July 26, 2008

County Welcomes GASP Attorney

By Allison M. Heinrichs, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 26--When Michael Parker thinks about the environment his two young children will inherit, his outlook isn't positive.

"I'm concerned what kind of world we're going to leave, what my children are going to have to deal with, what their children are going to deal with," said Parker, 32, an environmental attorney from Forest Hills. "It's not an optimistic view."

He hopes his jump from serving as a lawyer for the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), a Squirrel Hill-based environmental advocacy organization, to working for the Allegheny County Health Department will continue his quest to change that. He just finished his first week on the job at an agency that once was a frequent subject of his criticism.

Dr. Bruce Dixon, director of the department, said he doesn't see a conflict with hiring Parker and is confident his history as an environmentalist who questioned the department's actions will be an asset. Board of Health Chairman Paul King, director of environmental health and safety at Duquesne University, echoed Dixon.

"Philosophically, it doesn't trouble me whatsoever," said King, who taught law at the University of Pittsburgh while Parker earned his degree there. "I've had a chance to see him in a variety of capacities over the last six or seven years and have found him to be very grounded in law and policy. I'm delighted that he is joining the Health Department."

Parker will be responsible for preparing environmental regulations, bringing polluters into compliance and, occasionally, representing the department in court, Dixon said.

Spokesmen for some of the county's largest polluters, including Shenango Coke Works and U.S. Steel, declined to comment.

Parker's concern for the environment grew from his childhood in Johnstown.

"We lived along the Stonycreek River," Parker said. "It's getting better now, but when I was a kid it was pretty bad -- the water was orange, the sand was orange along the riverbanks, we weren't allowed to swim in it, there were no fish there. As a kid, it was disappointing."

After earning a history degree at Pitt Johnstown and marrying his college sweetheart, Sarah, Parker enrolled in the Pittsburgh campus's environmental law program.

"I wanted to be a lawyer and I've always had a real connection to the environment," he said. "I didn't really consider any other course of law."

Throughout college, Parker was in the U.S. Army Reserves "for the adventure." Immediately after graduating from law school, and two months before his service with the Army was up, he was deployed to Iraq.

"I don't want to say it was a good experience, but it was a growth experience for me," he said. "I learned a lot about humanity. When you're in a war zone, you see all extremes, you see the best in people and you see the worst."

A few months after returning he became a staff attorney at Pitt's Environmental Law Clinic, but soon left to become GASP's first attorney with a background in environmental law.

"I loved working for GASP," Parker said. "It was the exact type of job I was looking for when I went to law school. I wanted to do public advocacy."

He experienced success helping "regular people deal with relatively small pollution issues in their neighborhoods" and disappointment when GASP admitted defeat in its legal challenge of a waste coal-fired power plant proposed for Greene County after a court appeal was rejected.

"GASP has always been a litigious organization that hasn't shied away from issues that require more legal expertise," said executive director Rachel Filippini. "Having a real environmental lawyer on staff was a tremendous asset and Michael is certainly going to be missed.

"He's a hard worker with a strong environmental ethic," she said. "I believe that he's going to remain true to it no matter where he ends up."


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