VT Law School Students Push for Citizen Participation in Environmental Enforcement in Vermont
April 15, 2011
SOUTH ROYALTON, VT -- If the Vermont Senate passes a bill this session to allow public participation in state environmental enforcement actions, it will culminate years of diligence by student clinicians in Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC).
The bill, which the Vermont House passed Wednesday by a 109-25 vote, would allow residents who have been directly affected by pollution, as well as the general public, to comment on enforcement penalties and corrective actions for people or businesses that violate environmental laws. Penalties and corrective actions are currently set by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) without public participation, often in agreements negotiated with the polluters.
The public participation bill resulted largely from a Clean Water Act petition that the ENRLC filed on behalf of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) on Aug. 14, 2008. The petition asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to either require Vermont to bring its clean water program into compliance with federal requirements or to take back the program, which was delegated to the state in 1974. A major piece of the petition centered on Vermont's failure to provide adequate public participation in environmental enforcement actions, which has also been recognized by both the EPA and the Vermont Environmental Court.
ENRLC students and attorneys worked for eight months to prepare the petition-reviewing thousands of pages of documents from state and federal agencies, researching the underlying law and pulling them together into a compelling, 61-page document. The ENRLC made numerous subsequent filings on behalf of the CLF with updated evidence and recommendations for corrective action that the state could take. ENRLC students and attorneys attended several meetings with officials from EPA Region 1 and the ANR in an effort to make progress on the petition. The petition is still pending with the EPA.
As counsel for the CLF, the ENRLC participated in negotiations with the EPA and ANR that led to the version of the bill as introduced and guided the ANR's proposed changes to the bill during the committee process, thus ensuring that the changes agreed with Clean Water Act requirements. The current bill provides for both notice and comment on settlements and citizen intervention in some circumstances.
"Public participation is extremely important because it helps ensure that citizens of the state have input into whether their natural resources are being adequately protected," said Laura Murphy, a staff attorney and assistant professor at the ENRLC.
ENRLC members who contributed to the petition are Laura Murphy, the supervising attorney on the petition, and student clinicians Emily Stark, Rebecca Turner, Meghan Clark, Jane Kim, John Meyer, Ross Elwyn, Craig Sparks, Graham Zorn, Paul Ballenger, Tracy Wyeth, Evan Belser, Quincy Hansell, Siobhan McIntyre, Shahin Milani, Leslie Welts, Megan Dickie and Toby Dachman.
The ENRLC's student clinicians put their legal training to work in real-world cases and projects. By providing free legal representation to community groups and public interest organizations, student clinicians learn to become competent, ethical attorneys in environmental and natural resources law. They not only receive great training but make a real difference in the world by taking action to protect public health and conserve natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations.
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