Minnesota Law

Spring 2022
Faculty Focus

A Natural Teacher and Scholar

Retiring professor Brad Karkkainen’s impact on the environmental and natural resources fields stretches far beyond the law

Professor emeritus Brad Karkkainen

Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Brad Karkkainen had a front-row seat to Lake Superior. Unfortunately, he also had a clear view of how such a pristine natural resource can be abused.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors and nature,” says Karkkainen. “I felt a kinship with the Great Lakes, especially Lake Superior.”

That kinship turned into a career in the wake of the Reserve Mining Company dispute. That case, decided in 1976 by the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, determined that Reserve Mining was responsible for amphibole asbestos fibers found in the public drinking water of Duluth and other North Shore communities.

Recognizing the fragility of such a powerful body of water spurred Karkkainen toward environmental advocacy and, eventually, a career in law.

“Reserve Mining was dumping thousands of tons of untreated mine tailings that were similar to asbestos directly into Lake Superior, and it was threatening the public water supply in Duluth,” Karkkainen recalls. “It concerned me not only that there was this public health problem in Duluth, but also that this beautiful, otherwise pristine natural resource was being threatened.”

Karkkainen, Henry J. Fletcher Professor of Law, is retiring after
17 years on the faculty of Minnesota Law. He taught courses in environmental law, international environmental law, natural resources law, water law, land use, property, administrative law, and regulatory theory. He has written scores of monographs, book chapters, and articles in various legal and social science journals.

“Professor Karkkainen’s contributions have been integral to the success and prominence of the Law School’s environmental & energy law program,” says Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law. “Brad is a nationally recognized authority in the fields of environmental and natural resources law, and his robust scholarship and teaching skills have greatly benefitted our students and grown that pivotal field of law. He will always be a part of the Minnesota Law community, and I congratulate him on this career milestone.”

On April 19th, 2022, Minnesota Law hosted retirement celebration for Karkkainen, and other retiring faculty members. You can watch a recording of the celebration, including a farewell video celebrating Brad Karkkainen's work.

Highly Regarded, Well Cited

Prior to joining Minnesota Law’s faculty, Karkkainen held a visiting appointment at the University of California–Berkeley and was associate professor at Columbia Law School in New York City from 1995 to 2003. He earned his J.D. from Yale Law School in 1994. Throughout his career, his research has centered on strategies for environmental regulation and natural resources management, with an emphasis on mechanisms that promote continuous adaptive learning, flexibility, transparency, and policy integration.

“I’m proud to say that my work has been cited hundreds, possibly thousands of times in academic literature—and not just in law,” he says.

“Brad’s work on the disclosure of environmental risks, the role of the National Environmental Policy Act in federal agency decision-making, and the governance of water resources in the Great Lakes was pathbreaking,” says Professor Alexandra Klass, who chairs the Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Concentration. “His body of scholarly work is regularly cited in environmental law textbooks and scholarship across the country and internationally, and it will continue to have a lasting impact on the environmental law field.”

Karkkainen’s scholarship has been based on the simple principle that people have a right to know about the environmental risks they’re facing and the types of pollutants they’re exposed to. One of the first major law review articles Karkkainen wrote after becoming an academic focused on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, a research resource that didn’t set new regulatory standards but took a different approach to environmental protection.

“It put pressure on companies to clean up their act,” he says. “Many boards and CEOs said they had no idea what they were putting into the environment until they were asked.”

Looking Ahead

Karkkainen, 69, says his decision to step down was primarily motivated by two things—his health and a new granddaughter who lives near him and his wife in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“My doctors advised me to take it easy and spend my days in a low- stress environment, and teaching is terribly high-stress,” he says. “Plus, I get to babysit for a full day once a week.”

Karkkainen says he is open to returning to the classroom on a limited basis. “I’m not sure I want to give up teaching entirely.”

Dan Heilman is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota.