Environmental Protection Agency legal counsel director talks policy, career trajectory

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 4:19pm

The Director of EPA's legal council, Michael Fisher, speaks about environmental law and policy at Hutchins Hall Monday evening.

The Director of EPA's legal council, Michael Fisher, speaks about environmental law and policy at Hutchins Hall Monday evening. Buy this photo
Natalie Stephens/Daily

Michael Fisher, legal division director of the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, spoke to a crowd of about 20 Law students about building a successful law career on Monday morning. 

The Environmental Law and Policy Program (ELPP), a program affiliated with the University of Michigan’s Law School that prepares students for careers in environmental law, hosted the talk. 

Fisher’s talk touched on current issues surrounding Michigan water quality, among other environmental concerns. Since 2014, the city of Flint has been striving to remove lead from its drinking water, a public health crisis that has caused 12 deaths from Legionnaires’ disease. In December of last year, the EPA provided $100 million to the ongoing Flint water crisis. Additionally, the EPA is working to implement more stringent regulations of lead in drinking water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they have not found a safe level of lead exposure. 

David Uhlmann, director of the ELPP and Law professor, said this discussion was part of a career series by the Law School to aid students in discovering their future career paths.

“We sponsor the careers in Environmental Law Speaker Series to expose students to the range of different career opportunities in environmental, natural resources and energy law,” Uhlmann said.

During his talk, Fisher described his career path from summer internships as a law student to legal counsel for the EPA. Fisher said when he graduated law school, he faced a ping-pong game of legal career decisions, with opportunities popping up and being rescinded. 

Tom Mulholland, a Law School student who hopes to work in environmental law, said he found Fisher’s advice on career flexibility helpful.

“My main takeaway was to be flexible with the career, especially at first, because there are a lot of different people working on a lot of different environmental issues,” Mulholland said. “It’s okay to have a flexible mindset because then you can choose what issues to work on when you encounter those issues rather than having your mind made up beforehand.”

Fisher, who stressed his views do not represent those held by the EPA, commented on the future of climate change policy.

“There’s a lot of work to be done on climate change in government,” Fisher said. “A lot of it is going on in state governments all over the country. There are some really aggressive, forward-thinking state programs that will all be models for a potential federal legal regime once that finally comes in place.”

Some state programs are working in other areas of environmental protection, especially regarding safe drinking water. Fisher’s talk comes soon after the discovery of elevated levels of perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Kalamazoo County in 2018 and the Flint water crisis in 2014.  

Groups, such as the Michigan Alliance Against PFAS, are petitioning the EPA to restructure their classification and regulation of PFAS. Michigan, which has the highest number of PFAS-contaminated sites in the country, is also battling issues of lead in drinking water. 

Fisher said Michigan’s environmental crises are still wreaking havoc on its citizens. He acknowledged the growing need for legal minds to move forward the legislation necessary to protect the environment.

“Energy is the environment, and it will be more and more in the future,” Fisher said. “There will be a tremendous need for people who understand the legal regimes we are going to have to put in place to decarbonize the economy and move away from fossil fuels to electricity generated by renewable resources.”

Reporter Kristina Lenn can be reached at kmlenn@umich.edu