Class learns about environmental damage and restoration on Idaho field trip

Left to right: Joel Wolf, Andrew Helland, Andrew Laughlin, Richard Andrews, Anne Powell, Marcus Lee, Dan Watts, Emma Libby, Kelsea Feola, Nicholas Gibbons, Prof. Villa, Lacey Peterson, Susan Connor. Not pictured: Lindsay Serbousek.

(January 21, 2010) Cliff Villa doesn't want to just lecture his students about environmental protection. He wants to show them the difference they can make.

Villa, an adjunct professor and attorney with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, teaches a course on environmental enforcement. Last fall, he took students on a weekend field trip to view the environmental degradation resulting from more than a century of mining activities in Northern Idaho.

"Part of my theme is bringing reality into the classroom and the classroom into reality," he said.  "Given a clear view of the problem, we then consider the analytical question of, 'What legal tools can we use to fix this?'"   

Villa, who became an adjunct in 2006 and received the 2009 Outstanding Adjunct Faculty Award, has organized field trips in the Puget Sound area before. This year, he planned an excursion to Northern Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Basin, a region of natural beauty marred by massive contamination from historical mining activities. Many of the worst places, scenes of epidemic child lead poisoning in the 1970s, have recently been cleaned up, Villa said, but decades of cleanup efforts remain to restore the Basin to a safe environment.

In the canyons of the Bitterroot Mountains, contaminated creek water still runs a shocking orange.

Students traveled from one end of the Coeur d'Alene Basin to the other: from the plush Coeur d'Alene Resort on Lake Coeur d'Alene; to the Old Cataldo Mission, sacred site to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe; to the former site of the Bunker Hill lead smelter, now cleaned up and redeveloped as a golf course; to the old mining districts in canyons of the Bitterroot Mountains, where contaminated creek water still runs a shocking orange. They heard from many local experts, including Earl Liverman, a '91 law school grade, the EPA's on-scene coordinator.

Student said the seeing first-hand what they discussed in class was invaluable.

"It isn't until you see the abandoned mines, the piles of lead tailings, the fishless streams and front yards made of gravel that you begin to understand the complexity facing environmental lawyers and clean-up coordinators," 3L Kelsea Feola said.

Earl Liverman ’91 the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, gives students a tour of the area.

3L Richard Andrews echoed that feeling.

"Reading about the scope of the problem in the Coeur d'Alene basin was harrowing enough. But actually seeing the magnitude of the problem in person was enlightening," Andrews said. "I will never forget the image of a small house, surrounded on three sides by 60-foot high piles of tailings, with a child's tricycle and toys outside. For those of us working with environmental enforcement, there could not be a much clearer reminder of what is at stake in this work."

Sullivan Hall