations in memory of Luke go to the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.

All of Cole's impressive professional accomplishments aside, Cole was one of the most big-hearted, generous-spirited indivuals this writer has ever met. It is difficult to think of anyone who grabbed ahold of life more fully. His love of life and the example he set will continue to inspire all who knew him for the rest of our days. Rock on, Lukerest in peace.


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