Legal & Criminal Justice

Legal & Criminal Justice
Environmental Law: Working to Save the Earth

Environmental Law: Working to Save the Earth

Article Highlights

  • The field is broad and offers a variety of employment opportunities.
  • Climate change is the next big thing in environmental law.

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People are becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues that negatively impact the planet. Environmental law helps to raise awareness for these concerns and joins people together to work towards making a change.

“The practice of environmental law is very broad and includes regulation at the federal, state, and local levels of government”, says Kathryn Dickey, program director of Legal Studies at South University — Montgomery, Alabama. “Legal actions regarding environmental issues can involve negligence against a defendant for breach of duty or strict liability in tort actions for exposure to hazardous waste.”  

Jay Pendergrass, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute, says the government sets minimum standards for environmental law and then states are free to implement their own standards. 

He says most states have environmental laws allowing citizens to sue companies for environmental infractions. 

“Our practice of environmental law focuses on litigation to protect people and places by enforcing environmental laws,” says Anne Harvey, an attorney at Earthjustice, a national nonprofit law firm that uses litigation and other forms of advocacy to promote the development and enforcement of environmental laws. “That often means suing federal agencies under environmental statutes, but also means suing polluters and other scofflaws who are violating the law.”

Harvey says Earthjustice works on cases of national or regional importance. After winning a court case, they work closely with their clients to ensure that the change is implemented.

I am very happy to be a part of protecting our resources for my own and future generations.

“Often the government drags its feet following through on court orders and more often our industry opponents seek rule changes or Congressional action to overrule our case victories,” Harvey says. “We understand that following through to make the court victory effective on the ground is an indispensible part of our work.” 

Pendergrass says his job requires a lot of research and writing about the rules surrounding specific environmental laws, recommending ways to better implement these laws, and educating people through training programs about these laws and policies. He has provided environmental law training programs for everyone from local communities to state and federal government staff. 

Pendergrass says his job requires plenty of travel. He does a lot of work in developing countries, and has worked in places such as India, Liberia, Uganda, and Armenia. 

Environmental Law and Climate Change

According to Pendergrass, the largest current issue in environmental law is the climate change affecting the planet.  

Efforts are underway to create a legal policy system to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to the change that’s unavoidable.  

“Related to climate change are issues such as how to manage a dwindling freshwater supply, and how to generate energy from renewable sources, and to what extent the law permits or requires measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and how to best protect endangered and threatened species from the effects of climate change,” Harvey says.  

Environmental Issues with Water and Air Supplies

Major environmental issues also include threats to the U.S. air and water supplies.  

Pollution laws need to be upgraded, because we’re still not controlling pollution from non-point sources, Pendergrass says. These include contaminants such as pesticides and fertilizers contained in runoff from agriculture, lawns, and suburban areas that are carried into streams and lakes. 

Harvey says this issue is a big problem in Florida, where she lives. 

“One of our most important cases concerns requiring the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the state to adopt limits on sewage, animal manure, and fertilizer pollution that is causing an increasing number of toxic slime outbreaks in lakes and rivers,” Harvey says. “These outbreaks are a huge and increasing problem that threatens both the health of residents and the state’s tourism-based economy.”  

Another hot-button issue is the BP oil spill and the enforcement of national environmental laws related to drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Harvey says that before the oil spill, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement,  the agency responsible for permitting oil and gas drilling, did not require adequate contingency plans for controlling a spill at the source.

“Our office and others are working to address this problem to make sure that drilling is conducted as safely as possible and in conformance with the law while we simultaneously work to promote cleaner forms of energy,” Harvey says. 

Careers in Environmental Law

Since environmental law is such a broad field, employment opportunities are available in a variety of different areas. 

“There are federal agencies, such as the EPA, United States Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and United States Department of Energy/Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,” Dickey says. “Each state has its own environmental agency.” 

There are also many different nonprofit organizations dedicated to environmental law, including the Environmental Law Institute and Earthjustice. 

Dickey says there is a need for attorneys and paralegals at both the government agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

“There is a need for educators in the field of environmental law,” Dickey says. “Education is key to a pollution-free and healthier society.”

Pendergrass says that environmental attorneys have a high sense of job satisfaction. 

“People get along very well even when they are representing people on different sides of an issue,” Pendergrass says. “The majority of environmental lawyers have the same basic goals in mind.”

Harvey says she chose her profession because she wanted to help solve the environmental problems that her generation faces. 

“The complete disregard for the environment and the attempts of industry to mislead the public to maximize their own profits is appalling,” Harvey says. “It reminds me of the bad guys in the ’80s Captain Planet cartoons, how they sat fat and counting their money while they watched slime ooze into rivers and streams.” 

“I am very happy to be a part of protecting our resources for my own and future generations, and I certainly hope that there will be a growth in the number of environmental law practitioners in the future as those of us who will inherit these problems come of age,” Harvey adds.

 “We’re all working to make the world safer for us and the generations to come,” Pendergrass says.

Author: Laura Jerpi

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