What is it like to be an environmental attorney in Washington, DC? There are so many disciplines within the community of environmental professionals. This is a niche I want to know more about. In a city full of lawyers and policy makers, I’m curious what it’s like to work as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Not so much the day-to-day work, but the lifestyle.
Carson Hodges is an Attorney for the EPA living and working in the Washington, DC and a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for several years, but have rarely talked about work. He was in Denver and we had a chance to meet and discuss my curiosities about his work and life as an environmental lawyer for the EPA in DC.
The Nation Environmental Professional (TNEP): What drew you to environmental law? Was it the environment or the law?
Carson Hodges (CH): Both. I have an undergraduate degree in Environmental Health Science and have been interested in the environment and the outdoors as long as I can recall. The legal thing is a little trickier … I was drawn to the law because I thought it fit my skill set, and at the time I was pretty young and it’s one of those professions that make parents proud. I can’t say that my sense of how the environmental field works was very well formed, but it seemed like a great idea.
It sounds cool, right? I like the outdoors. I dislike pollution. I’m interested in the law. Why not do environmental law?
TNEP: You have an Environmental Health degree? I didn’t know that. Did you get into any industrial hygiene? Not many people see that side of the environmental profession.
CH: Yes. My undergraduate degree program mixed in environmental science (biology, chemistry, some engineering), with some public health, toxicology, industrial hygiene, even a bit of law and public policy.
TNEP: Working for the EPA, do you ever get an “Oh cool!” feeling about the work?
CH: It’s been a while, but I don’t tend to get excited at work unless I’m under a lot of pressure. I’ve been with EPA for 8 years and in the environmental law field for a few years on top of that. I do like working for the EPA. For every “success story” that makes the headlines, there’s been so much work. And nothing is ever quite finished … even when a project is done, it’s not really done.
TNEP: Is there a project or an opportunity that you had a chance to work on that you would not have had with another job; something that you wouldn’t have experienced if you had a non-EPA or non-environmental job?
CH: Definitely. I participated in EPA’s handling the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. That was just such a huge event, and the response effort was massive.
TNEP: Working for the EPA, do you feel part of the bigger picture of environmental policy?
CH: I do, although I work cases and am not really involved in the policy side of the agency’s work. The term “environmental” covers a whole lot of subjects, and EPA isn’t the only federal agency with environmental programs. But as far as the big pollution control programs … clean air, clean water … that’s it. That’s us, and it’s really interesting to observe how that whole process machinery works.
TNEP: Most people have a least a TV-show idea a lawyer’s job. Do your friends who are neither lawyers or in the environmental field appreciate and/or understand the “environmental lawyer”?
CH: Well, there are a lot of different types of environmental lawyers. And DC is so lawyer-heavy that you have people working on environmental subjects from every angle: politics, regulation, administrative law, litigation.
I do think it’s hard to fully appreciate the environmental field if you’re not actually involved in it. That’s because our the environment the way it factors into human health and safety is fundamentally a scientific thing, so legislating, regulating, pollution control and things like are pretty science-heavy and can be really wide in scope and really specific at the same time. Implementing the Clean Water Act requires a whole lot of laboratory work, for instance.
TNEP: Thanks for sharing some insight into your work life. So many people working in the environmental profession will never interact with someone from the EPA and certainly not one of their attorneys.
I worked in the environmental field for years before I had any interactions with environmental lawyers. I used to think that they knew about the law, but nothing about the environment. After meeting a few I realized that you guys really know your environmental regulations. I had a misperception that only the scientists and people in the field knew that stuff. They’re responses were typically, “Well we have to know our regs. It’s our job.” And they usually know it better than I do.
Our conversation continued from there with discussions about the nuances and amusing parts of our jobs, living in Washington, DC, and Libby, MT asbestos. Doesn’t every lengthy environmental discussion somehow include Libby?
Carson Hodges’s comments reflect his personal views and do not constitute the views or positions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.