Following her heart, saving a bay

“OK, brace yourself,” the email began.

It was a Sunday morning in 2010 when Alexis Segal, a corporate litigation attorney for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, opened that email. She was not ready for the news that followed: The executive director wanted to quit an embryonic nonprofit organization on which Segal served as a board member in her spare time.

“I’d like to offer the role of executive director to you,” the email said.

Nearly three years later, Segal, an Environmental and Land Use Law LL.M. candidate, read the message out loud inside the program’s office on the second floor of Bruton-Geer Hall. She looked down and paused. “Never in a million years did I think of being the executive director of anything,” she said.

Segal had been practicing law for seven years, but she never felt connected to her work. Certain she could find that connection, she volunteered with various groups. Eventually, she found Waterkeeper Alliance, the international headquarters of more than 200 waterkeeper organizations. Soon after, she signed on to help form the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper from New York City as a board member.

Biscayne Bay was special to Segal: She practically grew up on it. Every weekend her family would spend a day on the water. But as clear and beautiful as it seemed, Biscayne Bay had a dirty secret. Sewage spills from aging pipelines contaminated the area. Years later, the bay became the target of a government-funded infrastructure project with potentially serious environmental consequences.

In 2010, Segal figured it was time to pursue her passion. A few months after opening that email, she quit her steady corporate litigation practice, sold her Manhattan apartment and moved home to Miami. At the age of 33, she would live with her parents and have a makeshift office in the den. She had to build the job she wanted from scratch, but in January 2011, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper was born.

Within six months, Segal challenged a pending permit that would allow for the deepening and widening of the Port of Miami in Biscayne Bay. Project plans called for blasting lime rock and dredging the bay. Under the rock lay an aging pipeline that daily carried 25 million gallons of raw sewage to a nearby treatment plant. Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper agreed that the pipeline had to be replaced but wanted assurances that contractors would blast as far as possible from the line. Segal warned of a catastrophe similar to the BP spill — only this one would be with sewage.

Eduardo A. Vega, assistant director of engineering for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, said there was “minimum risk” of a sewage spill. If a spill was to occur, he said there would be “some overflow of sewage on the street.” The permit’s final version reflected safer practices, including connections on land between the new and old pipelines instead of underwater, which reduced risks to the bay, Vega said.

The 2012 settlement between the state and Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper increased the distance crews would blast from the sewage line, Segal said. The conservation group won other improvements in the final permit, including $1.3 million toward a county trust fund for projects to protect the bay. As of April 2013, the PortMiami expansion project was 80 percent complete, Vega said.

In the midst of the legal battle, Segal visited UF Law to speak at the 2012 Public Interest Environmental Conference as a waterkeeper panelist. She felt like the perennial underdog in her work, she said, but the conference opened her eyes to a new sense of support. That fall, with the aid of a Southeast Climate Consortium fellowship, Segal joined the 2013 LL.M. class.

During her marine resource protection research at UF Law, Segal led the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper in a new campaign to fix Miami-Dade County’s decrepit sewage infrastructure. In a two-year period, more than 47 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into Miami-Dade County waterways and onto streets from aging sewage lines. The problems caught the attention of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which brought a federal enforcement action against the county for violating the Clean Water Act.

Miami-Dade County, the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are negotiating a consent decree under which the county plans to spend about $1.5 billion to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, pump stations and pipelines. Segal worried that the consent decree would omit protections against flooding tides, storm surges or rising sea levels that could threaten sewage infrastructure. As a result, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper requested to join this enforcement action as a party to the case.

“They’re so underwater with these repairs that they can’t look past the immediate fixes,” Segal said. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping hole.”

Segal said UF Law has reinforced her confidence in her legal strategies on behalf of Biscayne Bay. The LL.M. program also gave her unique opportunities, including studying in Belize over spring break and kayaking on the Ichetucknee River with public environmental law legends. Meanwhile, she commuted to Miami almost weekly to lead Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper while attending classes on weekdays in Gainesville. Segal also has been nominated by Florida Sea Grant for the Knauss Fellowship — a yearlong fellowship in marine policy. If chosen, Segal will continue her education by working with a government host in the Washington, D.C., area.

Segal said managing school and the organization is “impossible almost.”

“But fighting for the right to clean water felt homegrown,” she said. “The fact that it’s Biscayne Bay makes it even closer to my heart.”