My Journey to Environmental Law

A NextGen Blog post by Rachel Rebello, Boston College.

Photos © Rachel Rebello, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Rachel Rebello graduated from Rutgers University in 2019 with a bachelors in Biological Sciences and is currently pursuing a career in environmental law at Boston CollegeWe hope this post serves as an example for younger students considering a similar career path, and promotes more awareness of NWNL efforts supporting students wishing to help raise awareness of watershed stewardship! We publish this with great appreciation for Rachel’s efforts for NWNL and her commitment to our environment. Read her earlier posts on PFAS contamination in 4 NWNL watersheds.


My journey to environmental law began with a simple question.

What is one thing you want to do for the world before dying?

For me, the answer came easily enough. I wanted to protect the environment.

The difficult part however, was finding a career path that matched this passion.

I explored different professions, spending a summer “shadowing” at a veterinary hospital; a summer shadowing at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital; two years working at different research labs at Rutgers (one in genetics research, the other in biomedical engineering); and a year writing for No Water No Life.

The most recent of these experiences involved researching and writing articles on PFAS contamination (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) with and for No Water No Life. In many ways, this guided me towards a career in environmental law.  

Over the course of my research on PFAS at NWNL, I learned of the insidious effects of the toxic chemical class on human health and ecosystems worldwide. I learned not only of corporate coverup orchestrated by companies manufacturing the chemicals such as DuPont and 3M, but also I saw the power a steadfast lawyer could have in representing impacted communities and holding polluters responsible. I am inspired by the tenacity of lawyers like Steve Bilott, who shed light on PFAS contamination in Parkersburg, West Virginia and won the first case against PFAS manufacturer, DuPont. [Editor’s Note: The story of this legal exposure of environmental injustice is covered in Mark Ruffalo’s film “Dark Waters,” released Nov 2019.]

The DuPont Parlin Facility, New Jersey. Photo from Rachel’s earlier post, Who Owns the Raritan River?

In my research on impacts of PFAS on various watersheds, NWNL enabled me to tap into its global network of researchers, lawyers, and activists. I had the chance to talk to and interview people involved in the environmental movement. By honing my writing and research skills and meeting people, many of whom became key mentors, I had the chance to learn more about environmental law. Environmental law was the perfect combination of my science background in biology; my love for writing; and my passion for safeguarding nature.

Law School

This past year I began law school at Boston College. I joined the Environmental Law Society where I had the chance to connect with and collaborate with other aspiring environmental lawyers and students.

As I approach my second semester of law school I am excited to continue learning about the law and further my understanding of new threats to the environment and communities. Classes such as “Contracts and Torts” have helped me develop a basic understanding of the law and the ways in which courts can interpret a case. I hope one day to address the challenges posed by chemical contamination and prevent a repeat of the PFAS contamination crisis.

Boston College, courtesy of WikiCommons

Recent PFAS Developments

Since I first began covering PFAS, communities and governments have passed various laws to address detection, limitation and cleanup of this chemical class.

PFAS in Food Packaging

A number of states including New York, Maine and Washington have passed legislation phasing out PFAS in food packaging. More recently, in New York, ban of PFAS will take into effect in 2023. This bill includes PFAS with well-studied health risks such as PFOA and PFOS, as well as lesser-known members of the chemical class. Notably, a phase-out of PFAS in food packaging in Maine and Washington is now contingent upon the state environmental agencies identifying a safer alternative for PFAS.1The National Law Review

States that are taking the lead

Some states like New Hampshire are taking an aggressive approach to limiting PFAS release and presence in the environment. In accordance with a law passed last year in July, New Hampshire set maximum contaminant levels ranging from 12-18 ppt for four major types of PFAS in the state. Additionally, the law sets aside $50 million for low interest loans for PFAS remediation efforts by communities. Of note, a special provision requires insurance companies to cover costs for blood testing of people potentially affected by PFAS.2The National Law Review

Moving forward

The fight against PFAS looks promising; however, the immense fiscal, environmental and public health damage already caused by a lack of regulation should be a warning for better oversight over replacement chemicals, namely Gen X, and other man-made chemicals.

As I continue my journey in law, I am eager to use my experience writing for NWNL to serve communities impacted by environmental issues. I aspire to work in public interest and practice environmental law.

Rachel Rebello

Sources:

New Hampshire Adopts Aggressive PFAS Drinking Water Bill. The National Law Review, July 2020. Accessed Jan 14th, 2021 by RR. https://www.natlawreview.com/article/new-hampshire-adopts-aggressive-pfas-drinking-water-bill

New York Ban On PFAS In Food Packaging Is Now Law. The National Law Review, Dec 2020. Accessed Jan 14th, 2021 by RR. https://www.natlawreview.com/article/new-york-ban-pfas-food-packaging-now-law

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