Redesigned Environmental Law Clinic Offers Students Hands-on Experience

May 17, 2007

Water was the focus of the Environmental Law and Conservation Clinic's attention this past semester, with students taking on issues such as water pollution and resources protection in Virginia. Under the guidance of Professor Leon Szeptycki, students worked to provide legal services ranging from commenting on permits to research to litigation and advocacy to Virginia nonprofit environmental organizations.

Environmental Law Clinic
Clinic students (L-R) Mark DeFigueiredo, Elizabeth Beardsley, Nathan Cherry, Peter Robinson, Isak Howell, Catherine Kilduff, and Alex Clayden.

This spring marks the successful conclusion of the clinic's first semester in operation since the course was redesigned. Szeptycki, a former general counsel and eastern conservation director of the national environmental organization Trout Unlimited, has spent most of his professional career working in environmental law. The idea behind the clinic, Szeptycki explained, was to expose students to a variety of methods of preserving and protecting the environment, as well as to give them an idea of the broad range of environmental advocacy methods by working closely with professionals in various environmental conservation and protection groups.

Professor Leon Szeptycki

"This is a terrific opportunity, and I am sure the extent and variety of our work will continue to grow in coming semesters," Szeptycki said. "Any kind of clinic experience is extremely valuable, and this clinic is interesting for a variety of reasons [Students] deal with environmental law at a much deeper level than any class, or by writing any paper, and have the opportunity to assess strategically the best way to address very complex problems."

Through their work at the clinic, students "get exposed to ways of influencing the way that private companies, the government, and other interested parties affect the environment. This can include litigation, but it can also include other methods, such as negotiation, public education, or through the media," Szeptycki said.

The clinic's initial clients have included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, Trout Unlimited, and the Rivanna Conservation Society. Some students worked closely with attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) through a formal partnership that the clinic has established with the organization.

This semester has established the foundation for the clinic's work in future years, Szeptycki said, adding that he believes it has been a successful endeavor on the part of everyone involved, including the students.

"Many of the students [this semester] laid the groundwork for future students to help implement," he said. "Most of the work that students have done this semester will go on for several years after the students have graduated."

Third-year law student Elizabeth Beardsley was one of those students who helped lay the foundation for the clinic's ongoing projects.

"The value of the clinic for me has been to see that we can make a difference by helping our clients be effective, whether by being watchdogs on state permits, or highlighting gaps in policy, or helping to draft better local regulations," she said.

Beardsley explained that some students with the clinic worked on projects aimed at improving municipal subdivision and planning ordinances and analyzing the status of overlapping state programs concerning storm water discharges. Another project the clinic undertook this year involved commenting on Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) draft permits for discharges to the Shenandoah River and related regulation amendments, as well as drafting briefs to assist various clients — environmental nonprofits including the SELC and Trout Unlimited — with ongoing litigation.

"I think each student has had different opportunities and experiences [in the clinic]," Beardsley said. "It reflects that environmental projects, whether litigation, rulemakings, permits, or trying to change policy, tend to be long-term undertakings. I think all of the assignments are interesting and important because they are things that are not otherwise being done."

For example, she said, several clinic students documented how the various storm water programs in Virginia are not effective, because landowners and builders are unaware of or confused by the programs' requirements. Furthermore, Beardsley said, these programs are not always strictly enforced, due to a lack of manpower in the DEQ.

"This groundwork could lead to real changes," Beardsley said.

Beardsley herself has been working closely with Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble on water pollution, developing comments on draft permits issued by DEQ for industrial discharges to the river. Beardsley also developed comments on a proposed pollution regulation amendment. According to Beardsley, the amendment would increase the amount of nutrients, which can disrupt the natural growth cycles of aquatic vegetation, that a particular facility can discharge.

"These efforts have helped enhance the presence of the Shenandoah Riverkeeper, and have received attention from DEQ," she said, adding that the work has illustrated for her the importance of advocacy.

Third-year law student Peter Robinson also shared his experiences with the clinic. Robinson explained that a year ago the James River Association (JRA) put together a worksheet for evaluating municipal codes and ordinances in regards to their effects on water quality. The worksheet evaluates codes based on 28 principles, and students from the urban planning departments of the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth University scored all the municipalities in the James River watershed. Robinson spent the last semester taking a closer look at these scores, and determining where and how improvements could be made to the water ordinances in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

"To facilitate this I looked at municipalities in Virginia that received perfect scores for individual principles, and looked at municipalities around the country that would meet or exceed the JRA scorecard requirements," Robinson said. "I have also tried to identify areas where improving the score would have bigger impacts on water quality."

Throughout the semester, Robinson said he worked with the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Rivanna Conservation Society, which are collaborating on a larger project to assess the current municipal codes of Charlottesville and Albemarle County in relation to their impact on water quality.

Unlike Beardsley, Robinson said he would not be pursuing work in environmental law after graduation. However, he said he felt his work with the clinic has been worthwhile.

"The clinic has been a great experience for me," Robinson said. "I have really enjoyed having the opportunity to gain practical experience under the guidance of Professor Szeptycki."

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