FEATURE — Winter 2005
   

 
Because the resources are not available to take on every case, founder Maxine Lipeles focuses the efforts of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic on those with policy implications that reach beyond the dispute in question.

Clinic Responds to Environmental Calls

In the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic, advocate Maxine Lipeles works with co-director Beth Martin and students from law and the sciences to champion environmental causes.

By Janni L. Simner

Maxine Lipeles has always been passionate about environmental policy. In high school, she spoke at the first Earth Day; after earning her law degree from Harvard, she went to work first for the Environmental Protection Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, then as an environmental lawyer in private practice for the St. Louis law firm of Husch and Eppenberger.

For the past five years, she’s brought that passion to the University’s Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic (IEC), where she gives law, engineering, and arts and sciences students the hands-on tools they need to work on environmental law cases—and to cross disciplinary lines and combine their expertise to do so. Lipeles, senior lecturer in law, and her students have worked to protect the St. Louis community by reducing medical wastes, protecting waterways, mitigating the dangers of lead poisoning, and even compelling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review one of its standards.

The IEC provides its legal and technical services free of charge, and it only accepts clients—nonprofits and individuals—who couldn’t otherwise afford representation. Since there aren’t the resources to take on every case, Lipeles focuses on those with policy implications that reach beyond the dispute in question—that is, cases whose results will benefit others over the long term. “Since we’re a scarce resource, we focus our efforts where they’re going to have the greatest impact,” Lipeles explains.

Maxine Lipeles (right) gives students the hands-on tools they need to work on environmental law cases. From left to right is Megan Beesley, Arts & Sciences Class of ’06 (environmental studies); Melissa Hall, third-year law student; Joseph Slawinski, third-year law student; and Kate Miller, B.S. ’04, Engineering and Science Fellow, at the River Des Peres in St. Louis.

Clients learn about the IEC by word of mouth, as well as through the outreach efforts of the IEC’s Community Advisory Board. Those clients—which have included the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, the Sierra Club, the St. Louis Lead Prevention Coalition, and private citizens, among others—know from the start that they will be working with students, and generally find this as good an experience as the students do. “That’s because the students put a tremendous amount of time, energy, and creativity into their work,” Lipeles says. “They make up for their lack of experience with their enthusiasm and dedication to what they’re doing. The clients really appreciate that.”

When Lipeles established the IEC in 2000, she was already teaching environmental law courses for the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Those classes had always had an interdisciplinary bent, appealing not only to engineering students but also to those in law and arts and sciences.

“I wanted to move the students from a passive form of learning to a more active form,” Lipeles says of the decision to create the clinic. She enlisted environmental engineer Frances (Beth) Martin, lecturer in law and biology, to co-run the IEC with her. Martin, B.S.C.E. ’94, M.S.Env.E. ’96, is engineering and science director of the clinic; she says what makes the IEC unique is that it provides technical expertise alongside its legal expertise—something she says other St. Louis legal resources lack.

“Maxine is just tremendous,” Martin says. “She really cares about the students, and she has a remarkable capability for bringing out the best in them.”

Each semester, Lipeles and Martin admit 16 students to the IEC: eight students from the School of Law, and eight graduate and undergraduate students from the School of Engineering & Applied Science (in the Environmental Engineering Science Program) and Arts & Sciences (in the Environmental Studies Program). Medical students also sometimes participate. Clinic students are quickly divided into teams, with at least one law student and one technical student in each group, and then assigned to cases.

Beth Martin (right), IEC engineering and science director, meets one-on-one with all science students in the clinic. Above, she reviews a site map for a facility in a clinic case with Alison Drain, Arts & Sciences Class of ’06 (earth & planetary sciences and environmental studies).

The teams spend the rest of the semester working on those cases, under Lipeles’ and Martin’s guidance. In addition to the weekly course seminar, students meet one-on-one with either Lipeles (for law students) or Martin (for technical students). They also meet as a team with both instructors. Lipeles and Martin provide guidance, but they don’t tell the students exactly how to approach cases. “We try to limit how directive we are, because of the value of learning by doing,” Lipeles says. She and Martin work extensively with students behind the scenes—helping them write and rewrite documents, practicing with them for meetings and court hearings, and generally getting the trial and error out of the process before they meet with clients.

Lipeles and Martin also work to bridge any communication gaps between law students and technical students. “There is a bit of a tension there,” Lipeles says. “How you phrase a sentence, how you pitch an argument, is going to differ [by discipline].” Lipeles encourages students to use their differences to help serve clients. “I think those differences are healthy. Where there’s the most tension is probably where the arguments are the softest, and it’s important to figure that out.”

One of the first cases the IEC took on was brought to the clinic by a Washington University medical student. The student was leading an environmental coalition concerned about the bypass stack on a medical incinerator in North St. Louis. The stack lacked pollution controls, allowing it to potentially release mercury and dioxins into the surrounding community.

Students were involved in all aspects of the case. Law students looked at the legal standards behind the incinerator permit, while engineering and arts and sciences students examined technical data to see whether those standards were being met. Students drafted legislation to increase the city’s regulation of medical waste incinerators, testified at state hearings, met with regulators, spoke at community meetings, and addressed the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

“We try to limit how directive we are, because of the value of learning by doing,” Lipeles says.

In the end, the company decided to shut its incinerator down, and it began sterilizing the wastes it had previously been burning. The company remained in business and no jobs were lost, “but the incinerator was closed, so the community was protected,” Lipeles says.

Not all cases are unqualified victories. When cement supplier Holcim wanted to build a plant on the banks of the Mississippi River, the IEC ultimately settled out of court, allowing the plant to be built in return for a conservation easement and funds for environmental programs. “The students had mixed feelings,” Lipeles says. “Just like the clients did, just like I did.” But those students learned from the case, too; they were part of the process of negotiating the settlement and worked closely with the clients. “There were tangible gains to be had by settling,” Lipeles says. “And we did get some benefits, some controls that wouldn’t have been there without our efforts.”

The IEC has been most successful, perhaps, in working to reduce the dangers of lead exposure. As a result of the clinic’s work, St. Louis children in high-risk areas are now required to be tested regularly for lead poisoning. Families near a lead smelter in the Missouri town of Herculaneum have been able to move to safer locations, and the smelter’s operations have come under greater scrutiny. Further, the EPA has agreed to review its airborne lead standard—a review that’s legally required to take place every five years but that is now 15 years overdue.

“The fact that the accuracy of our work could affect the outcome of the case adds pressure,” says environmental studies major Rachel Permut, A.B. ’02. “But knowing that you can contribute in a real-world situation makes the extra work worth it.”

Rebecca Schade, a third-year law student, spent both a semester and a summer working for the IEC. “It got me a lot closer to feeling like a lawyer, and not just a student,” she says. “The IEC is real practice, with real clients whose well-being relies on you. What you do really matters.

“And the community benefits by being a little cleaner and safer for our victories,” Schade adds.

Lipeles began teaching at the University in 1990—first part time, later full time. Before establishing the IEC, she served as director of the Environmental Engineering Science Program for five years. She’s also co-authored two environmental law casebooks, Hazardous Waste and Water Pollution.

She says she enjoys the complexity of environmental law, and that she also enjoys doing work that matters. “Given that life is short, I feel this is a worthwhile field to work in. There are still a lot of questions, and a lot of uncharted territory.” But Lipeles finds addressing those questions as exciting as it is challenging. “The hopeful part is that I think most people, regardless of politics, care about environmental quality. They care about having the world be at least as good for our grandchildren as [it is] for us.”

Janni L. Simner, A.B. ’89, is a free-lance writer based in Tucson, Arizona.