Turner Environmental Law Clinic celebrates world-changing service

Turner at twenty

IN THE MID-SEVENTIES, Lois Gibbs, a housewife raising her family in a quiet Niagara Falls, New York, neighborhood, noticed that her children and many of their friends were getting sick. She started asking questions, and when she didn’t get answers, she went door-to-door and formed an advocacy group. The Love Canal Homeowners Association, as it would be called, would eventually uncover that their housing development was built on a toxic waste dump and that highly toxic chemicals were leaching into the groundwater.

In the legal melee that followed, Love Canal became synonymous with environmental disaster, and Gibbs’s activism became a foundation of American environmental law.

“At the time we didn’t have any federal, legal method to clean up the mess and to relocate the people in a fair and compassionate way,” said Mindy Goldstein, executive director of Emory University School of Law’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic.

“President Carter signed a big old check, and we got the Superfund Law, which is now the federal legislation that allows for the cleanup of toxic waste sites and the compensation and relocation of communities.”

On January 18, Mindy Goldstein welcomed Lois Gibbs as the keynote speaker at the

first conference held by the Turner Clinic, a non-profit legal outfit housed within Emory Law that does 4,000 hours of pro bono environmental advocacy work annually, much of it inspired by Gibbs’s work.

January’s conference celebrated the clinic’s 20-year past, even as its theme looked forward to The Future of Environmental Law: Where the Next 20 Years Will Lead Us. “In my mind, the future has to involve engaging communities. It has to be this bottom-up approach, especially right now,” Goldstein said.

One of the more high-profile, bottom-up efforts of the clinic came to fruition in July 2018 with the publication of a model solar ordinance. The joint effort with Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia was a culmination of more than a thousand hours of meetings with environmental groups, local land-use planners, solar developers, farmers, and other community members.

The clinic’s grassroots sensibility was crucial for making sure the work was more than just an academic exercise. “There [are] some beautiful, well-written, and well-thought-out ordinances out there sitting on shelves. No one ever adopted them,” Goldstein said. “One of the things we wanted to figure out was how to get this one used. Part of community engagement was making sure we were talking with the right people, making sure we’re meeting the needs of Georgia. Quite a few counties have already adopted it, and several more have it in the works.” She says, “It helped people think through some of the environmental issues, but also aesthetic and land use issues on all scales of solar—from rooftop to really big.”

One of the most critical groups affected by large-scale solar projects is the farming community, but the clinic’s interest in agricultural issues extends beyond that single issue. “Up until just a few years ago, people separated food and agricultural law from environmental law. In fact, they’re connected,” Goldstein said. “Agriculture is the number-one cause of pollution in the United States. The way that we grow food, the way we transport it, and the way we throw it away all have huge environmental implications. We have worked across the food spectrum from changing federal legislation to allow for small and midsize farming to changing local ordinances to allow for urban gardens. We’ve worked to change statewide regulations to allow for composting food waste. We’re helping The Conservation Fund purchase land and put easements in place. We’re helping to protect it in perpetuity and to get young and minority farmers on that land to grow local food.”

Even as the clinic focuses on behind-the-scenes local issues such as solar panel placement regulations and smart land use, it also plays a significant role in national environmental matters. “Nuclear waste—there [are] two other attorneys and us in the country that do it. Anything you’ve seen about nuclear waste in the last 10 years has been us. I’m super proud of some of the work that we’ve done, including a lawsuit back in 2012 where we stopped all nuclear power licenses for two years while the federal government tried to figure out what to do about waste.”

Goldstein takes pride in breaking new ground.

“We’re known for stepping in where we’re needed, filling gaps,” she says. “If a whole bunch of people are fighting a coal-fired power plant, I’m not fighting it. If no one’s thinking about where to site solar, that’s where we come in. We’re seen as an important piece of this larger puzzle. We’re not a piece that piles on, but a piece that stands apart.”

The Turner Clinic’s reputation for filling in gaps helped it gather a who’s who of environmental law for its conference. “We’re so lucky to have such great friends that I could pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, will you come down?’ And they all say yes,” Goldstein said. Along with the keynote speaker, there were two panels. The Future of Environmental Law: Frontiers in Advocacy and Protection in a Time of Conflict and Change featured William Buzbee, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and former Emory Law professor; Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming 93L, partner at Van Ness Feldman and Former EPA chief of staff; and Michael Sutton, the executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation. It was moderated by V. Anne Heard 78L. Environmental Law Clinics: The Secret Weapon to Saving Our Environment featured Wendy Jacobs, the director of the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law; Seema Kakade, the director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland, and Patrick Parenteau, senior counsel at the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at the Vermont Law School. Goldstein moderated that panel.

“The panels of speakers are just incredible supporters of the clinic and our work,” Goldstein said. “The lineup speaks to kind of the reputation the clinic has garnered over the years and the excitement nationwide for our work.”

Recent Accomplishments 

Georgia model solar ordinance

To support the smart growth of solar in Georgia, the Turner Clinic, together with representatives from the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, developed and published a model solar-zoning ordinance. Counties and cities across Georgia now have a legal framework to support solar development in their jurisdictions while maintaining community character, optimizing land use, and ensuring environmental integrity.

Decreasing barriers to land access

The Conservation Fund’s Working Farm Fund seeks to accelerate the pace of agricultural land conservation in metro Atlanta, provide a pathway for producers to acquire farmland, and strengthen Atlanta’s local food system. The clinic is advising the fund’s development and implementation. Recently, clinic students prepared lease-to-own contracts for farmers, balancing farmer needs, conservation, land transfer, and investment outcomes.

Protecting the nation’s public lands

The Natural Resources Defense Council, together with the clinic and a small group of other lawyers, academics, and former government officials, developed a complex, multiyear legal strategy to protect the nation’s public lands. As a first step in implementing this strategy, the clinic used the Freedom of Information Act to force the Department of Interior to make important decision-making documents publicly available.

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