Environmental Law Clinic In Action
Turning Science into Law
As a chemist and biologist working in the pharmaceutical industry, Scott Sneddon '07 did cutting-edge research into rare diseases. At 40, Sneddon, a Boston native, found himself increasingly concerned about how humans have scarred the environment and about the lack of scientific brawn involved in the effort to conserve it.
"There's not a lot of money in protecting the environment," says Sneddon, "but organizations really need people who can turn the scientific numbers into meaningful points for legislation. I've decided to spend the second half of my working life doing just that."
The Environmental Law Clinic and another Law School offering, the Environmental Collaborative Decision Making Project, were key to Sneddon's decision to come to Columbia, and he is grateful that Columbia valued his scientific background in accepting him. In the clinic, he was part of a team working on a multiyear project that involves the Clean Water Act. In particular, he looked at the requirement that the Environmental Protection Agency regulate power plants that take in large quantities of water from oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams to cool hot machinery. For many years, the EPA had not met this requirement.
"Power plants draw in hundreds of billions of gallons of water every day from lakes and streams, killing billions of fish in the process," says Sneddon. "It is like a gigantic predator sitting on the edge of the lake, exchanging the entire contents of the lake every couple of weeks. Every time you turn on the light switch you're killing some fish."
Existing water recirculating technologies could cut the plants' water intake by 95 percent or more, and the Clean Water Act requires companies to use the best technology available. Indeed, a case settled in 1995 forced the EPA to impose rules on power plants, but thus far, companies have evaded upgrades.
Holding Power Plants Accountable
"Although companies are required to retrofit their intake structures to minimize the impact on water resources, they are under no time pressure to do so," says Sneddon. "Moreover, the EPA has allowed power plants to continue sucking in fish as long as they restock the lakes." Companies claim that they've minimized their impact on living creatures in the water, Sneddon says, but they haven't proved it. In addition, the plants kill dozens of different types of fish, crabs, shrimp, and turtles, while they restock only one or two species of fish, so real restoration is not taking place.
The Environmental Law Clinic has been working on a challenge to the EPA rules for several years. Sneddon's contribution was to research and write a legal analysis of the Clean Water Act's rules about water intake and what it requires the EPA to do. The lessons he learned in the clinic on writing briefs and crafting motions were immediately put into action.
Clinic students work under the watchful eye of highly skilled practitioner-teachers. Professor Edward Lloyd and Senior Clinical Attorney Reed Super work closely with the students to help them understand sometimes impenetrable environmental statutes and help pressure-test legal arguments as the students prepare briefs. Their decades of experience in environmental litigation provide clinic students with mentorship on environmental law and on lawyering generally. The ability for students to work on real environmental cases with real consequences is an educational experience that is difficult to match inside or outside of the academy.
Sneddon and his partners in the clinic wrote briefs, including a 4,200-page appendix so that the judges in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals can easily reference the material. He was hopeful that the court would rule that fish restoration is not allowed, that indefinite timelines are not allowed, and that the water recirculation technology must be used.
Once the judges have read the briefs, clinic students will go to oral arguments. Sneddon, a second-year student at the time, planned to follow the case after his clinic period ended and continue working on it for pro bono credit.
Sneddon compared clinical study at law school to clinical study at medical school. "First you do your book learning and then you work on a real patient," he says. "The Second Circuit is going to read what I've written and I have to persuade them that it's right, so it's very exciting, and a little scary, but that's what makes it so different from class work."
The clinic handles a wide variety of public interest environmental cases—locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally—addressing air, water, solid waste, and other types of pollution as well as land use and energy matters. Moreover, it has only served to reinforce Sneddon's career goals and has made him even more aware of the magnitude of our environmental footprint. "I'm doing exactly what I had hoped to do—combining what I'm learning in law school with science. It's been a pretty handy combination," he says.