Law clinic wins monumental victory for Oregon
August 16, 2011
A law school clinic helps Oregon win its independence from in-state coal power.
by Bobbie Hasselbring
What do you do when the largest utility in Oregon violates environmental laws for years, polluting some of the state’s most pristine wild areas? If you’re Lewis & Clark Law School’s Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (PEAC), you shut them down.
In a classic David-and-Goliath drama, PEAC recently won a precedent-setting settlement against Portland General Electric (PGE), which will shut down coal burning at the company’s Boardman plant by the end of 2020. PGE must also significantly reduce its emissions of sulfur dioxide, the major pollutant in acid rain. Additionally, the company is required to pay $2.5 million into a charitable fund for air and habitat protection as well as restoration and clean energy projects.
The settlement is significant, both legally and environmentally. “This is huge,” says Craig Johnston JD ’85, PEAC’s director and one of its founders. “It sets important legal precedents and is really key for the environment. The fact that PEAC can go up against so many specialized lawyers in a big case like this and produce such fantastic results is amazing.”
Just how amazing? Consider that PEAC’s entire legal team consisted of two Lewis & Clark Law School attorneys, one outside lawyer, and a cadre of fledgling law students. PEAC’s lead attorney, Aubrey Baldwin JD ’05, had been a lawyer for only a year when she took on the case five years ago.
The fact that PEAC can go up against so many specialized lawyers in a big case like this and produce such fantastic results is amazing. Craig Johnston
“It was a little intimidating at first,” admits Baldwin, “I was a recent grad with one year of experience and had just gotten hired as a staff attorney at PEAC. The other lawyers here asked me to take on this big case that no one else wanted to tackle. It was a great case, but the odds were definitely against us.”
PEAC won despite having little money. The law school’s environmental clinic, which represents nonprofit public interest clients on a pro bono basis, receives some funding from the law school, foundations, and donors, but the majority of its budget is tied to winning cases, which can take years. “This is complex litigation, and we don’t get reimbursed unless we win,” says Johnston. “We’ve done well enough that PEAC has been able to grow. However, we invest significant resources—in the Boardman case five years’ worth—and we may still not win.”
In contrast, for-profit PGE has millions of dollars and dozens of specialized lawyers at its disposal. The company had also been successfully skirting environmental laws with Boardman for years. According to the lawsuit filed by PEAC in 2008, the Clean Air Act required better pollution controls than PGE installed before Boardman opened in 1977, and it required PGE to improve those controls when the plant was upgraded in subsequent years. But the company didn’t make these changes.
The precedents set here will play an important role in other cases involving the move from coal to cleaner energy.Aubrey Baldwin
The coal-fired Boardman plant produces 15 percent of the power PGE sells. According to studies by the University of Washington, it also generates 50 percent of the pollution that fouls the air in the Columbia Gorge and 14 wilderness areas.
Baldwin says the Boardman agreement will have long-lasting impacts in Oregon and elsewhere. “The precedents set here will play an important role in other cases involving the move from coal to cleaner energy.”
Over the past five years, the case has also given as many as 25 Lewis & Clark Law School students hands-on experience, a key part of PEAC’s mission. “Our clinic allows students to work as if they’re part of a large law firm,” explains Johnston. “We plug them in as team members on big cases. Many of them go on to work with the Department of Justice, the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Humane Society, and other prominent employers.”
PEAC’s track record of success has also allowed it to grow. In fact, it is now going national, having recently hired Kevin Cassidy JD ’02 to open PEAC’s East Coast office in Boston.
Baldwin says Lewis & Clark law students got really invested in the Boardman case. “Our students were an integral part of the team,” she says. “They worked as junior attorneys and did everything—met with clients, wrote briefs, attended hearings.”
Lauren Goldberg JD ’08 worked as a student for a year on the Boardman case. She was hired in 2008 as a staff attorney by Columbia Riverkeeper, one of six nonprofits PEAC represented, and acted as their client representative in the case.
When the Boardman settlement came down, Baldwin and Johnston said they heard from nearly every Lewis & Clark law student who’d worked on the case. The plaintiffs PEAC represented are planning a big party to celebrate the victory—and to honor PEAC’s work.
“One of the great things about PEAC is that our work has a multiplier effect,” says Johnston. “We level the playing field by representing clients who otherwise couldn’t afford legal counsel. And we’re training the next generation of environmental lawyers.”
Award-winning writer Bobbie Hasselbring writes frequently for the Chronicle magazine.