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Going Home to Hometown to Fight for the Environment

3L Stephen Kelly returned to Pittsburgh, Pa. to fight against environmental violations in his own backyard.

“Being away for two years, there’s something about coming back to my roots that was appealing to me,” said Stephen Kelly about his work this summer with the Center for Coalfield Justice.

Kelly returned to his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania this summer as an intern with the Center for Coalfield Justice, whose mission is “to improve policy and regulations for the oversight of fossil fuel extraction and use; to educate, empower, and organize coalfield citizens; and to protect public and environmental health.” Southwest Pennsylvania has been a hotbed for environmental issues in recent years, a result of coal pollution, oil and gas companies, and fracking, creating vast opportunities for environmental workers.

Although he earned his undergraduate degree from Duquesne University in economics, law school was tugging at the back of Kelly’s mind since his second year, when he enrolled in a business law course. Drawn in by the professor, and the material, which provided a change-of-pace from his typical courses, he determined to begin law school after his graduation.

Kelly rather stumbled into his love for environmental law during his 2L year when he took environmental law classes with Professor Brad Mank. Knowing that he wanted to return to Pennsylvania after graduation, Kelly conducted personal research to find markets that were accepting applications in the area.

“It’s a very niche market; it’s not huge in Pittsburgh, so it was kind of tough to find a job,” said Kelly of environmental work, noting that he was lucky to get the job he has. “I think I got my application in the last week,” he laughed.

Kelly has gained a unique perspective to two sides of environmental law. The Center, a 501c3 nonprofit, operates as a half environmental litigation and half community organizing/ education/outreach organization. Currently, the Center is involved in litigation against an energy company, which kept the office busy all summer. While the summer was hectic, it was great for Kelly to gain experience working directly under a staff attorney, allowing him to learn what that position entails.

Additionally, Kelly has gotten to work with lobbying efforts in places such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and climate action rallies as well as network with various organizations, both big and small. The most rewarding part of the job, however, has been seeing his own work filed in comments and getting down to the “nitty gritty” of regulations.

“Part of what we do is go in the Pennsylvania bulletin of notices and permits and make comments; we get to do our own research on environmental regulation which eventually get edited and go to the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Agency,” Kelly explained. “Getting to do my own research, seeing part of my work submitted to a governmental organization, and seeing them address some of our concerns, has been something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Like many jobs, Kelly said it is easy to become frustrated with people. Because of his independent research, he has dealt with many departments of environmental protection. In theory, these departments should be enraged upon learning about a plethora of violations, but it can seem like they don’t take it seriously enough. Usually, it’s simply a fact of being stretched too thin, either with money or time, something Kelly has been working to wrap his head around.

The people in the office, however, have only reaffirmed to Kelly that he is on the right path. He has become even more interested in a future working in environmental policy, and feels he could do a lot of good in the Southwest Pennsylvania area after graduation. The work, Kelly said, is something he deeply cares about, proving that being drawn back to your roots can help you grow.

Author: Michelle Flanagan, ‘18, Communication Intern