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Law and the Environment: It's All Around You

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Washington, DCIn his book, 'The Making of Environmental Law,' author Richard J. Lazarus recalls fondly his evenings working as a bartender while pursuing his degree and putting the wheels in motion to become, what was a bit of a novelty in 1975, an environmental lawyer.

He recalls a conversation with a customer in the bar one autumn evening that year. Lazarus was told by the seemingly all-knowing client sitting on the bar stool that environmental law was little more than a fad that would afford no meaningful career opportunities.

PollutionWhat a difference 33 years make. Lazarus reminds us that in 1970 there were but a handful of emerging environmental laws at the state level, and even fewer further up at the federal plateau. There was no federal pollution control industry at the time. Today, pollution control is a $190 billion industry that employs in excess of 1.4 million.

The legal profession has had to keep pace, given that environmental laws and regulations permeate just about every aspect of life in modern society: from the houses we build, to the state of the soil we build them on, to the cars we drive and the materials we come into contact with.

Environmental lawyers have also needed to grow in number, in statistical lockstep with the millions of Americans who have sought membership in environmental organizations and other grassroots movements across the nation in need of legal guidance.

Of course, the court of public opinion is powerful, and slowly over the years society has sought, and later demanded better environmental protections. For most of us, our awareness began with the banning of lead in gasoline by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than three decades ago. That was followed by the adoption of catalytic converters on our cars, and other pollution controls to reduce emissions. Asbestos has also helped to foster society's ultimate position on the environment and how the environment in which we live can affect us.

If we are what we eat, then we also are what we breathe.

What's more, the environment has turned into a cash cow. Recycling of reusable materials, which some may argue was a fad articulated by a bunch of tree-huggers just a few decades ago, is now big business. Environmental lawyers helped steer that vision into reality. Entrepreneurs have since taken the ball that is other people's junk and run with it all the way to the bank. Legal counsel needed to be sensitive to, and conversant with, their particular needs.

And in the last few years, global warming has dramatically turned up the heat on the environmental focus. Suddenly, we are hearing anew all those early warnings by concerned scientists and the movie 'An Inconvenient Truth' has become a must-see. For his environmental crusade, former Vice-President Al Gore was awarded both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize.

There is little doubt that environmental law has seen unprecedented growth in the last several years and remains the latest frontier from which practically everything else stems. As a commentator Richard Lazarus is well equipped, given his background as legal counsel for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. He was also an assistant to the Solicitor General, and served as a member of advisory boards connected with the EPA, the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The environment has come a long way, baby—and the baby is growing up quickly. Just this week the EPA announced a slashing of the amount of toxic metal that will be allowed in the nation's air by 90 percent.

Three decades after getting the lead out of gasoline, the EPA is getting the lead out of the air we breathe. The agency makes the point that the public health, and especially that of children, can be compromised by inhaling airborne lead particles released by smelters, mines and waste incinerators.

It has been determined that exposure to lead, even at low levels can impact learning, IQ and memory in children—especially if the exposure happens early in life. For adults, lead exposure has been linked to cardiovascular problems, erratic blood pressure and kidney issues.

The new standard, which is the first update in 30 years, will mandate a limit of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter.

That's 10 times lower than the old standard.

You can bet that environmental law will come into play when this new standard requires enforcement. There will be opposition. The battery recycling industry, for one, has indicated that the new standard will be difficult to achieve, given the amount of lead recyclers reclaim from old car batteries. The Association of Battery Recyclers met with officials from the EPA and the White House within the past two weeks to seek a less-stringent standard.

It appears they have the sympathy of the Bush Administration, which has shown to be resistant to such raises of the bar. It has been reported that the Bush White House failed to follow the advice of its own staff, or that of its science advisors, when it set health standards for smog and soot that wound up less stringent than staff recommendations.

Given the tug-of-war that will ensue, environmental lawyers will always have plenty of work. But that's a good thing.

Because somebody has to look out for the environment. And somebody has to make sure that the policies of those entrusted to generate and carry out those good works have the legal clout behind them.

For the good of us all.

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