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Tulane Environmental Law Clinic - A Force for the Community


(This interview was conducted shortly after the 3rd Citizen's Conference on Dioxin and Endocrine Disruptors in April, 1996, by Ralph Ryder of ToxCat newsletter. The Clinic has recently been a pivotal and positive force for democracy and community empowerment in Convent, Louisiana, where Shintech, and Japanese plastics company, has proposed the building of the largest PVC factory in the world. Most Convent residents - a majority of whom are Afro-Americans living near the poverty line - oppose the factory. The Governor of Lousiana has promoted the factory and has threatened the Clinic's funding for providing the community residents with legal aid in their fight against this environmental injustice.)

TC: Would you tell us just what happens at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic?

AE: The environmental law clinic is one of several clinics at Tulane Law School which has a strong emphasis on “hands-on education. The purpose of this section of the university is primarily to educate environmental lawyers, to teach students how to successfully be an environmental lawyer. The clinic is orientated towards doing public interest law with the students learning environmental law through practising before they graduate. Usually its the third year law students who tend to actually represent community groups that otherwise could not afford or obtain legal representation. The students work under the supervision of the staff. We have 5 lawyers on staff now and we have fellowships arrangement where lawyers come in for one or two years, depending on how things are at the time. A couple of lawyers have stepped in for longer than that.

TC: When you say they represent communities, do you mean they would attend say, a public inquiry and actually represent the community?

AE: That’s right, they would do whatever a lawyer would do. The work of the clinic generally is focused on regulatory issues, permitting issues or administrative cases and other legal issue; perhaps writing ordinances for groups that want to strengthen the laws in their local area or sometimes writing state legislation to strengthen or propose a new program at that level.

TC: How would this work with a small non-profit environment group, because here in the United States a lawyer costs a lot of money and this type of group just doesn’t have access to large amounts of cash?

AE: The clinic provides free legal assistance to environmental groups who haven’t the money for an attorney. The students are able to do this under a Louisiana Supreme court rule that provides for such activity. The groups that we represent have to pay filing fees which generally is a few hundred dollars, if that, and often we represent a number of groups on one issue because our intent is to try to do work on issues that would benefit the most people. That’s not always the case but our philosophy in general is that no case is too small and we will help anybody who has a problem that we see as a legal issue.

TC: This is all good training for the student?

AE: Exactly! At the current time we have 30 students in the regular nine months session and we also have students over the summer.

TC: As the outreach co-ordinator do you actually look for cases that the students could take?

AE: My job entails keeping an eye out for issues that impact the environment in Louisiana; whether citizens are working on them already - but especially if citizens identify problems themselves. I help citizens with problems to get the information or the contacts that they need. That takes a lot of networking. I help to draw up fact sheets to explain issue to citizens; I work with the media writing press releases so that their informed about what’s happening. All of that in general is to help to develop cases for the students to work on legally but my work is not limited to that. I also help groups join together in coalitions on issue that need to be addressed. So I have a wide variety of work with a wide variety of different types of groups. Some of the national groups have local or state offices here like ‘Citizen Action’ and ‘Sierra Club’ and ‘Audubon Society.’ I work with those groups as well as groups that are primarily victims; people living in an area where there is a bad problem that simply needs help and otherwise are not connected to environmental groups.

TC: Where does the funding come from for this university and the students?

AE: It’s partly from tuition from the students and partly from private grants from private foundations.

TC: The students seems a lot freer to help and a lot more ready to help in this country than in the UK?

AE: I think its very important for students to experience the problems the grassroots groups have to face as part of their education. They are so much better equip to help afterwards.

TC: What are you working on at the moment?AE: Any number of things - it’s generally the case; I try to keep my fingers in a lot of different pies, I try to deal with the hardest ones first. In terms of the cases that the clinics involved in we have worked on a number of landfilled, especially new landfills proposed for wet land areas. We are representing people fighting a company that wants to mix radioactive waste with soil in order to supposedly dilute the radioactive content and then reuse that soil. One real important set of issues for the clinic since its conception in 1989, or even before people were working on it here, is underground injection of hazardous waste in Louisiana and Texas especially, there is a large volume of hazardous waste pumped directly under-ground and through our underground sources of drinking water. We have seen that to be a very serious set of issues in different ways has kept that legal part alive and we are beginning to win victories on that now.

TC: When you say victories do you mean you are winning person injury compensation claims?

AE: I should clarify that this clinic, under the rules it operates under, is not able to compete with the private bar and when the private attorney would be interested in a case such as when monetary rewards are likely we don’t even considered the case.

TC: So you primarily take on the cases the big boys don’t because there is not a lot of money in it for them?

AE: That’s right. Environmental law is a very specialised area and a lot of attorney’s don’t have a handle on the regulatory and administrative processes so that’s generally the area we are in most.

TC: So is this quite a new section of the legal establishment - environmental lawyers?

AE: The Environmental Agencies here were established in the 1970s for the most part and for a brief time under one governor our state environmental agency became much more serious in terms of enforcement; but we do have new laws on the books. From the 1980s and 90s mostly, here in Louisiana the problem is with enforcement of those laws for toxic releases to air and water. So the laws are constantly changing and becoming more complex - at the federal level too and I think partly that accounts for some of the reaction now, which is really just an amplification of the usual reaction against more regulation.

TC: You attended the 3rd Citizens Dioxin Conference in Baton Rouge and heard one of the speakers tell of a child with 6 toes on each foot and reaching puberty at 4 years of age. Now that is obviously a case for the big boys to handle but would they come to you for any of the research you have done here?

AE: If you mean attorneys no, its not our normal means of operation to assist attorneys and we basically don’t do that. We are here to represent citizens and that takes all of our resources.

TC: On a personal note, beside the legal aspects, you are an activist yourself. Louisiana is one of the areas threatened most by global warming as it’s beneath sea level. Do you think the state is doing enough on this issue?

AE: The air toxics and air pollutants I think is probably the biggest weaknesses of our environment agency here. I believe they are not doing enough.

TC: Everyone seems to be buzzing about nuclear power around here, so what can you tell me about that?

AE: We have some of the countries worst nuclear power plants in this area and it’s also pretty clear that the federal agencies, which are the primary government agencies governing that, are not doing what they should be doing. We have one of the 7 “lemons” as they call them, just above Baton Rouge, and we have one close to New Orleans in St. Charles parish that has I understand, a number of different faults in the foundation which were allowed although I’m told they were originally illegal. Unfortunately there has not been a very strong citizens movement directed at nuclear power here. I think because of the work of the Alliance for Affordable Energy and some of the groups there is less likely to be an expansion of that kind of energy. Also because of some of the problems we have had with the current reactors. It is also very much the case that the petro chemical industry is a glutton for energy and Louisiana is the most energy inefficient state in the United States. We are now exploring some ways to get at the question of how to improve this.

TC: Do you enjoy working with the grassroots activists?

AE: Oh yes! There are so we are told, more grassroots activist groups in Louisiana than any other state in this country. I think that’s reflective of the fact there’s more problems. We are the number one state for total toxic emissions. We also have programs at the state level that rewards toxic emissions. There is a program that exempts - actually the largest polluters get the biggest tax break from their property taxes over a ten year period which they can renew with no explicit ties to environmental compliance, jobs etc. Tulane Clinic was successful under another governor, a previous state administration, in petitioning and getting an executive order that tied environmental compliance to these big tax breaks of billions of dollars over ten years. A program was put in place but when an anti-environmental governor came in like we still have now, the program was just thrown out of the window. That is very much an example of how the economy is related to the pollution level.

TC: How many petro chemical complexes are there in this region?

AE: The number is debatable but certainly more than a hundred heavy industrial facilities in a seventy five or so mile area. There is a heavy concentration.

TC: Is there a lot of ill-health around these facilities?

AE: There is a high level of mortality from cancer. There is a debate over whether the incidence level for certain cancers is higher than other places. Texas actually has a bigger chemical corridor than we have here in Louisiana, and overall there is about 35% of the United States raw chemical production in that state. In Louisiana it’s about 25% but there are other problems here making it the most unhealthiest state in the country. Compounded by other social problems and all these problems are related and beginning to be documented. We have very high violence levels, we have either the worst or second to worst literary level and other such problems that feed on each other in a downward spiral. That’s why we feel the grassroots activist movement has to be encouraged because it’s so important and that’s where the answer lies.

TC: So you believe the grassroots movement is making an impact?

AE: There is no doubt that the citizens work here in Louisiana has made a very significant impact. I could name any number of state programs or permit denials or other example of how that has been the case. It’s definitely a growing movement and one that’s incorporating more and more different diverse kinds of groups such as historic preservation groups and people of colour working with working and upper class people.

TC: Do you think a lot of the grassroots work is done by the working class people but is funded by middle class?

AE: I think it really varies. There are a lot of groups that accomplish a great deal with basically no funding, you know, out of pocket expenses and grassroots organising isn’t always a very expensive proposition. It is the case that some groups over the last ten years have become more institutionalised with permanent staff and help those groups with no finance and through collaboration are generally successful.

Ralph Ryder

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