Law professors at the University of Michigan told Augustus “Gus” Winkes to steer clear of cases involving contaminated sites, he said. In their minds, many of the most notorious sites had already been cleaned up, and hazardous waste, they said, wasn’t the best place to develop a flourishing career.
When Winkes started practicing law, however, he found that Superfund practice was not only alive and well, but also extremely interesting.
“It was described by my colleague as three dimensional chess, and that’s very accurate,” he said.
Winkes’ practice at Beveridge & Diamond’s Seattle office involves advising clients on regulatory compliance and fighting federal and state environmental enforcement actions. While his practice is fairly broad, Winkes says he specializes in contaminated site cleanups.
His experience as an environmental consultant sparked some of his interest in environmental law. Attorneys always had a seat at the table during disputes among agencies, private parties, or other regulated entities, he said, and they could either create or solve problems.
For example, Winkes and others at Beveridge & Diamond intervened in a court proceeding in 2015 and challenged a proposed settlement between the Environmental Protection Agency and a potentially responsible party at the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Winkes declined to provide the client’s name, citing confidentiality. He said the settlement would have impacted the client’s liability and prospect of recovering the costs of cleaning up contamination from other parties at the site.
Winkes, who was a lead drafter on a joint brief opposing the settlement, said they were able to uncover a factual issue that called into question the advisability of the settlement. In an “extraordinarily rare” development, the settlement was withdrawn and the client reached a separate settlement with the potentially responsible party, according to Winkes.
Growing up with family connections to the commercial fishing industry, Winkes also witnessed how environmental regulations affected the entities and individuals being regulated. He said it was important to have a regulatory system that considers how it impacts the community it regulates.
One of his recent clients at Beveridge & Diamond faced accusations of not complying with financial assurance regulations that require waste facilities to show they have enough financial resources to respond in case a hazardous substance was released. Complicating the case, he said, was the agency’s relatively new enforcement action, which left him no playbook to figure out the best approach to resolve the matter.
“We had to complete a crash course of the underlying legal and regulatory issues and think about how to proceed,” he said.
The team dug into the facts, the law, and rulemaking history to push back on the agency’s basic assumptions and weaken the foundation of its claims, Winkes said. He said the case was settled on terms that were more favorable to the client than similar actions against other companies, but declined to describe the matter further.
David Weber, managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond’s Seattle office said that Winkes is “laser focused on addressing the needs” of his clients and is “a superb legal strategist.”
Winkes’ experience as an environmental consultant helped “refine his technical and project management skills,” Weber said, which which are essential when it comes to delivering “superior client service.”
Even though an attorney may focus on environmental law, Winkes said it’s still important to survey all of the available legal tools and draw on all of your skills as an attorney to get the best outcome for your client.
“You want to keep an open mind and think more broadly about how to develop a legal strategy,” he said. “That will result in the outcomes you desire.”
Young lawyers should know that environmental law is complex and the regulations are numerous, Winkes said. It requires a level of study and dedication that attorneys just starting out may find daunting. When a matter comes to Beveridge & Diamond, he said, it’s usually a difficult and thorny issue that requires a lot of knowledge in agency practices and rulemaking.
“In order to tackle those types of issues, you need to have a strong foundation to begin with,” he said.
Superfund practice continues to be vibrant, Winkes said. It now accounts for the effects of climate change on contaminated sites, as well as the impact of emerging contaminants. Changes in science and regulations can cause remediated sites to be reopened and reassessed, he said.
“The field is dynamic and changing, and it’s a reason why we all continue to come to work,” Winkes said.
Assembling the right team, understanding the client, paying attention to details and thinking about future direction are all crucial considerations when approaching a case, Winkes said.
When he’s not in the office, Winkes serves on an advisory group for the Washington State Department of Ecology, offering feedback as it updates contaminated site cleanup regulations.
“It’s always important to be looking for opportunities to get out in the broader community,” he said. “Think about where your skills, expertise, and interests can make a difference.”