Seven UC Hastings Students Saving the Planet this Summer

UC Hastings students are engaged in a wide variety of environmental law work this summer, from researching the impact of a new stadium for The Golden State Warriors to drafting legislative language with the Environmental Protection Agency. We caught up with seven of them, each with a passion for protecting the natural world.

Ross Middlemiss, Rising 2L

Ross Middlemiss came to law school to pursue a career in environmental law. This summer, he is interning at Lawyers for Clean Water, Inc. in San Francisco. The firm represents environmental and community groups, including waterkeeper organizations, which work to preserve waterways. He interviewed with the firm during Public Interest/ Public Career Day hosted by UC Hastings in January.

“When looking for a summer internship, I wanted something in litigation with a public interest focus,” Middlesmiss said. “Lawyers for Clean Water fit these criteria perfectly. It has been a wonderful chance to learn more about this area of practice, while working on important cases furthering the protection of the environment.”

Middlemiss is assisting attorneys with casework for suits under the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, federal laws governing water and air pollution. His responsibilities include researching and drafting memoranda on the viability of CWA and CAA claims, and monitoring compliance with settlement agreements by violators of the Clean Water or Clean Air Acts.

Violators of the CWA and CAA can include large companies in industries such as concrete production, or municipalities mismanaging their waste-water systems. “Compliance monitoring of such a decree seeks to ensure the violator corrects the failures that led to the suit, while implementing preventative measures to eliminate future pollution violations,” Middlemiss said.

During his childhood in Arcata, Humboldt County, Middlemiss gained an appreciation for the natural environment and conservation. “As I learned about the beauty of the natural world, I simultaneously learned about the constant threat it faced,” he said. “I have been looking for a way to join the fight, and that’s why I came to UC Hastings.”

At UC Hastings, Middlemiss took the course: Environmental Law Statutory Analysis taught by Professor Takacs where he had the opportunity to apply his legal skills to environmental work. “I’m excited to get deeper into the environmental curriculum,” he said.

Christopher Wilharm, Rising 2L

Christopher Wilharm is a rising 2L externing for San Francisco Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong who handles all of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) cases that come before the court.

Wilharm has been assisting Judge Wong on a high-profile CEQA case that’s making headlines. The Mission Bay Alliance filed multiple lawsuits against The Golden State Warriors and the City of the San Francisco to stop the construction of a new stadium for the basketball team. In July, Judge Wong ruled that the city’s environmental review of the proposed arena was adequate – clearing a major hurdle for the 2015 NBA champs to relocate from Oakland to San Francisco.

Before the ruling, Judge Wong and his externs conducted extensive research and reviewed the administrative record, which included 160,000 pages of documents. “We were each given different issues in the case and drafted memos for our judge,” Wilharm said.

Willharm became interested in environmental law during his first year of law school. Professor David Takacs, who teaches several environmental law courses at UC Hastings, recommended Wilharm to his externship with Judge Wong.

“The most inspiring aspect of the field is that successes are so visible and have such a positive effect of the planet we live on,” Wilharm said. “When a project is halted because of the potential negative environmental impacts that would result from its completion, that is a huge victory and has a substantial and tangible impact on the planet.”

Samantha Ricci, Rising 2L

Samantha Ricci made her way across the country to intern at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C. She is participating in the Summer Honors Law Clerk Program at the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics – Chemical Control Division.

Ricci has been assisting with the rulemaking under the Work Plan Chemicals that will be the first to come out under the newly amended Toxic Substances Control Act, a law that regulates all chemicals that are manufactured, sold, and imported in the United States. “The statute came out over 40 years ago and had not been amended since,” Ricci said. “There were severe limitations with the old TSCA and the agency’s ability to regulate chemicals effectively and efficiently to protect human health and the environment.”

Ricci assisted with section six, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the economic assessment for WPC, and the Information Collection Request report that is sent to the Office of Management and Budget. She also assisted with the Small Business Advocacy Representatives panels with the Small Entity Representatives as part of the procedural process for the agency.

As an undergraduate student at UC San Diego, Ricci’s interest in climate change and conservation led her to focus on environmental policies and regulations. “I was fascinated by the dire need for change in order to address climate change, and yet the partisanship that existed in effectuating that change,” Ricci said.

Ricci spent time on Capitol Hill, working in the office of Senator Barbara Boxer, allowing her to see first-hand how environmental issues are being handled by Congress.

“These experiences are what made me realize that I wanted to go to law school to pursue a career in environmental law. It was not only an area I saw a dire need for change and sound policy, but it was a way for me to turn my passion into a career,” she said.

Ylan Nguyen, Rising 3L

Ylan Nguyen is assisting attorneys at the Natural Resources Defense Council with cases, including researching domestic and international environmental issues.

Nguyen has done research and drafted memos on the authority foreign governments have to implement green measures in countries such as China and Brazil. As an intern at NRDC, she’s also researched how violations of the Clean Water Act affect endangered species. She gave an example violation of sewage plants with expired permits discharging waste in Alaska, negatively affecting endangered animals.

Growing up around oil-rigs in Huntington Beach, CA made Nguyen aware of the impact these rigs had on the community and the environment. “Environmental issues affect low-income communities disproportionately,” Nguyen said. This is one of the reasons Nguyen chose to pursue a career in environmental law.

“Whether we realize it or not, environmental issues affect everyone around the world.”

Kristian Zanis, Rising 2L

Kristian Zanis is a rising 2L interning for the Center for Food and Safety in California. “All of my work has dealt with environmental law and it is the mission of the CFS to protect human health and the environment from harmful food production technologies,” Zanis said.

This summer, Zanis has been researching and preparing memos for attorneys at CFS. He’s researched a wide range of topics, from impaired waterways under the California Water Act to endangered and threatened species in the United States. He’s currently researching provisions of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.

“The greatest takeaway is learning how to deal with frustrating research projects and how to manage your time effectively. Attorneys have very specific questions and want specific answers, but sometimes you find that there are no answers,” Zanis said. He credits his internship for allowing him to hone his legal research and writing skills.

In addition to interning, Zanis has attended several brown bag-lunches this summer, organized for students by environmental and law organizations, such as the Sierra Club, The Department of Justice and the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s really nice to be invited to these roundtable discussions to figure out what else I can do with my legal education,” he said.

Zanis was exposed to environmental law at UC Hastings, where he took Professor Takacs’ Environmental Law Statutory Analysis course during his first year. “I realized that it may be an amazing career path to take,” Zanis said. “I was fascinated by the broad implications of environmental law in our daily lives and, specifically, how it clashes with the property rights of people and businesses.”

He thanks Professor Takacs for recommending him to his internship at CFS.

Paulina Torres, Rising 3L

For rising 3L, Paulina Torres, the most compelling aspect of environmental law is the intersection between the environment and social justice. Torres is working with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica, California. She calls the NRDC one of the nation’s most effective environmental advocacy organizations. The NRDC combines law, science and activism to fight for the environment. Torres has known about the NRDC for years, but found this opportunity through Hastings Career Online.

This summer, Torres is focusing on cases centering in Los Angeles County, Orange County, and surrounding areas. On her docket are land use projects, a Clean Air Act project, an international environmental law project, and a local water project.

“I have ties to the Los Angeles area,” Torres said, “so working on cases that impact the communities I grew up around is so rewarding and inspiring.”

Though Torres has always been interested in the environment, she never saw it as a possible career path until her first year at UC Hastings. Taking the 1L Environmental Law statutory interpretation course with Paul Cort, an attorney from Earthjustice, piqued her interest in the legal aspect of environmental protection.

Torres considers herself an advocate for environmental justice, and she points to the fact that pollution disproportionately affects certain communities, often communities of color. She said that it’s up to committed and clever advocates to fight for the environment and vulnerable communities.

“While we certainly need more environmental protection laws,” she said. “Dedicated activists and attorneys still find ways to protect our environment and the health of these communities.”

Matthew Williams, Rising 2L

Matthew Williams has always had an interest in local government and an appreciation for the natural environment. This summer he’s part of the public utilities team at the City Attorney’s Office, which serves as in-house counsel for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The SFPUC manages San Francisco’s water, sewer, and electrical systems, and delivers water to approximately 2.7 million customers throughout the Bay Area.

The SFPUC requires legal counsel in numerous areas, which include: water supply, real estate, construction, litigation, public finance, contracts, public records, government relations, and, of course, environmental law.

As the team’s summer intern, Williams has been able to work on environmental issues, largely around compliance with federal environmental laws. He’s currently doing research on potential strategies to mitigate the impact of a multi-year dam replacement and habitat restoration project on species protected under the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

“These protections are under constant assault on every front and I believe that it’s the duty of our generation to ensure these laws are strengthened, complied with, and enforced so that human civilization can attain a sustainable relationship with our delicate surroundings,” Williams said.

Part of his research, includes reading through various biology reports and assessments to determine what species are in the area, what their nesting behaviors are, and when they mate. Williams will also be working on a project relating to Clean Water Act. This issue involves researching recent federal appellate decisions that will likely affect how utilities must operate their water treatment systems.

Williams pursued his interest in environmental law at UC Hastings and learned more than he expected, “Professor Takacs walked us through the major environmental statutes, I began to understand that practicing environmental law is usually tedious, rarely glorious, and often thankless,” Williams said. “However, the class also demonstrated the critical importance of environmental lawyering in the 21st Century.”

The individual opinions expressed by students in this article are not meant to reflect those of the organizations and firms where they are interning this summer.