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Lessons from the world’s top Environmental Law Conference

March 5, 2012

The Public Interest Environmental Law Conference held each year in Eugene Oregon is, perhaps, the Mecca of environmental lawyers.  It brings together literally thousands of lawyers, law students, community activists, and others to discuss whether and how the law can be used to protect the environment.  This year – the 30th Conference – West Coast Environmental Law had a good contingent: Lawyers Josh Paterson and Andrew Gage, and Interns Nicole Petersen and Julia Martignoni.

We (Andrew and Julia) have pooled our collective impressions, lessons and views, and tell you about some of the things we learned from the conference.

Pesticides can be scary and funny at the same time

Dr. Tyrone Hayes speaking at the PIELC

One of the undoubted highlights of the conference was a keynote speech by Dr. Tyrone Hayes.  A large and gregarious man, Dr. Hayes must have been a stand up comic in a previous life.  In this life, however, he’s a controversial biologist who has published a series of scientific journal articles demonstrating that very low concentrations (0.1 parts per billion) of the pesticide Atrazine can “chemically castrate” frogs.  “I put that in the title of the article because I knew it would **** them off,” he explained cheerfully.  

Additionally frogs exposed to Atrazine exhibited hermaphroditic reproductive organs and reduced fertility rates, and in some cases actually had eggs growing within their testes. Dr. Hayes recounted how an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff member had agreed that the study showing eggs growing in frog testes was an “interesting finding, but we’re not sure if it’s an adverse effect.”  Dr. Hayes to ask the men in the audience to imagine how they might feel if they had eggs popping out of their testes. 

And it’s not just frogs.  Dr. Hayes also explained that other researchers have demonstrated similar effects (although not necessarily at the same level) in fish (salmon), reptiles, birds and mammals, up to and including humans.  He and 20 other scientists documented this in a paper entitled “Demasculinization and Feminization of Male Gonads by Atrazine: Consistent effects across vertebrate classes.”  Dr. Hayes’s impressive body of work had the audience wondering how the EPA can allow the continued use of this pesticide (Dr. Hayes himself answered this question by quoting an EPA official who said that the issue was “much bigger than science”.)  There are a number of videos of Dr. Hayes on the internet which should give you an idea of what a knowledgeable and entertaining speaker he is.  [Update 7 March 2012 - Or check out this Ted Talks video]

Some additional notes for Canadians (not from Dr. Hayes’s talk, but from West Coast’s research):  Atrazine was reapproved for use in Canada in 2007, but not, oddly enough, in British Columbia (the manufacturer didn’t want it to be approved in BC).  Health Canada also allows levels of Atrazine on the surface of corn that you buy to reach concentrations of up to .2 ppm, or 2000x the levels at which Dr. Hayes reports “chemically castrating frogs.” 

The Atmospheric Trust cases

The Atmospheric Trust Litigation cases and the associated communications campaign are moving ahead.  Last May, lawyers acting for youth in 50 states filed actions (lawsuits or petitions) based on the idea that the Atmosphere belongs to everyone, and the government has a “public trust” duty to protect it.  Here’s the environmental law alert that we wrote at the time.  Since then, the lawyers and their clients have been hard at work.  The youth have been speaking publicly (and very powerfully) about their cases, including at this year’s PIELC where we heard from 3 of them, and making videos with the human rights organization (if you only have time to watch one, I’d recommend the one about Nelson Kanuk of Alaska, who has experienced more climate change impacts in his young life than most of us want in a lifetime). 

The lawyers have been litigating.  A number of the cases have been struck out.  Others are being heard.  A lawyer from New Mexico recounted how the judge hearing her case agreed in argument that it seemed quite likely that the public trust doctrine could extend to the atmosphere.  Also pretty remarkable is the fact that some states and the U.S. federal government did not contest the science and the claims of urgency made in the claims. So there are some encouraging signs. But so far the only true win was in the Ukraine, the one international case filed, where a court ordered the government to demonstrate whether or not it was complying with its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. 

In addition to several teams of lawyers, the Atmospheric Trust Litigation cases, and the clients, and the related communications efforts, are being coordinated by a new non-profit called Our Children’s Trust, led by lawyer, Julia Olson.  Also intimately involved are and the iMatter Movement – founded by the first of the youth litigants – Alec Loorz, who spoke passionately at the conference.

The rise of sports sustainability

Justin Zeulner, Director of Sustainability and Planning at Rose Quarter (Portland’s sports arena and home of the Portland Trail Blazers) spoke on “sports sustainability” on a panel about transition to a low-carbon economy. Before attending this panel, we probably would have dismissed the idea as little more than calculated greenwashing, but Zeulner wonderfully challenged this assumption.

Percentage of Americans interested in, engaged with and influenced by science:    35%.

Percentage of Americans interested in, engaged with and influenced by sport: 85%.

According to Zeulner, these figures alone highlight a great opportunity to shift cultural norms around sustainable practices through sport.

Moving sports teams, arenas and leagues towards resource-efficient practices allows businesses to save substantial costs while at the same time normalizing basic elements of sustainable behaviour such as recycling, composting and sourcing food locally.  Zeulner energetically and proudly displayed data regarding Rose Quarter’s sustainability initiatives since 2008. After auditing, Rose Quarter’s arena has been thoroughly retrofitted to be more resource and waste efficient. While full information is available on their website, some key results are:

  • the halving of overall carbon emissions,
  • a saving of 2,000,000 kWh of energy per annum,
  • reduction of water use by 30% and an 800 tonne diversion of waste from landfill annually.

Improvements are also both visible and educational, for example: the installment of composting, recycling and waste bins and the replacement of conventionally served food with local produce and biodegradable cutlery. Such changes in 3 years are impressive, and Zeulner explained that future projects involve extending such initiatives from the arena to partnerships with the broader community.

As Portland is one of the greenest cities in the United States, such improvements might not seem so revolutionary. But Zeulner argues that the potential for such practices to spread to other states and less environmentally aware localities could be “game-changing.”  He has recently helped create the Greens Sports Alliance, a non-profit organisation helping sports teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance.

The incentive to jump on board is high and attractive to enterprises focused on the bottom-line: enormous cost savings. Within 3 years, the efficiency improvements at Rose Quarters arena have already repaid initial investment costs and profits are rising annually. Sports sustainability gaining momentum might well be able to cut carbon emissions, reduce the resource-intensity of venues and normalize sustainable behaviour to audiences previously unreachable.

A plug for PIELC

That wasn’t all, of course.  Here’s the 2012 schedule.  If you’re interested in environment and law from a public interest perspective – whether you’re a lawyer or not – consider joining us next year.

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer, and Julia Martignoni, Legal Intern