Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Opinion | Using the law to protect our water: Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s legal team

CW / Natalie Teat
The Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s legal team is an important aspect of keeping the river in the best condition.

Eva Dillard says she has one of the best legal jobs in Alabama. She is a staff attorney for Black Warrior Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit in Birmingham dedicated to preserving the Black Warrior River watershed for the sake of public health, recreation and wildlife habitat.

But what does an environmental lawyer do? What does the legal side of an environmental nonprofit such as Black Warrior Riverkeeper look like? Of the many varied and unique legal sectors, environmental law is often misunderstood or even vilified by those who feel that environmental regulations are too burdensome. 

However, through interviews with several members of Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s legal team and board, it becomes clear the necessity of the work to ensure the mission of the organization itself to protect and restore the Black Warrior River and its tributaries. 

As an attorney for a nonprofit, Dillard said there is no typical day at the office. “My job is more than just filing lawsuits,” she said. Nor does she file a lawsuit over every issue. The process begins on the river itself, with staff Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke patrolling and staff scientist John Kinney monitoring the water at different test sites for pollution or other harmful conditions.

If they report something concerning, the staff convenes to discuss strategy. At that point, Dillard said, they reach out to whomever or whatever is responsible, and begin a conversation on strategies for going forward. Many times, companies in this situation will work with Dillard and her colleagues to resolve the conflict. 

Sometimes, however, lawsuits are needed. When the decision to move forward has been made, Black Warrior Riverkeeper files a lawsuit — sometimes a joint suit with similar organizations such as the Southern Environmental Law Center or Public Justice — against the polluter. 

Beyond litigation, Dillard’s job often involves educating the public on issues such as clean water, permits or policies. Regardless of the work, every aspect involves input from other members of the team. “It’s a little bit of policy, a fair amount of legal work and a lot about collaboration,” Dillard said. 

This is where environmental law student and Black Warrior Riverkeeper legal intern Sydney Moore enters. Given that Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a nonprofit, resources can sometimes be limited, which makes Moore’s work incredibly valuable to the organization. Moore, a rising second-year law student at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, assists Dillard in research and preparation.

Moore is passionate about the environment, in particular with regard to Alabama. Despite current challenges facing the environmental field — for example, the recent Supreme Court ruling in Sackett v. EPA, which weakened the scope of the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act — Moore remains hopeful. That hope and optimism remain just as important to the organization’s work as does any research or fact-finding mission. 

“A lot of what I’ve done so far is research-based,” Moore said. That includes looking at previous court cases that would be relevant to current cases the organization is involved with, as well as finding any legal consensus on an issue. Her findings are then condensed into memos for Dillard’s use. 

It can take hours to get through even one case, Moore said; many cases dealing with environmental issues are filled with scientific jargon and acronyms. Sorting through these terms can help alleviate the need for doing so later on, helping the organization to be more prepared when filing legal briefs or other lawsuit materials.

Beyond helping to provide critical research data, Moore brings a unique perspective to Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s mission: as a young adult, she has grown up in a society with increased focus on the environment. 

Another key component of Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s legal work is the board of directors, a group of people who work to direct and advise the organization in actions, strategy and responses. One such member is Bob Greene.

Greene, a professor at Moore’s own Cumberland School of Law, brings over 50 years’ worth of environmental legal experience to Black Warrior Riverkeeper from both the private and public sectors. Greene has served several terms on the board over a number of years. 

“When I retired in 2019, I went back for one three-year term, and now I am in the first year of my second.” Greene believes that the board members are people who will work, strategize and think about what the organization should be doing. 

To him, the board serves as a sort of well of information; it is a way to offer unique insights to the staff on potential courses of action. That combination is one of the reasons why the nonprofit works so effectively. “They really do what they’re supposed to be doing,” Greene said, emphasizing credit to the Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s staff. “It’s a very well-run organization.” 

Heather Elliott, another member of the board of directors and professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, agrees. Elliott — who clerked on the D.C. Circuit Court, which deals heavily with cases on the administrative regulatory state, through which much environmental regulation is enforced — brings a plethora of knowledge on case law to Black Warrior Riverkeeper. In particular, her work focuses on standing, which is what a plaintiff needs in order to be heard in court. 

This knowledge, alongside that of the other members of the board, acts as a sort of “sounding board” for Dillard and the rest of the staff. 

“The board has to vote on all the legal actions Black Warrior Riverkeeper takes,” Elliott said, meaning they can give Dillard input on whether a case should move forward. The legal committee of the board, of which Elliott serves as chair, discusses all of these details.

Those conversations can involve whether Black Warrior Riverkeeper wants to take on the hypothetical new case, and other strategies or potential resolutions. This process goes back to what Dillard speaks on at length: whether another course of action is possible beside filing a lawsuit. 

Whether or not a case is ultimately filed, Elliott sees the methods and unique structure utilized by the organization for its environmental work as the keystone for its success.

“You cannot have a case without the facts,” Elliott said. “Nelson and Johnny are both out there, gathering facts in person to bring a claim; that is essential to both standing and bringing a case. It is essential for legal victory.”

Elliott’s comments echoed Greene’s. Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s efforts emphasize hands-on work with many partners throughout Alabama. These efforts to stay focused on each individual issue and attack it head-on have provided Black Warrior Riverkeeper a unique standpoint to not only continue winning legal victories, but expand environmental collaboration to groups who might otherwise see litigation as too controversial. 

Whatever the case may be, the evidence is clear: Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s legal work helps advance the organization’s mission considerably. Black Warrior Riverkeeper could not exist without it; as Dillard explains, the very first Riverkeeper organization started on a “patrol and litigate” model. “First you find the problems, and then you use the power of the law to address them,” Dillard said.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper continues that tradition today by using the law to address environmental issues, in order to carry out the mission it was founded to do: keeping the Black Warrior River watershed alive and well for generations to come. 

Seth Self is a first-year law student at The University of Alabama and a Black Warrior Riverkeeper intern.

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