MxAA Stipend Recipient, Nicholas ’13 Exploring the Crossroads of Environmental Law

Nicholas ’13 reports on his 2015 summer internship experience.

This past summer I had the wonderful opportunity to work as a legal research intern for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC). I first learned about NMELC while doing research for a project in the “Introduction to International Human Rights” course that I took last spring. At Yale I am a scholar in the Special Academic Program on Human Rights, and the course was required as a gateway to the program. We spent some time studying the intersection between human rights abuses and environmental issues, and the growing number of human rights challenges posed by the impact of global climate change. One of the cases we focused on was the Inuit petition to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), condemning the United States for its carbon emissions, which the tribe links to its loss of territory and historic lifestyle in Arctic regions. NMELC is currently involved in preparing a similar petition on behalf of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and I became interested in getting involved with that effort.

I decided to go work at NMELC with the understanding that I would be helping to conduct the background legal research for their petition to the IACHR in the fall of 2015, but I soon found myself immersed in a number of other fascinating projects as well. In Albuquerque the Bernalillo County Air Quality Board has maintained the practice of permitting nearly all the polluting industries into one specific low-income and minority neighborhood south of the city. The residents of the San Jose neighborhood suffer from significantly higher rates of pollution-related illnesses including a variety of cancers and asthma. When I arrived in May, NMELC was in the process of filing a complaint with the EPA highlighting these issues, and my first responsibility as an intern was to conduct a detailed analysis of the roughly 60 air pollution permits issued in the last year to businesses in the San Jose neighborhood.

After we had sent in the final materials for the EPA complaint, including my appendices with the permit analysis, I launched into what would prove to be the defining project of my summer: a thirty-page corporate research profile of the uranium mining industry in New Mexico. Many of NMELC’s clients are Native Americans who have been harmed by the long history of uranium mining in the state and who continue to seek legal remedies for the environmental and health issues that mining has introduced into their communities.

By cruel chance, it seems to me that many of the richest locations for uranium in New Mexico fall on cultural and religious sites for the indigenous populations in the state. This coincidence has sparked conflict between business interests and native peoples. I researched the legal and political histories of a number of the major uranium producers in New Mexico to help NMELC with its upcoming campaign for a mining moratorium in McKinley County (in northwestern New Mexico). I found it a very gratifying experience to work on one project of extended length and which differed from my papers at school in both content and style. My report was meant to serve as a tool for clients who might need to learn about the relevant history of the mining industry in New Mexico and its impact on the state’s communities.

Ultimately I didn’t start on the legal research for the IACHR petition until the last two weeks of my internship, and when I finally did I found that there was not nearly as much work to do on that project as we had anticipated. I actually ended up working for the development team during my last week because I finished the work on the IACHR petition almost as soon as it began. We discovered that because our clients from the Navajo Nation did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Inter American Court of Human Rights, and thus could only be heard before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, the legal guidelines for presenting a case were far less rigorous or complicated than anticipated.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the Law Center, and I am very grateful to have been granted funding from the Alumni Association Board to support my time in New Mexico. I learned a great deal over the course of seven weeks about legal and social justice work in New Mexico and across the United States. The internship was a valuable opportunity to pursue professional interests, and I feel increasingly sure that I want to continue with a career in law. My research internship at NMELC was a solid first step in that direction, and I look forward to confidently tackling the next challenges on this path in the years ahead.