Law School students deliver environmental legal aid

When a rowing team for breast cancer survivors had concerns about pollution along a stretch of the Chicago River where they train, they turned to students at the University of Chicago Law School.  

The students are part of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, a four-year-old program that puts second- and third-year law students to work on some of the most pressing environmental problems in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Their clients include local grassroots groups and some of the nation’s largest environmental organizations. Abrams clinic cases end up in front of judges, regulatory boards and commissions.

On a recent morning, a group of students sat around tables in an office suite preparing documents to submit to the Illinois Pollution Control Board on behalf of Recovery on Water, or ROW, a group of 85 breast cancer patients and survivors who row as therapy on the south fork of the south branch of the Chicago River, known as Bubbly Creek.

“The students get not just the theory of environmental law, but an experience of what it is like to actually be a practicing environmental lawyer,” said Mark Templeton, founding director of the clinic and associate clinical professor of law. “They learn some of the practical skills that wouldn’t be covered in the environmental law survey class. Regardless of what kind of practice they go into afterwards, they will be much more effective advocates for these kinds of issues because they’ve had these experiences.”

The Abrams clinic is one of the newest additions to the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, where students gain critical experience in a field, while providing pro bono legal aid in areas from housing to mental health care to human rights. Templeton joined the Law School from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Trust, where he was executive director and a trustee for the $20 billion fund. He also has served as director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, leading the state’s efforts in energy, environmental protection, state parks and water resources.

In the first few years of the Abrams clinic, students have worked with clients to petition the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Royal Dutch Shell PLC for misleading investors about its U.S. arctic exploration program, briefing Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and senior regulators in Washington, D.C. on the matter. The students have challenged a coal-mining permit in southern Illinois that threatened ground water, succeeding in getting tighter conditions. Students have argued before the Illinois Appellate Court against a proposed silica mine next to Starved Rock State Park and presented to the Illinois Pollution Control Board about what states can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They have received feedback on their energy policy prescriptions from colleagues at UChicago’s Energy Policy Institute. By featuring this diverse docket, the Abrams clinic provides opportunities for students to work in a wide range of different forums and areas of law, creating an educational experience reflective of the varied skills needed to be effective practicing environmental lawyers.

Students work in two- to four-person teams, each assigned to a project on behalf of a client. “The practice of law is very much learned-through apprenticeship,” Templeton said. “You give the students as much opportunity and responsibility as they can handle. They are very capable, are very committed to this work and bring fresh perspectives to longstanding controversies. And they can really focus on these projects in ways that are not always easy for lawyers in environmental organizations to do, who are often juggling multiple efforts.”

The clinic has ongoing relationships with the Natural Resources Defense Club, Environmental Defense Fund and Sierra Club, among others, all of whom regularly bring them issues and ask for representation. “We pride ourselves on our students’ ability to deliver excellent work; that’s one reason clients come to us,” Templeton said. 

We have always had a lot of concern about how dirty the water is, especially because women in treatment have a compromised immune system. We’re thinking, ‘Wow, should we be rowing on this water?’Jenn Junk, executive director of Recovery on Water

Cases also arise from research done by students, including a current project with the Sierra Club. Certain environmental statues require companies to disclose how much polluting material they discharge into the environment, and there are limits on how much they can release. Students comb through corporate disclosures looking for such violations. They found violations at a refinery near East St. Louis and a chemical plant near Peoria, sending them notice of intent to sue letters.

As for ROW, students and the nonprofit are focusing on working to get the Illinois Pollution Control Board to set higher water quality standards for the section of the Chicago River they use for training, which is particularly polluted. 

“We have always had a lot of concern about how dirty the water is, especially because women in treatment have a compromised immune system,” said Jenn Junk, ROW’s executive director. “We’re thinking, ‘Wow, should we be rowing on this water?’”

The clinic students prepared a presentation for ROW explaining why Bubbly Creek is so dirty and gave them options for action. Abrams clinic students helped the survivors prepare statements about their experiences with the water and accompanied them to hearings, where regulators were surprised to learn people regularly row on this portion of the river. The clinic is now applying to change the recreational use designation for that part of the river from “incidental contact” to “primary contact,” which would create more stringent requirements for how clean the water must be.

“We’re incredibly fortunate to have the clinic help us speak on our own behalf,” Junk said. “Our organization is not an environmental organization, but we certainly have concerns. So it’s huge for us to be able to say, ‘We work with the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic.’ They make sure that we’re there and we’re playing an active role in the change that we want to see.”