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Message from the Chair, September 2015

At this writing, I am proud to report that the work of the Environmental Law Section has continued unabated through the summer months.

Three August 2015 Environmental-Public Health Calamities

Three major environmental disasters arose during this period: the mining waste spill into the Animas and San Juan Rivers; the Legionnaires Disease outbreak in NYC; and, the hazardous chemical explosion and fire in China.

In Colorado and downstream states, the water supply and environment were threatened when an old Colorado dam holding back mining wastes collapsed during USEPA testing. The resulting spill released large quantities of heavy metals including arsenic into the Animas River and connected waterways of the Colorado River basin.(1)

Closer to home, a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires Disease struck the Bronx and took at least twelve lives. This bacterial based respiratory ailment is often associated with infected but mostly untested HVAC units on older commercial and residential buildings. At this writing, the outbreak appears to be under control despite some unfortunate political gamesmanship between the political powers that be in New York City and Albany. (2)

Finally, Tianjin, China suffered an outright human and environmental catastrophe when a large hazardous chemical storage facility exploded and burned. Pictures of the extreme and widespread carnage in this normally teeming port city are sobering. The causes and long term impacts remain unknown at this time but the loss of life currently numbers over 100. Many victims were injured or are still missing (including many fire fighters). (3)

If there is a common thread that runs through these disparate incidents, it is that better environmental regulatory vigilance and disaster planning may have prevented or mitigated these terrible events.

New Lawyer Trends - Section Membership and Diversity Efforts

Three current trends may impact the ability of all legal service organizations to attract young attorneys. According to statistics cited in a recent Bloomberg Business Week article, bar passage rates dropped significantly for the summer 2014 bar exam.(4) The same article also cites to the statistically significant drop in both law school applications and enrollments in recent years.(5) The New York State bar passage rate also declined in July 2014, from 69% for all test takers to 65%.(6) Finally, it is worth noting that starting with the summer 2016 bar exam, New York will join other states in administering the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) in lieu of individual state bar exams.(7) The ultimate result will be that law school graduates in UBE participating states will be able to apply for bar admission in all the other UBE states.

NYSBA and other state and national legal organizations have pontificated at length on these issues and the long term impacts on the legal profession. However, I think it is fair - although grossly simplistic, I admit - to say that the numbers and location of young attorneys will be in flux in the near term. Therefore, bar association membership in general and our own Environmental Law Section membership cannot rely solely on new attorneys to maintain our membership. Membership retention must be part of the equation. This means section leaders must provide value and quality services to our members on a regular and consistent basis. To put it another and perhaps more crass way, we are now in a membership competition for limited numbers of potential members based on the quality of our product.

However, in more relevant and immediate good news, our overall section membership appears to be rebounding. As of August 31, 2015, the Environmental Law Section has 998 members. It is worth noting that approximately fifty new members have joined this year alone. The section cabinet is also working with NYSBA membership staff to send membership information to those NYSBA members that indicated that the environment is their practice area even though they are not current section members. This category is estimated to consist of about three thousand NYSBA members. Long term section members will recall that such an initiative has been discussed in the past but never implemented.

Finally, the section cabinet has followed up with our new members by sending each new section member a welcome letter containing an event schedule, section benefit menu and communications/publications information. Approximately fifty such letters have been sent thus far in 2015. To our credit, the NYSBA Membership Department has noticed this simple but effective innovation and it may be adopted by other NYSBA sections.

Section Committee Initiative and Other News

Those that follow such issues will know that the past few section cabinets have tried various methods to reinvigorate our committees. Many have been dormant in recent years. Building on past efforts, committee chairs or co-chairs recently received a cover email and attached model committee report form. The simple form could then be completed and used as the basis of a committee report to the section which would then be published in our various media formats.

In more immediate news, the Brownfields Task Force met throughout the summer to meet tight state deadlines for the submission of comments on draft Brownfields regulations. In particular, the comments focused on the thorny issue of defining an underdeveloped site. In any event, NYSDEC staff and the other stakeholders greatly appreciated the Task Force's guidance and scholarship on brownfields issues.

In what I hope is the new normal, the section's budget issues for the 2016 fiscal year were quietly and quickly resolved by our Treasurer, Kevin Bernstein, and NYSBA staff. The projected 2016 budget is approximately $79,000.00. Currently, a surplus is possible for fiscal 2015, although that all depends on the expenses incurred and revenues received for our fall 2015 activities. The current section surplus (not including 2015 adjustments) stands at approximately
$43,000. This is more than a 100% increase since 2012. Credit and complements are due to the past several section cabinets, event co-chairs, sponsor czar Phil Dixon and NYSBA staff for these financial improvements.

Publications and Media

The section's media outlets also continue to grow and improve. Most recently, more than 150 members have joined the section's private LinkedIn page to current news and information. Credit for this innovation must be directed to Section Vice Chair Larry Schnapf and NYSBA section liaison Lisa Bataille.

To further enhance our social media foot print, more than 1,000 users have enjoyed our section blog, Envirosphere, since 2014. In particular, the section has received many positive comments about the unique NY Environmental Enforcement Update which will celebrate its third anniversary in January 2016. Blog editor Sam Campasso has overseen our success in this endeavor since 2012.

Astute observers will also notice that new information about the section's activities and functions are being added on a regular basis to the content of the ELS homepage. For example, NYSBA staff has started to add the excellent reports drafted by our House of Delegates Representative Linda Shaw and Alternate David Quist. The section must continue to utilize this tool to enhance services and information for our members.

Finally, it goes without saying that the section's signature publication, The New York Environmental Lawyer, continues to represent the highest standards of professionalism and legal scholarship. The recently published Spring/Summer 2015 edition (Vol. 35/No.1) contains eight major scholastic articles in addition to the usual section news and legal and government update features. Congratulations to the members of the Student Editorial Board, Issue Editor Keith Hirokawa and Editor in Chief Miriam Villani for a job well done.

The 2015 Fall Meeting

At this writing, we are nearing the October 2-4, 2015, Fall Section Meeting and associated MCLE program. In pursuit of our goals of increasing membership and enhancing diversity, the section designed a unique two tier registration program. New attorneys in search of transitional MCLE credits and budget relief have the option of registering for a Friday only program focused on administrative trial practice training.

Those that register for the full weekend will experience MCLE sessions addressing current issues in state oil and gas activities, crude oil train regulation and the revised state Brownfield Opportunity Area (BOA) program. There will also be a special Sunday morning program devoted to regulatory developments and the protection of threatened state bat species.

In addition to the MCLE programming, the Section will also enjoy the presentations of two distinguished dinner speakers: Neil Gifford, the Conservation Director of the Albany Pinebush Preserve Commission (Friday); and Bruce Gyori, of Manatt Phelps and Philips, on politics and climate change. This unique and well programmed event is the result of the hard work and creativity of the three co-chairs: Alita Giuda, Gene Kelly and Genevieve Trigg.

November 2015 Brownfields CLE Programs

In a new and exciting venture, program co-chairs Alan Knauf, Maureen Leary and Larry Schnapf and others are preparing a dual upstate-downstate program addressing the recent and significant changes in the New York Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP) and related statutes, regulations and policies. The recent changes have created both opportunities for redevelopment and confusion in matters such as BCP site eligibility and tax credit calculations. The full day programs are scheduled for November 12th (Albany) and November 17th (NYC).

The 2016 Annual Meeting

The planning and programming for the Annual Section Meeting in conjunction with the NYSBA Annual Meeting is well underway. Co-chairs Susan Brailey, Dan Chorost, John Parker and Nicholas Ward-Willis are planning an exciting program including: the section's first ever in depth look at solar energy law; the legal and planning intricacies of the recent changes to the Clean Water Act; and the status of urban environmental enforcement in New York. Of course, our USEPA section members will present the usual comprehensive USEPA run down on Thursday evening thanks to the organizing efforts of our Section Secretary and USEPA attorney Marla Wieder. The program is scheduled for January 28-29, 2016, as part of the NYSBA Annual meeting that week in New York City.

Please note that the information and schedules above are subject to change. So be sure to check the NYSBA Environmental Law Section homepage for all information on section events and activities.

In closing, I wish to thank NYSBA staff for helping the section in its endeavors. In particular, we all must thank Lisa Bataille, Kathy Plog and Lori Nicoll for their guidance and patience. Of course, our work remains possible due to the contributions of our 2015-16 officers, Larry Schnapf, Kevin Bernstein and Marla Wieder as well as the extended section cabinet.

Finally, I hope to meet many of you at our coming events. If you have any suggestions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me or any of the section's officers. Remember, to quote the late great radio talk show host Bob Grant, "Your influence counts! Use it!"

Best wishes to all, Michael J. Lesser
Environmental Law Section Chair, 2015-2016


(1) Emergency Response to August 2015 Release from Gold King Mine, USEPA Update, September 10, 2015. http://www2.epa.gov/goldkingmine

(2) Hughes, State to Deploy Teams to South Bronx for Legionnaires' Testing, Albany Times Union, August 7, 2015. http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/State-to-deploy-teams-to-South-Bronx-for-6432296.php

(3) Jacobs, Death Toll in Chinese Fire Rises, Along With Anger at Apparent Safety Lapses, NY Times August 14, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/15/world/asia/rising-anger-but-few-answers-after-explosions-in-tianjin.html?_r=0

(4) Kitroeff, Are Lawyers Getting Dumber, Bloomberg Business Week, August 24 -30, 2015, pp. 50-51. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2015-08-20/are-lawyers-getting-dumber-

(5) id.

(6) NYS Board of Bar Examiners, Bar Exam Pass Rates, 2010 - 2014, http://www.nybarexam.org/ExamStats/NYBarExam_PassRates%20_2010-2014.pdf

(7) Clifford, McKinley Jr., New York to Adopt a Uniform Bar Exam Used in 15 Other States, NY Times, May 5, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/06/nyregion/new-york-state-to-adopt-uniform-bar-exam.html?_r=0

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 20, 2015 4:32 PM.

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