SCA Alum, 1989 Arches National Park
Environmental attorney Melissa Barbanell served with SCA at Arches National Park in the summer of ’89 and it completely changed the course of her life. A New York suburbanite, it was her first exposure to hiking and camping of any kind. By the end of her internship she’d fallen in love with the great outdoors in general and Southern Utah in particular. She returned to the region after college, got her environmental law degree, and has been working there as a lawyer ever since. She recently helped write the Minamata Convention, a legally binding global agreement on mercury pollution that’s been hailed by everyone from Human Rights Watch to industry experts as a legitimate breakthrough in preventing emissions and releases.
When/where you served with SCA: Two stints: Arches National Park (summer, 1989) and Cape Cod National Seashore (fall, 1990)
Hometown: Woodmere, NY
Current town: Salt Lake City, UT
College: Tulane University (B.A. – philosophy); University of Utah (M.A. – philosophy); University of Utah College of Law (J.D.)
Current job: Senior Counsel for Legislative and Regulatory Affairs – Barrick Gold Corporation
What’s your most memorable SCA moment? My most memorable moment was when I was on trail patrol at Arches and the temperature was 112 degrees. There were lots of people out on the trail with very little water and there was one small tree on the trail. The folks were huddled under the tree. I provided them with additional water and got them off the trail safely.
How did SCA impact your life and career? SCA impacted every aspect of my life and career. Before going to Arches in the summer of 1989, I assumed that I would return to New York after college and find a job and apartment in Manhattan. I had never been hiking or camping before that summer. I fell in love with Southern Utah that first summer and returned after a stint on Cape Cod, some of which was also with SCA, after graduating college in 1990. The people I met, the activities I was exposed to, and the tenets underlying environmental protection I encountered at Arches and Cape Cod National Seashore have set the course for my life. When I returned to Moab, Utah in 1990, I became a river guide and eventually wound up in law school studying environmental law. I have practiced law since 1998. I spend my free time out in nature – skiing or hiking in the Wasatch or camping, hiking or rafting in Southern Utah. I am raising my children in Utah where they have been hiking since they have been able to walk and where they relate to and appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds them.
How did you end up helping develop the Minamata Convention on Mercury? What was Minamata a response to? My legal career has primarily involved working for industry. I began as outside counsel and then took an environmental role in-house where I have helped my company develop and implement internal environmental standards. I have worked on and led committees at the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) where I have led some of the most sophisticated mining companies in the world in developing a response to environmental risks including threats to biodiversity, water risks and impacts of toxins such as mercury. As the Chair of the Mercury Working Group at ICMM, I have represented the mining industry in the development of the Minatmata Convention. I have worked on a Position Statement for the industry and represented the industry at the intergovernmental negotiating committee (INC) meetings, have worked with governments between sessions of the INC, and have helped coordinate the message of the mining industry. The industry has collaborated with governments to ensure that the Minamata Convention provides significant protections to the environment from the risks associated with mercury contamination.
The Convention is a response to mercury loading in the environment. Since industrialization, the amount of mercury in the environment has effectively doubled. This has resulted in high levels of mercury in fish in rivers and lakes throughout the western United States and the rest of the world. The mercury that is emitted from industry, artisanal mining and naturally is deposited onto the lands and into water bodies. It is then taken up and biomagnified in fish where it then creates a risk to humans who consume those fish. Additionally, in some communities such as artisanal mining camps, mercury air emissions can also be a risk to human health.
What’s the coolest thing about being an environmental lawyer? For me, the coolest thing about being an environmental lawyer has been the opportunity to work on large global issues and to see new environmental protection measures enacted into law and company policies.
What’s today’s most pressing conservation issue from your perspective? Why? I believe that the most pressing conservation issue is water. Water scarcity is a pressing issue which will be exacerbated by climate change. The right to clean water and sanitation has been deemed a human right by the United Nations and it is going to be a challenge for people to sustain the access to water they have right now in the future given population growth and climate change. Given the criticality of water to our survival, it is imperative that people focus on how to decrease their use and waste of water.