Eric Schaeffer has made it his life’s work to hold polluters, and the agencies that fail to police them, accountable. Recently, he came to Pittsburgh to teach the public how to do the same.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Schaeffer joined a panel of environmental policy experts that included Grant MacIntyre, director of Pitt’s Environmental Law Clinic, and Josh Kratka of the National Environmental Law Center, to give concerned citizens a legal primer on how to fight polluters. The event was moderated by Stephen Riccardi, a PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center field organizer for the region.

In 2002, Schaeffer became a whistleblower when he resigned as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) office of civil enforcement, citing the Bush administration’s efforts to weaken and undermine regulation. He then went on to co-found the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization.

More recently, he became a vocal advocate against confirming Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, believing that the Oklahoma attorney general would do little to impose regulations.

In Pittsburgh, the impending lack of federal oversight under President Trump presents a real threat to public health. Air quality reports from the American Lung Association consistently grade Allegheny County as a health risk for its high amount of ozone and particle pollution. Over the past few years alone, citizens have voiced concern over various facilities, from the massive Shell cracker plant in Potter Township to the McConway & Torley steel foundry, which riled Lawrenceville residents affected by its toxic fumes.

In addition, Pittsburghers must reckon with water issues affecting the city, including an outdated stormwater system notorious for spewing sewage into rivers during heavy rains. The region’s water could also take a beating now that Trump signed a bill to repeal the federal stream protection rule, which prevented companies from dumping coal debris into waterways.

Then, of course, there’s the lead crisis.

So how can members of the public concerned about air and water quality, along with other pressing environmental issues, use the law to their advantage? While it’s an option, Schaeffer and his colleagues admit that it’s not an easy one.

Grant MacIntyre

Pitt Environmental Law Clinic director Grant MacIntyre. Photo by Amanda Waltz.

With the help of groups like PennEnvironment, citizens can push the EPA or the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to crack down on persistent polluters. For example, under the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Air Act, agencies can give a 60-day notice to a plant to reduce their emission levels or risk being sued.

However, legal battles can often drag on for years or fail to result in any real consequences, as offending companies often end up paying fines that amount to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Such was the case last year when an audit by Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner determined that, due to understaffing, the Allegheny County Health Department’s (ACHD) Air Quality program pushed for negotiated settlements known as consent decrees rather than pursuing litigation.

“Instead of bringing harmful emissions to within regulatory limits and realizing the benefits such reductions would bring to the health of Allegheny County residents, major polluters have essentially been allowed to write their own ticket and continue to pollute,” Wagner said in an official statement. “When companies consider fines simply part of the cost of doing business, of course their performance does not improve.”

Pitt’s Environmental Law Clinic represents low-income clients in Western and Central Pennsylvania at no cost. However, MacIntyre said the legal counsel and law students in the clinic can only handle so many cases.

But all is not lost. Kratka described one Clean Air Act case against the ArcelorMittal Monessen coke plant. After the plant reopened in 2014, the DEP received complaints from residents who blamed breathing problems and property damage on ArcelorMittal’s emissions. Two neighbors near the plant filed a class action lawsuit that resulted in a settlement last spring.

PennEnvironment also has a separate ongoing lawsuit against ArcelorMittal that Riccardi says will likely result in the “required installation of some new pollution control technology for the [Monessen] plant.”

For people in the region affected by pollution, there are a number of groups to turn to for help, including the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). There are also resources at their disposal, as Kratka points out that many cases are built on publicly available information. Residents can also make their voices heard at public hearings or volunteer with organizations.

While Schaeffer admits the system is “clearly broken,” it’s also “set up for us to chase down the EPA and demand more.”

He also says that while the EPA isn’t perfect, the possible dismantling of it under the current administration would be disastrous, as no amount of citizen action can equal enforcement at the federal level.

“We’d be lost without the EPA,” said Schaeffer. “We will regret it if they are taken down.”