Paralegal Careers in Environmental Law

Growing up in the Niagara Falls neighborhood of Love Canal in the 1970s was a risky proposition.

On the surface, the planned neighborhood was idyllic; the original landowner, William Love, had called the plat “Model City” and taken pains to incorporate green parks and ponds through the area, and started construction on a shipping lane that would bypass the Falls.

Love’s ideas were bigger than his financing, however, and the planned canal was stopped with only a mile completed, a tiny stub near the shoreline of Lake Ontario that was quickly adopted as a ice-skating pond for local children.

Until the Hooker Chemical Company took ownership of the pit. In the 1940s, the canal became just a hole in the ground to pitch toxic chemicals into, barrel after barrel of solvents, hydrocarbons, and other poisons, carpeted over with dirt and clay and eventually forgotten.

Houses continued to go up around the canal. In 1952, the city erected a school on top of the old site.

Meanwhile, the barrels below were decaying. In 1977, a particularly harsh winter raised the water table to the point where groundwater began seeping up into residents yards, carrying a wicked black sheen and terrible smells.

Residents complained of a litany of medical issues. The impact was particularly strong among children: epilepsy, anemia, thyroid disorders, and auto-immune conditions sprouted among them at rates far exceeding the surrounding population.

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In 1978, the local homeowner’s association, lead by Lois Gibbs, a local mother, took the battle to the courts. The federal government responded, creating the first Superfund cleanup site in the country. The lawsuits against Hooker Chemical dragged on, but eventually, in 1995, the company agreed to settle many of the claims for $129 million.

But like toxic chemicals, environmental litigation can have a long half-life. A new round of suits in the case were filed in 2014.

This kind of longevity adds up to ongoing job security for paralegals specializing in environmental law, but job security isn’t their motivation. Instead, a love of nature, a sense of justice, and an ability to apply to environmental issues the kind of rigorous organizational skills and detailed analysis paralegals are known for are the qualities that drive them.

Environmental Law Paralegals Emerge as Unlikely Heroes

The 70’s and 80’s saw a litany of cases like Love Canal with a concordant increase in government regulation and enforcement action, all of which put the practice of environmental law in the spotlight.

Frequently, it was amateurs or paralegals who were the driving force behind those cases…

Erin Brockovich was a clerk in a California law office when she became interested in, then consumed by, then famous for, a case against Pacific Gas and Electric for dumping highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the aquifer serving the city of Hinkley…

Patricia Bragg was a housewife when she took on West Virginia coal companies over drinking water contamination, and when lawyers were reluctant to take the case, paralegals filled the gap.

Paralegals in Environmental Law Need a Vast Scope of Legal Knowledge

Environmental law has deeper roots than many people realize. Possibly the first environmental lawsuit dates back to 1610, when an Englishman named William Aldred sued his neighbor over a poorly situated pig sty that created stench and contamination that made his house unlivable.

The principle that another person’s actions, even when on their own property, can cause ramifications to the surrounding environment and that they can be held accountable for that, remains the bedrock current environmental law and regulation rests on.

Since the 1960s, the field has exploded. Paralegals working in the field have to be familiar with numerous federal statutes including:

  • The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • The Clean Water Act
  • The Clean Air Act
  • The Toxic Substances Control Act
  • The Pollution Prevention Act
  • The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act

And many of those laws delegate actual rule-making authority to enforcement agencies like the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). The administrative law that results from the rules these agencies establishes constitutes another vast area of knowledge that paralegals have to be familiar with.

Environmental law remains a high-stakes field even today. The ongoing litigation surrounding the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion and subsequent spill could eventually result in the company footing the bill for all clean-up costs, which are estimated at over $50 billion. Civil litigants range from the federal government to local fishermen, and a criminal case was only avoided because BP almost immediately entered a guilty plea.

Paralegals working on such cases find themselves working with scientists and other expert witnesses to establish claims or to depose or prepare them for testimony. They will spend hour upon hour reading dry statistical reports, then summarizing the results in briefs for attorneys or judges.

They will often be responsible for organizing evidence and designing exhibits to convey complex environmental issues to judges or juries.

As with any sort of litigation, they can be expected to be in charge of keeping track of the court calendar, to ensure that motions and responses are made on time, and to coordinate witness appearances. They may draft those motions or answers for review by the attorney on the case, and will put in considerable amount of time researching both established precedents and the laws themselves.

Corporate Environmental Paralegals

Of course, not all paralegals in environmental law are out fighting for the little guy. Much of the employment in the field is for major corporate clients or government agencies responsible for creating and enforcing environmental regulation.

Corporate paralegals working in environmental law aren’t the bad guys, however. Instead, their role is to help assess business operations for compliance with regulations and to ensure that the environment is not harmed in the first place.

The best way to win an environmental lawsuit is not to become involved in one in the first place, so corporate paralegals work to:

  • Review internal policies and procedures for environmental safety concerns
  • Serve as resources for staff and managers who have questions about environmental law and regulation
  • Coordinate with regulatory agencies for inspection and compliance reviews

Environmental law paralegals can find a spot in almost any major industry, including:

  • Manufacturing
  • Logging
  • Oil and gas drilling
  • Transportation

Working as an Environmental Paralegal in Government

Government agencies such as the EPA and the Department of the Interior employ most environmental paralegals in government service, but almost any agency with land management or regulatory responsibilities will have some environmental specialists on staff.

Their roles sometimes echo those of corporate environmental paralegals in attempting to ensure that the agency complies with environmental regulations. But they are also part of the enforcement team that investigates, collects evidence, and uses administrative and court actions to enforce environmental law.

Becoming a Paralegal in Environmental Law

To a significant degree, becoming an environmental law paralegal requires an appreciation of nature and the environment. Even paralegals working on the corporate side value protection of the environment.

Some scientific background is a benefit in addition to legal training. Most environmental issues require some interpretation of medical, chemical, or biological testimony and the complexity is such that a strong understanding of those fields will be valuable.

Getting a degree or certificate in paralegal studies is a good idea for any paralegal position, but there are now a number of institutions that offer specializations in their paralegal programs that focus on environmental issues. Otherwise, taking elective courses in science or environmental subjects is a good way to fill in any gaps.

After graduation and entering the paralegal field, you have advanced specialty certification options that can also help you in the environmental law field. Because so much environmental law is administrative law, a certificate from NALS, the association for legal professionals, in Administrative Law can provide a real leg up in many areas of environmental practice.

It’s also a benefit to have volunteered for various environmental rights organizations. Non-profits such as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace are heavily involved in environmental litigation and lobbying, and volunteering with local branches can help you become familiar with the issues and organizations that you would be dealing with as an environmental law paralegal.