Story posted January 14, 2008
Chase Barn was awash in suits—dark, pinstriped and very lawyerly. Students were staging a mock hearing before the state Board of Environmental Protection as their final project for their Environmental Law and Policy course. You would think much more were at stake than 20 percent of their grade: They acted as if they truly were arguing for the very fate of the Androscoggin River and the survival of the Verso Paper mill in Jay, Maine.
Perhaps that's because the case is real. Owners of the Verso mill recently argued before the Maine Board of Environmental Protection (BEP) that the conditions of their current five-year permit should remain in effect, and that they should have 10 years to meet the pollution standards set by the federal Clean Water Act. The Natural Resources Counsel of Maine (NRCM) wants the mill to immediately face stricter pollution control standards. The BEP is in the process of drafting its ruling based on a four-day hearing in 2007 that left thousands of pages of testimony in its wake.
The course, offered every other year since 2001, is taught by Conrad Schneider, an adjunct lecturer in Bowdoin's Environmental Studies program and a Brunswick environmental attorney who works as the advocacy director for the National Clean Air Task Force. It examines the history, purpose and various levels of success of environmental law, contributing to Bowdoin's long-standing exploration of public policy and environmental science. Every year, students take on a real case, but this was one of the most complicated.
As Kristen Gunther '09 explained it: The class "helped me develop my own perspective on the larger issues of the connection between society, government and environment."
In preparation for the hearing, Schneider assigned students to teams, making sure to balance the number of science students and government majors. He asked members of the BEP-side not to review the real transcripts so they could make their decision based on the case as they heard it presented. However, students on either side were required to pore over testimony from both sides, then choose a participant to portray. For some, it was a bit of a stretch.
"As an environmentalist, I wasn't thrilled at the idea of defending a polluter," said Gunther, who acted as Mike Rowland, Verso's manager of manufacturing excellence. But the process made her understand how expensive it is to retool a paper mill, and she became concerned that financially harming the mill could economically devastate the region.
"Certainly, this exercise gave me a lot of new perspective and appreciation for the people who devote their lives to thinking about these issues and their practical ramifications," she said.
For nearly two hours, each side offered expert witnesses and community members with personal stories to help make their case.
James Nadeau '10, as an attorney for the NRCM, argued that, "The river is a common resource and should not be treated as a sewer. ... The people of Maine have a right to a clean river, and Verso has no right to take that away from them."
Jacqueline Li '09 countered that the State had granted Verso a permit for a "lawful 10-year compliance period" and that Verso is "one of the most environmentally responsible mills in the country."
Much of the testimony, accompanied by aerial photos of algal blooms and floating white foam, was a battle of the technical experts. Two major issues dominated the discussion: How much pollution can the river handle, from all sources, and still meet the minimum standard set by the Clean Water Act? And what portion of that total should be allowed to come from the mill? Everyone agreed that the model used to set the river's total tolerance for pollution is flawed, but they couldn't agree on what to do with it.
Board members peppered the witnesses with questions, which proved to be the true test of how well the students knew the material.
"I was very impressed how some students could delve deeper into the issue and answer questions on their feet," Schneider said.
The board then struggled for more than an hour to balance the environment toll that pollution takes on the river with the financial toll that stricter regulation could take on the mill and the local economy.
"It was great that the economic concerns were so transparent," Schneider said. "On the real board, it's in the background, but it's not discussed."
And what about the questionable model used to determine the total pollution allowed in the river?
"I would say we use the (standard) even though it's flawed," board member Stuart MacNeil '08 said during deliberations. "We're lost in the woods, and we need something."
"But it's wrong, it's clearly wrong," argued Oliver Cunningham '08.
"This can't be the best way to make a decision!" MacNeil said after going back and forth on the issue.
In the end, the board decided to use the existing standard for the time being, but asked the State to come back with a new model. They also agreed to give the mill only five years to meet the standard.
"We were shocked at how difficult it was to make a final decision," said Sarah Ebel '10.
In the real case, the State's recommendations to the BEP were remarkably similar, however, they asked the board to give the mill just two years to meet the pollution standard, and to make the standard more stringent for some pollutants. The BEP is expected to make a ruling early this year.
"This was easily one of the most intriguing classes I have taken at Bowdoin, and I am not even an Environmental Studies major," Nadeau said. "We really got to see what it was like to prepare for a court case, to sit through a proceeding, and to be frustrated by the board at the end!"
"Before I took this class, I had a jaded opinion that factories were the root of all evil," said Allegra Spalding, who spoke as a resident in defense of the mill. "After taking this class, I know things are not that simple or clear-cut."
The participants in the real case are paying attention to what happened at Chase Barn, and have been questioning Schneider about his students' testimony.
"The lawyers were curious to know what made an impression before the board," Schneider said. "One issue in particular is of interest to one lawyer, because our board decided they just wouldn't go there, and it's a big part of this lawyer's case."