Laura Pisoni JD/MEM ’11

September 12, 2010Duke Law News

Laura Pisoni JD/MEM '11

Laura Pisoni says it is the interdisciplinary and varied nature of environmental law that attracts her to the field.

“This is true of other categories of law, but I think it’s most true of environmental law — It can be a thousand things,” says Pisoni.

She has examined many of them during her four-year dual-degree studies at the Law School and Nicholas School of the Environment, both in the classroom and out. In addition to working in environmental advocacy during her summers, she researched the broad effects of mountaintop removal mining during a semester in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. As the current editor in chief of the interdisciplinary Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum (DELPF), she is planning a volume “on the borders of environmental law,” such as the disposal of electronic waste.

Pisoni says she was initially attracted to science policy as an undergraduate at Barnard College.

“I was interested in things like bioethics and ethics related to chemistry and weaponry,” she says. “I became interested in environmental policy, and that’s the degree I pursued. It was a very interdisciplinary degree with a lot of science and a little economics, and that’s when I realized environmental law was a really vibrant area.”

She worked for Columbia University doing technical mapping while she tried to map out a career strategy that mirrored her interests.

“I asked myself, ‘What sounds interesting and varied enough to do for the rest of my life?’” she recalls. “I wanted to go to a school where I could get science and law, and make the interface less of a grind, because it doesn’t always mesh. The dual-degree opportunity at Duke sounded right.”

She says that looking at environmental law and policy in the different contexts provided by the Law School and the Nicholas School has been helpful.

“It empowers people in the legal profession to have some idea of how their practice affects others working on environmental issues,” she says. “At the Nicholas School, we have a professor who works at the Environmental Protection Agency, and he jokes that the EPA gets sued for everything. ‘We write three words on a piece of paper, we get sued. We go out for a cup of coffee, we get sued.’

“Then there are lawyers who say, ‘The EPA doesn’t do anything. They have all these statutes requiring that things happen, and they aren’t enforced, so we have to take legal action.’ So it’s been really interesting to look at these things from different perspectives.”

Pisoni spent her 1L and 2L summers working for environmental advocacy groups trying to affect policy at the state level, the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association and the North Carolina Conservation Network, respectively.

“Working on state-level advocacy is really useful, because you see the disconnect between the people who know the science and the people who make the laws,” Pisoni observes. “They can be extremely well-meaning, but the difference between five milligrams and 10 milligrams of a given substance in the water or air, while seemingly inconsequential for a layperson, could mean total destruction.”

Pisoni’s work on mountaintop removal mining issues in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic culminated in the September 2009 filing of an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to consider the human cost of that particular mining method in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

The brief, submitted on behalf of the West Virginia Council of Churches, supported Huntington-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) in its suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps). OVEC alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and sought review of the Corps’ decision to permit coal companies to dispose of coal mining waste in West Virginia’s rivers and streams. While the federal district court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had considered a lengthy record and testimony concerning impacts on streams and wildlife, the underlying proceedings gave little attention to the impacts of the mining practices on the people and communities who use the natural resources and experience the impacts in their daily lives.

Pisoni says the work was a complex undertaking involving scientifically defined water-quality issues as well as more nebulous ideas touched on in the applicable regulations.

“The laws and regulations require examining both the human and environmental ‘impacts,’ broadly defined, including often overlooked values — aesthetic values, recreational values, and historical values,” she says. “The Clean Water Act is perhaps more explicit about it — it specifically mentions recreational, historical, and aesthetic values. In making these statutes and in promulgating regulations, Congress and the agencies were thinking, ‘What does it mean to have a human impact?’ It turns out they recognized that it wasn’t just a health impact — even though mountaintop removal mining [is thought to have] a serious health impact. It extends beyond that. It was up to us to explain to the Supreme Court why the issue matters, and why they should take this case for review.”

In July, OVEC withdrew its petition for Supreme Court review, after the Corps and the EPA issued new guidelines for considering the impacts of mountaintop removal mining.

Pisoni says her time in the clinic taught her how to match up the applicable law and science to the environmental problem in a way that will allow her to “hit the ground running” after graduation.

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