Environmental Law as a Practice Area

What Do Environmental Lawyers Do?

Environmental law as a practice area
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Legal practitioners seeking to make a positive impact on the universe might look to environmental law as a possible focus. While there is no explicit right to a clean environment articulated in the U.S. Constitution, an array of federal statutes govern various areas of the environment, such as air, water, hazardous waste, pesticides,  land development, and cleanup of contaminated sites. State and local regulations impact the environment as well.

The work itself can involve a mix of administrative law, legislative advocacy, compliance, and litigation. Land use and zoning regulations might also be part of an environmental practice. Civil or criminal charges might be brought against an entity that pollutes or otherwise harms the environment.

The Work of an Environmental Lawyer

Oversight of environmental issues is not limited to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was created in 1970. The U.S. Department of the Interior regulates federal land and natural resources, the U.S. Department of Energy promotes energy security and encourages development clean energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation regulates the shipment of hazardous materials, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses commercial nuclear power plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor regulates working conditions and workplace safety, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration works on food safety issues and regulates the safety of other products.

How might these various governmental agencies be involved in an environmental law matter? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental agencies are involved with approving and issuing permits allowing various activities that have an effect on the environment. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration enforces pesticide tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding chemical residues that may remain on food.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration makes sure that workers involved with hazardous substances in the workplace take appropriate precautions.

Lawyers representing corporate clients might find themselves negotiating with agencies regarding the conditions under which a permit for the disposal of hazardous waste might be issue or over the potential environmental impact of a project and the ways in which that impact might be mitigated. Lawyers may find themselves working with scientific experts, engineers, land developers, politicians, and manufacturers as part of their work. What even the most well-intentioned environmental lawyers may discover is that tradeoffs tend to be involved in any environmental project. Saving one species may involve sacrificing something else; using fewer pesticides on crops might mean a lower yield or that more land must be cleared to try to grow even more plants; or that shipping hazardous materials to a faraway place for disposal may mean they need to be on the roads in lots of highly populated areas before they get to their final destination.

An Environmental Lawyer's Clients

Clients can be varied, from a corporation facing multiple environmental law issues as it sets up operations, runs those operations, and ships its products to various points on the Earth, to nonprofit organizations seeking to save some aspect of the environment, to land developers putting together new projects that will impact the environment.

Individuals and small businesses may also need representation.

Significant federal environmental statutes include the following:

Environmental law practice itself tends to be highly specialized, with some lawyers focusing on water issues, other on air issues, others on hazardous waste and cleanup of contaminated sites, and so on.

Environmental law can be an especially vibrant and personally rewarding practice; lawyers may feel they are fomenting real change as they work on environmental matters.