February 05, 2017

For environmental lawyers, the road ahead might be going back to the future

Threatened rollbacks in federal and state environmental regulations present lawyers new challenges to think, lead and litigate, said a former U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney who now teaches at St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami.

Keith W. Rizzardi, who joined the St. Thomas Law faculty in 2011 after years of government service as a trial attorney in Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, suggested lawyers are in the front lines of change if the country “goes back to the old model” after reversing regulations and statutes that govern clean air, clean water, waste and other environmental safeguards.

“What happens next is up to us,” Rizzardi said at a Saturday panel at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami titled, “Is Florida the Canary in the Coal Mine?: Environmental Justice in Front Line Communities.” He said lawyers have the intellect to think through complex issues and uniquely “we can litigate.”

The panelists explored both expected changes in the national environmental landscape during the Trump administration as well as local issues in Miami Dade County and the state of Florida. As Catherine Millas Kaiman, a co-founder of the Miami School of Law Environmental Justice Clinic, said: “There is a dark path that we see moving forward.” 

Kaiman has written about historic environmental injustices – such as those most recently seen in Flynt, Mich., with the water supply ­-- and argues that one appropriate remedy would be “the use of local, state, and federal reparations programs for communities that have previously suffered environmental injustices” and still living with the effects of those injustices.

Another panelist, Kalyana Robbins of Florida International University, outlined the emergence of the environmental justice movement since its “birth” during a local landfill fight involving a poor, African-American community in rural Warren County, N.C., in 1973. She discussed how that led over two decades to 17 principles of environmental justice embraced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration. At the core of the principles, she said, is “fair treatment and meaningful involvement” of the residents.

Cris Costello of the Sierra Club detailed how the sugar industry operates as the “most politically powerful industry in Florida” and Jim Murley, a longtime political operative who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations in Florida, delivered an overview of some of the environmental and planning issues and challenges facing South Florida.

The panel was sponsored by the environmental committee of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.