Environmental Law and Policy Center locates Michigan office in Grand Rapids


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

There are several reasons that the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), “the Midwest’s leading public interest environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization,” decided to locate its Michigan office in Grand Rapids.

Senior Staff Attorney Margrethe Kearney explains, “One reason is that, since one of my focuses is on clean energy, there are a lot of organizations on the West side of the state working on that, and there’s the city of Grand Rapids commitment. And there are a lot of national and regional offices in Ann Arbor, but fewer in Grand Rapids.

“But also, I grew up here and my family is still here,” she says with the infectious grin she shows often. “It sure beats the commute I had when I was in private practice in Chicago.”

That impressive private practice was at Latham and Watkins, consistently named in the top five U.S. law firms. Kearney’s path there started with attending the University of Chicago after graduating from Grand Rapids City High.

At Chicago, she majored in Latin studies and economics. After college, she explored several jobs, including Migrant Legal Services in Grand Rapids, but eventually decided that in order to achieve her goals, she needed to return to school for a law degree. Kearney did this in a big way: her Juris Doctor is from Harvard School of Law.

There she met the man who was eventually to become her husband (the couple now has three daughters, including a set of twins), and he was from Chicago, so they initially decided to return and settle there.
“Latham was a great place to work. I was in the Environment, Land and Resources Depart-

ment. I really benefited from having great mentors and interesting things to work on. But around the time I was promoted to counsel, I?was re-evaluating and reassessing. asking myself, ‘What do you want the next stage to look like?’” Kearney says.

She reached out to ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner. Coming from a public interest law background, Learner had also received his J.D. from Harvard, and had done his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan.  He founded ELPC in 1993.

The two discussed options for Kearney joining the organization, including her continuing to work in Chicago where ELPC is headquartered. But Kearney wanted to come back to this area, and ELPC wanted to have a presence in states throughout the Midwest, in addition to its DC?office. So in January of 2016, Kearney opened up an office on Wealthy Street, joining those in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

ELPC has had a number of victories, many of them site-specific, since its founding. These range from developing “Repower the Midwest,” a clean energy plan, in 2001, to winning a 2016 case (partnering with Iowa Environmental Council)?that requires enforcement of Iowa’s clean water “anti-degradation” standards, to stopping a wasteful Illinois highway project that would have threatened prairie wildlife habitats.

In addition to focusing on clean energy, which Kearney said takes her in front of the Michigan Public Service Commission, writing briefs and doing “traditional lawyering,” she will spend her time on protection of natural spaces.

This includes such pressing policy issues as preventing a spill from Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac and other Great Lakes protection efforts. In this and other work, she joins with the other ELPC state offices, noting, “They are shared problems, and they should be shared problems. While it’s true that four out of five Great Lakes prefer Michigan, the other states have valuable resources too, and they may be doing something Michigan can learn from.

“I?just have such a connection with this area,” she adds. “I see so many positive changes.”