Attorney Spotlight – Sarah Rubenstein

What engendered your passion for the environment?

From a very young age I’ve been a lover of the natural world and animals. My parents taught us by example – through gardening, hiking, spending time outside, appreciating nature. When I learned about environmental degradation in high school, I decided to study the subject in college and then to devote my career to protecting the natural world. I remain firmly committed to the idea that all of the world’s living things and creatures deserve protection. As humans, we need to live in unity with our natural world. And I believe that holds true for all people, no matter their nationality, gender, skin color, age or socio-economic position.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Many years ago I worked as an intern for the Environmental Defense Fund in DC. The organization was made up of a group of attorneys and scientists working together to better the natural world. I was struck during my time at EDF that the attorneys seemed to have the most luck making headway in accomplishing their goals. I decided to go to law school to marry my interest in protecting the natural world with what I observed at EDF. 

What do you hope to accomplish through your work at Great Rivers?

I hope to use my skills in litigation and environmental law to protect our natural world. I hope to bring environmental justice to the many who have shouldered an unfair burden. I hope to improve air quality in our region. I hope to help force Missouri’s utilities to transition away from coal and towards renewables. I hope to protect the magnificent rivers of our region. I hope to protect the species that are threatened or endangered in our area. I could go on and on, as there is so much important work still to be done! I hope my work will make a difference in getting us further towards those goals.

What has been the most rewarding case you’ve taken on? What cases are you most proud of your involvement in?

Our work to force Missouri to comply with Title VI has been very rewarding. For too long, Missouri has ignored legal requirements to operate with transparency, to involve the impacted public in its decision-making processes, and to consider the cumulative impacts of its decisions on Missouri citizens. It was very rewarding to have our Title VI complaint against the state be accepted by EPA, and to see EPA issue preliminary findings of discrimination. It will be exciting to see what kinds of change our complaint brings about in how Missouri protects the environment.

What’s been the most difficult case you’ve worked on?

We are working to help a neighborhood organization in Hyde Park, in North St. Louis, address pollution caused by a nonconforming industrial business located in their otherwise residential neighborhood. As a result of the company’s apparent lack of respect for local zoning and land-use laws, and the City’s utter failure to enforce its ordinances, the company has been able to continue operating improperly, disposing of waste in the neighborhood. We have tried for the last several years to convince the company to clean up its act, or the City to take action, but the neighbors have seen no change. As a result, we are currently preparing to bring litigation against the company. While litigation will be costly and time consuming, hopefully it will bring justice to the neighbors we represent. I wish this matter did not take so long to rectify, and remain concerned that the failure of the company and the City to act is based on the fact that the neighborhood is composed of predominantly low-income, minority residents.

Do you see any intersectionality between environmental law and other issue areas?

There is intersectionality with so much of what we do. Our work intersects with race relations, and that area thankfully appears to be gaining more deserved attention after George Floyd and with our current presidential administration. Our work intersects with energy policy and law as our country grapples with climate change and how to respond to it. Our work intersects with food justice and the agricultural industry, as we reckon with how farming policy impacts our natural world.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

My husband and I love to travel. I also love horses and ride competitively. I own three lovely horses of my own and compete with them in my spare time in competitions around the country.

Are there any memorable moments you’ve had with a client and/or situations you’ve witnessed that stuck with you?

I have had many. One that sticks out involved a family we helped who was experiencing a serious problem with contaminated wastewater discharges emanating from a nursing home located immediately adjacent to their rural home. Although the nursing home was connected to the local town sewer system, it utilized a system of holding tanks to regulate its discharge to the town system, which appeared to be grossly undersized for the size of the expanding town. During significant rain events, the holding tanks at the nursing home would fill up, and raw wastewater would literally spray like a fountain out of the nursing home’s backup pipes, onto our client’s property, eventually flowing into nearby creeks. This prevented our client from being able to use her property to the fullest, or to allow her grandchildren to play outside when visiting her. We helped bring the nursing home into compliance, which served to protect our client, as well as the nearby creek, from subsequent discharges from the nursing home. When I spoke with our client after the improvements were made, she started to cry tears of joy and appreciation for our efforts. That moment made me realize how important and meaningful what we do is to people.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: