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Sustaining Nature

October 01, 2007

  • Kat West J.D. ‘97

I remember when spiny lobsters were as thick as fleas on a dog,” says Kat West, who grew up in the Florida Keys. “It was hard to throw a rock in the water without hitting one.”

But over the years, she watched the lobster population dwindle significantly. Later, during two years of extensive travel after graduating from the University of Florida, West discovered similar widespread habitat degradation and made a commitment to help reverse that trend.

Next stop: Lewis & Clark Law School.

“I have never worked so hard in my life,” West says of her law school years. “But it was thrilling that, for the first time, I was part of a community of people who were as passionate about protecting the environment as I am.”

Her strategic internships with numerous environmental organizations and government agencies during law school paid off. As a new law graduate, she landed a job as a Superfund enforcement attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, where she specialized in Brownfield and Superfund site revitalization and where she remains a consultant. Recently, West won an EPA Notable Achievement Award for developing the EPA’s Purchaser Inquiry Service, an innovative program that quickly and efficiently guides prospective purchasers of contaminated property through the often confusing and arduous process of obtaining liability protection and cleaning up contaminated sites.

Last year, West moved back to Portland to become the sustainability manager for Multnomah County. Her experience with the EPA (combined with her nonprofit work as executive director of the Atlanta Community Gardens Coalition, cochair of the Atlanta Local Food Initiative, and member of Sustainable Atlanta) helped her land this “dream-come-true” job.

According to West, Multnomah County’s vision for sustainability is to achieve “the mutual benefits of community livability, a thriving economy, and a healthy ecological system simultaneously–using, developing, and protecting resources at a rate that enables people to meet their current needs while providing for the needs of future generations.”

One of the county’s current projects is dear to West’s heart because it confronts habitat loss around the world: responding to global climate change. The county’s goal is to reduce emissions in keeping with international Kyoto Protocol standards.

As part of the project, West is working on a groundbreaking proposal that will require food purchased for county jails to carry a carbon price tag. “In general, the carbon footprint for food is significantly smaller if it’s grown closer to where it is consumed,” she says. “The average Caesar salad on your plate travels about 1,200 miles, and that is unacceptable. This proposal would allow the county to buy food with a lower impact on the environment.”

West also maintains a connection with Lewis & Clark Law School, volunteering at career events, mock job interviews, and business law roundtable discussions. She hopes to one day teach a class on contaminated property revitalization at the law school.

At the end of a long workday, she walks two miles to her home behind the Baghdad Theatre in Portland’s Hawthorne district. Although visitors won’t find any spiny lobsters, they will discover a revitalized fishpond filled with happy goldfish, thanks to West’s initiative.

–by Pattie Pace

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