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Alumni Spotlight - Ali Nelson

Ali Nelson is an alumna of Husch Blackwell's Denver office.

Ali Nelson
Assistant Attorney General
CNMI Office of the Attorney General

What is your history with Husch Blackwell?

I started working for Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin in 2005 in its downtown St. Louis office right after graduating from law school, splitting time between the real estate and environmental teams. My husband’s family medicine residency took us to Idaho in 2008, where I worked remotely from a home office practicing environmental law for the Energy & Natural Resources SBU until early 2020 when my family needed a change of scenery. We moved to Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Describe your current role/practice outside of Husch Blackwell.

I work as an assistant attorney general in the Civil Division of the Office of the Attorney General for the commonwealth. As a government attorney, I can practice here for four years without sitting for the CNMI bar. Although I had no idea what areas of substantive law I’d handle when I accepted the job, I’ve since been assigned to represent the Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality (BECQ) here, which is comprised of a Department of Environmental Quality (with jurisdiction over EPA programs) and a Division of Coastal Resources Management (with jurisdiction over National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration programs) – a perfect fit for my background and skillset.

After 15 years with Husch Blackwell, I was both excited and nervous to start over somewhere new, but I can say with confidence that my time at HB more than prepared me for this role. I miss many things about the firm (my colleagues, the high caliber of work, and the private firm compensation, to name just a few), but I’m enjoying the added perspective that comes from representing the government versus private clients and am looking forward to the opportunity to gain more litigation experience in this position. And the island pace of life certainly doesn’t hurt!

Describe any interesting and emerging trends you’re seeing in your industry.

With respect to environmental law, contamination of drinking water by unregulated contaminants like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a key concern here in Saipan. The CNMI legislature recently adopted a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water, so I’m assisting BECQ in drafting regulations to implement the new law.

With respect to COVID, the CNMI is uniquely situated. Its geographic isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and its limited hospital resources have triggered a very cautious response to the pandemic, by the community and government leadership alike. There’s still a strict quarantine requirement for all incoming passengers (vaccinated travelers have to quarantine for six days in a government-run quarantine hotel facility before release, and unvaccinated travelers have to quarantine for longer); vaccinations have been mandatory for government employees since February; universal mask mandates remain in place; and businesses continue to operate under reduced occupancy limits. As a result, there has been virtually no community spread of COVID in the CNMI since the pandemic began, and more than 82 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. But as the only U.S. jurisdiction still imposing a quarantine, and one of the first to impose a vaccination requirement for employment, the CNMI is on the leading edge of developing law on this issue.

What is one of the most interesting projects on which you’ve worked?

The CNMI Office of the Attorney General filed an amicus brief earlier this year in a CERCLA case before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the government of Guam's claim against the U.S. government to recover cleanup costs for the Ordot Dump. The key issue was whether a consent decree between Guam and EPA under the Clean Water Act resolved Guam’s liability for purposes of triggering a contribution claim under CERCLA Section 113(f) (under which the statute of limitations had run), versus a cost recovery action under CERCLA Section 107(a) (under which the statute of limitations had not yet expired). HB’s appellate team prepared the brief with assistance from the CNMI Office of the Attorney General, highlighting concerns that the lower court’s decision would disincentivize prompt cleanups, require states to bear disproportionate financial burdens for U.S. government liabilities, and raise federalism concerns. HB also took the lead in assembling bipartisan support from 26 attorneys general in only a few days’ time. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Guam’s favor, finding that a Section 113(f) cost recovery action requires resolution of a CERCLA-specific liability and allowing Guam to proceed with a cost recovery action. It was a clear win for the CNMI, but also a welcome chance for me to work with HB attorneys again.

What hobbies/activities do you enjoy outside the office?

Saipan's tropical location and small size (approximately 5 miles wide by 12 miles long, with a population of approximately 50,000) means I’m never more than a few minutes from the beach, so many of our extracurricular activities revolve around the ocean – snorkeling, diving, paddleboarding, fishing, surfing and beachcombing. Our 6-year-old son keeps us busy with jiu jitsu, soccer and hiking. The community is so social and so active that I’ve felt a lot of (welcome) pressure from friends to try new activities and sports. I run with friends on trails through the jungle a few weekends a month, competed in my first triathlon earlier this year, and just joined a soccer team.

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