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Luke Cole - Environmental Justice Lawyer Dies

Submitted by admin on Tue, 06/09/2009 - 5:24pm

Luke Cole, a San Francisco attorney who was one of the pioneers in the field of environmental justice - filing lawsuits for poor plaintiffs or people of color whose communities were being ravaged by corporate polluters - died in a head-on car crash Saturday in Uganda. He was 46.

Mr. Cole and his wife, Nancy Shelby, were on vacation and traveling on a rural road in western Uganda about 7:30 a.m. when "a truck veered to Luke's side of the road," said Mr. Cole's father, Herbert "Skip" Cole.

Mr. Cole died, and his wife was injured. She was flown to Amsterdam, where she underwent an eye operation Monday, Herbert Cole said.

It was a sudden end to the life of a man who, early on, figured out that what he wanted to do as a lawyer had little to do with representing moneyed interests. Instead, Mr. Cole was intent on helping people who needed the kind of legal muscle that could be brought to bear by a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School.

"Luke could have worked anywhere," said Fordham University law Professor Sheila Foster, who co-authored a 2001 book on the environmental-justice movement with Mr. Cole.

Instead of heading for a big firm after graduating from law school in 1989, Mr. Cole moved to San Francisco with an eye toward practicing environmental law.

"This was not a well-understood concept at the time," said Brent Newell, an attorney and legal director of Mr. Cole's nonprofit organization, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco. Mr. Cole was executive director of the center.

"He was told by poverty law firms that they don't do environmental law, and the big environmental groups said they don't do law for poor people," Newell said.

But then Mr. Cole met Ralph Abascal, a legendary poverty lawyer who was one of the mainstays of California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented the poor.

Abascal understood exactly what Mr. Cole wanted to do, Newell said, and "gave Luke a phone and a desk." Abascal and Mr. Cole founded the center in the fall of 1989.

"It's a public-interest litigation organization that was really groundbreaking," Foster said. "For a long time, this center was the only one of its kind."

Mr. Cole and his fellow attorneys represented, among others, residents of Kettleman City (Kings County) who successfully fought plans by Chemical Waste Management to build a toxic-waste incinerator in their town, according to the center's Web site.

At the time of his death, Mr. Cole was representing the village of Kivalina, on the northwest coast of Alaska, in a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco claiming that firms including ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell were contributing to global warming, which was destroying the village.

This and other battles brought Mr. Cole national recognition. From 1996 to 2000, he served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. The American Lawyer magazine praised him in 1997, as one of the top lawyers in the nation "whose vision and commitment are changing lives."

Mr. Cole came from a privileged background. He was born in North Adams, Mass., and raised in New York, Nigeria and Santa Barbara. His father is an emeritus professor of art history at UC Santa Barbara.

Mr. Cole was educated at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Mass. He graduated from Stanford in 1984.

Between Stanford and law school, Mr. Cole worked for consumer advocate Ralph Nader. It was a three-year stint that solidified his affinity for the less fortunate of the world, his father said, and spurred him on to the law.

Mr. Cole also had a number of other interests. He was a bird-watcher who went to Africa partly to pursue his hobby. He was a connoisseur of root beer; he liked miniature spy cameras and collected photos of people watching eclipses from 1796 to 2005.

"He lived large," said Carol Edgarian, a San Francisco writer and Mr. Cole's friend of more than three decades. "His death leaves a big hole. He gave back more than he took. He lived life as an adventure and he died at the pinnacle."

In addition to his father, Herbert Cole, and mother, Alexandra Cole, both of Santa Barbara, Mr. Cole is survived by two brothers, Peter Cole of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Thomas Cole of Kampala, Uganda; a sister, Sarah Cole of Santa Barbara; a stepbrother, Daryn Kenny of Pleasant Hill; and a son, Zane Shelby of Boston.

The family suggests donations to the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, 47 Kearny St., Suite 804, San Francisco, CA 94108.