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Environmental Law at Columbia: Part 3

A New Clinic Racks Up Early Victories

While classes and seminars provide students with basic knowledge and encourage them to think about theoretical questions, Columbia's Environmental Law Clinic provides nuts-and-bolts lawyering experience. Prof. Lloyd, who heads the clinic, traces his interest in the environment to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which he read as a high school sophomore. His senior thesis was on air pollution, and the first Earth Day was celebrated during his senior year in college at Princeton, where he majored in chemistry in 1970.

                After finishing law school at the University of Wisconsin, Prof. Lloyd worked for 10 years at the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. In 1985, he was invited to launch an environmental law clinic at Rutgers. The clinic started that fall with eight students.

                "I reached out to environmental and community groups in New Jersey to find out what needs they might have for legal services," he said.  "We built the clinic to a staff of four attorneys, a staff scientist, and a secretary on ‘soft money' from government and foundation grants and attorneys' fees awards."

                In his 15 years running the clinic, Prof. Lloyd built a program that gave students invaluable experience in environmental law, litigation, and policy and also provided important legal assistance to environmental and community groups in the New Jersey region. He and his students racked up some significant victories, too. Among them was a clean air case against New Jersey that led the state to reduce air emissions by thousands of tons, as well as a challenge to a water permit for the discharge of toxins to the ocean that led to a renewed permit with a 90 percent reduction in permitted toxic discharges.

                After this record, why did he come to Columbia Law School?

                "To help to build an environmental clinic and program with some of the best law students in the world at one of the premier law schools in the world," Prof. Lloyd said.

                The clinic, which began in the fall of 2000, chalked up victories during its first year. The clinic litigated under the Clean Water Act to stop a New Jersey sewage authority from discharging raw sewage into New York Harbor. After seven days of trial, the clinic negotiated a settlement of the case that resulted in a $50 million upgrade to the plant and nearly $1 million in the payment of penalties and fees. Also, students (working closely with attorneys from the Natural Resources Defense Council) submitted extensive comments in opposition to a proposal to fill 200 acres of wetlands in the Hackensack Meadowlands for the construction of a giant mall. Work on this case continues.

                According to Prof. Lloyd, the clinic chooses cases based upon the opportunity for valuable educational opportunities for students, a client's need for counsel, and the environmental significance of the case. The clinic is a one-semester course enrolling eight new students (and several returning students) each semester.

                One case being handled this year is a challenge to the plans of Mountain Creek Resort, Inc., which has proposed a massive housing, ski resort, and golf course development on Hamburg Mountain in Sussex County, N.J. Twelve-hundred acres of the 2,000-acre site of the proposed development was deeded to Mountain Creek's predecessor in interest by the state of New Jersey in 1986 with a restriction limiting development to passive recreation, according to Prof. Lloyd.

                "More people visit the Highlands region for outdoor recreation than visit Yellowstone Park," he added. "Its great distinction - as the place where pavement meets nature - could be its demise."

                The clinic, along with a private New Jersey firm, is representing the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Environmental Defense, New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club, New Jersey Audubon Society, and the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions in their efforts to preserve Hamburg Mountain.

                Cross motions for summary judgment were filed last summer, arguing that Mountain Creek could not pursue its development plan because it violated the deed restrictions and because of the plan to use the land for infrastructure in order to increase the amount of off-site housing. The clinic won summary judgment on these issues. However, the judge reserved judgment on whether building a golf course on the land was a violation of the deed restriction.

                More recently, Mountain Creek sought leave from the Appellate Division (an intermediate appellate court in New Jersey) to file an interlocutory appeal. The clinic filed a brief in opposition and the Appellate Court denied the company's request in October. The clinic is also writing a brief challenging the development approval from the Vernon Township Planning Board and is set to argue the case before the judge in January.

                In the clinic, students perform a broad array of litigation and policy tasks that include drafting pleadings, writing briefs, preparing discovery requests and responses, preparing for taking and defending depositions, preparing and conducting trials, engaging in settlement negotiations, doing policy analysis, advising clients, and developing strategies for addressing a wide variety of environmental challenges.

                Said Prof. Lloyd: "I want my students to take away a number of skills: listening carefully to their clients and analyzing their problems, and developing strategies to resolve them. Those strategies can include litigation, policy change, and possibly regulatory reform. And even if the students choose not to practice environmental law, I hope they take with them a sense of the breadth and depth of the environmental challenges facing this country and the world."

                It is certain that the environmental law movement has made the environment cleaner. Lining the promenades of Manhattan are people fishing and eating their catch. Along the ocean coasts, beaches are cleaner, and some corporations - even the worst polluters - have devoted significant resources to developing policies that do less harm to the environment. They have discovered that not only is it good public relations, but often cheaper to work with environmental organizations than fight them under costly litigation.

                Prof. Grad, with nearly a half century of perspective, is pleased with the progress. "While an enormous amount of work needs to be done, our air is immeasurably cleaner and our water is significantly less polluted than it was at the beginning of environmental law in 1970. There has been far more significant protection of natural resources and scenic resources, as well as preservation of forests, endangered species, and other irreplaceable assets - even before the re-invention of the environmental regulatory architecture."

                It is clear that much of this important work will be undertaken by Columbia faculty and the students who are now taking courses and seminars in environmental law. By bringing together cutting-edge subject matter with innovative pedagogy, Columbia has established a leading a role in the field of environmental law.