Jennifer Chavez is a staff attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of Earthjustice.
She joined Earthjustice after working for a small law firm representing municipal governments in the Chicago suburbs.
Jennifer works on a broad variety of cases to protect water resources in the D.C. and Chesapeake Bay region and to stop mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian coalfields.
She received her law degree from the University of Illinois in 2003, and earned her Bachelor of Arts from Adams State College in 2000.
I grew up in a desert. I never learned to swim because swimming pools were few and far between. So, water just strikes a sense of wonder in me, and I think that seeing our shared water resources being abused just really offended me in a place in my gut that I just couldn't let go of.
We're really lucky here in D.C. because almost 20 percent of the city is park land, but it seems like undeveloped land inevitably attracts proposals to build on that land. So our attorneys helped fight a number of proposals, including a proposal to build an amusement park on one of the islands in the Anacostia. Eventually our lawyers started to turn their heads to the water quality in the Anacostia River itself. Unfortunately, it is one of the dirtiest rivers in America—but we are working to turn that around.
One of our biggest cases was successfully suing the Navy for discharging toxic pollutants into the river. Gasoline, heavy metals and PCBs were being stored there—all things you don't want in the fish that you are eating. Today, fish advisories tell people in our nation's capital to not eat the fish they catch because they can have some of these toxic substances that build up in their tissues. But a lot of people still go down to the river and eat the fish that they catch to supplement their groceries—an estimated 17,000 people in the Anacostia River watershed. So it's a massive problem, but it needs to be addressed.
We also sued the local sewer agency to control sewer overflow into the river. Shamefully, D.C. is like other cities, meaning it has an antiquated sewer system that dumps raw sewage into the river every time it rains. So our lawsuits got court orders in place along with action from the EPA that produced plans to deal with the sewer overflow problem in a number of ways. We are working to make sure that plan is enforced and we are still fighting against occasional attempts to weaken the plan, so it's really a long-term commitment.
We are also working to get pollution limits established for the rivers here in D.C. These limits are called total maximum daily loads (TMDL), and initially they were established as annual and seasonal loads, so we had to litigate and make sure there were daily pollution limits. Having a daily limit in place is important for human recreation and for aquatic life. For a person who goes out to the river and only uses it once or twice a summer, if the river is just choked with sediment, that person's experience is ruined and it doesn't matter that over the course of an average year the pollution isn't as bad. And for sensitive aquatic life that is smothered in a matter of hours or days after a big flush of stormwater pollution, it doesn't matter that the conditions seem better when averaged over a season or a year.
It's common knowledge that it's a bad idea to eat the fish from D.C.'s river and that adds to the attitude of neglect toward the river. We are trying to turn around not just the governments' attitude toward the rivers, but also the people so they start treasuring and demanding better for their rivers.
This is the nation's capital, and this river should be as much of an attraction as the monuments and the buildings that people go to see.
"I gained a love for the natural world as a child steeped in the majestic beauty of the San Luis Valley in Colorado. I fight for the environment so that other children and families will continue to enjoy the beauty and life-giving sustenance of their favorite mountains and streams."
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.