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Wasted Places Report Elucidates Key Problem in Current Environmental Legal and Regulatory Infrastructure

by David Hanna, MJLST Lead Article Editor, UMN J.D./M.S. in Chemistry Joint Degree Candidate

Thumbnail-David-Hanna-II.jpgDuring a time when environmental issues flood the headlines of newspapers, magazine covers, and television broadcasts, it is hard not to come across sustainable efforts by concerned companies and institutions trying to proactively tackle these environmental issues. While these pointed campaigns and programs deserve some recognition, there is plenty of room for improvement and this improvement needs immediate legal and regulatory acknowledgment.

Recently, in her article "Wasted Places: Slow, Underfunded EPA Program Falls Short in Toxic Site Cleanups," Kate Golden attributed limited funds, lack of federal oversight, and complex approval processes as the reasons for the hundreds of thousands of abandoned and polluted properties referred to as "brownfields" that continue to exist all over the country. Despite billions of dollars in federal grants and loans provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are still brownfields that are contaminating groundwater. While EPA funds are arguably one part of the sustainability puzzle, legal and regulatory infrastructure is another piece of the puzzle that has apparently fallen under the table. It should come as no surprise that the current legal and regulatory infrastructure is the root of the brownfields problem, as evidenced by current environmental issues stemming forth from insufficient legal and regulatory governance.

For example, the current controversial discussion of the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is one area where environmentalists have recognized and commented on the lack of EPA monitoring in regulating potential public health hazards. In "Notes from Underground: Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale," Joseph Dammel examined the effect of fracking on our energy portfolio, national security, and capacity for technological innovation. Dammel proposes that courts, Congress, and regulatory agencies take reformative legal and regulatory action to address the current environmental issues posed by a technology that seems to have outpaced our lawmakers. Ultimately, this vicious, inescapable cycle is the result of insufficient legal and regulatory governance. Without intervention, the history of brownfields is likely to repeat itself through fracking.

Chemical waste management and minimization in university teaching and research laboratories is another area where legal and regulatory reform is needed. In my upcoming article, "Do Educational Institutions Score High on Their Sustainability Efforts?: A Case Study (and Grade) on Chemical Waste Management and Minimization in Teaching and Research Laboratories at the University of Minnesota," that will be published in Volume 14, Issue 1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, I utilize the University of Minnesota, one of the largest institutions by student enrollment in the United States, as a case study to elucidate how universities and colleges have missed key areas of development and improvement of sustainability in their sustainability campaigns and programs. By evaluating the legal and regulatory framework currently in place, the article suggests ways to move forward in managing and reducing chemical waste at educational institutions like the University of Minnesota.

Whether the issue concerns brownfields, fracking, or chemical management, a big reason these environmental issues exist is a lack of legal and regulatory governance. This lack of governance might be due to key players not carrying out their delegated responsibilities. Or, perhaps, the problem stems from the laws themselves. Regardless, while funding is certainly a piece of the environmental puzzle, a legal and regulatory reformative approach at both the federal and state levels is needed to move forward and achieve a more complete picture.