Indiana University student Liz Baldwin likes to use what she has learned in the classroom for real-world projects. She found an opportunity to do so recently, and the result could be a change in state law that saves money and streamlines the cleanup of polluted industrial and commercial properties.
"I really love getting to do things in real life, and I think there are a lot of students who feel the same way," said Baldwin, who this spring is completing a joint law and public-affairs graduate program in the Maurer School of Law and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Her project dealt with Indiana's Environmental Legal Actions statute, a simple, pragmatic law adopted in the 1990s that encourages property owners to clean up "brownfield" properties by giving them the authority to recover damages from the parties that were responsible for past pollution.
There's just one problem with the law: It doesn't include a statute-of-limitations provision that spells out the deadline for taking legal action. Indiana courts have handed down conflicting rulings about whether actions under the law have been filed on time.
As a result, money that could be spent on environmental cleanups instead goes to court fights over who's responsible. And property owners are reluctant to remediate and redevelop contaminated properties, because they don't know if they can recover costs through the courts.
"The current situation diverts an enormous amount of energy and resources," said John Kyle, an attorney with the Barnes & Thornburg law firm in Indianapolis who handles environmental cases. "Instead of money being used to clean up the environment, it's used for litigating." Baldwin's work resulted from a request by Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, who authored the environmental legislation. Looking for a way to fix the statute-of-limitations problem, Gard turned to A. James Barnes, a professor in the Maurer School of Law and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Barnes recommended Baldwin for the job.
Baldwin researched the law and court rulings, talked to attorneys who handle environmental cases, and produced a 14-page report that examined several options and recommended steps for improving the statute. Her conclusions went into the drafting of Senate Bill 346, which gives plaintiffs 10 years to sue from the time they start spending money on a cleanup.
"Liz is one of our best and brightest joint law-SPEA students," said Barnes, a former SPEA dean who served as general counsel and deputy administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "She did a superb job investigating and analyzing a problem, developing options for addressing it, and then presenting her analysis to the Senate committee, which utilized her work and incorporated it in the pending legislation."
Baldwin testified before the Indiana Senate Committee on Energy and Environmental Affairs, explaining the issues when it considered the legislation. The committee approved SB 346 unanimously, and the Senate passed it by a vote of 48-0. It is now before the House and is expected to be considered Wednesday in a hearing by the Environmental Affairs Committee.
Baldwin, who grew up in Maine and earned an undergraduate degree in environmental policy from Unity College, said she followed Barnes' advice and pursued a "public interest" point of view in analyzing the law and drafting recommendations. She said the wording of the original statute suggested what goals the legislature had in mind when the law was adopted 13 years ago.
"From the language, the purpose is clearly not to make all sites pristine, but rather let's put them to new and better economic uses," she said.
Kyle, the Indianapolis attorney, said a key factor was that Baldwin could provide in-depth information on a complex subject that was objective and not slanted to support the interests of a client -- something that's likely to earn good will for Indiana University with lawmakers. Both he and Barnes hope the model of having IU students provide informed and unbiased policy advice and information is an approach that's repeated more often in the future.
"This illustrates Indiana University at its best in providing useful and sound policy assistance to the state," Barnes said.