Cleaning the slate
by Jennifer R. Lloyd (M.B.A. ’16)
Where some would display a clichéd motivational poster in their office, perhaps with a soaring eagle and platitude about leadership, Tyler J. Ryska (J.D. ’17) has an enlarged photograph of a toxin-filled yard stacked with paint cans and metal drums that have burned and contaminated the soil.
The Austin-based attorney has founded a new nonprofit, The Clean Initiative Project, born out of this inauspicious image, which stems from a legal case he encountered at his day job. As an assistant attorney general, Ryska worked first with the Texas Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Division and now the Utilities and Special Issues Team.
Through donations and other funding sources, The Clean Initiative Project facilitates the clean-up of contaminated properties and drinking water, aiming to help properties in Texas and California, where Ryksa grew up. For now, the first projects are in Comal County.
“I’m cleaning up the environment for my kids and the kids all throughout Texas,” Ryska said. “I don’t care how much in civil penalties or attorney’s fees I collect. I just want the property to be cleaned up. That was a big reason why I started The Clean Initiative Project.”
Tyler J. Ryska
“I’m cleaning up the environment for my kids and the kids all throughout Texas.”
The original photo depicts a case that was already underway before Ryksa joined the Environmental Protection Division. A property owner in Harlingen received paint to remix and sell out of his junkyard. The state sued the owner to clean up his property in a legal fight that dragged on for years until a fire burned down the paint barrels leaving contamination, which the owner is still slowly trying to clean up as he can afford to do so.
After working with the property owner for about five years, Ryska thought there had to be a better way to help clean up properties for people with low incomes. The scenarios Ryska sees most often are the “self-inflicted wound” areas where property owners have contaminated it themselves. Some of them may have mental illnesses, such as hoarding disorder. Others inherited property covered in solid waste or purchased property unaware of environmental contamination.
“That was the catalyst of The Clean Initiative Project: trying to find a way that, instead of the state continuing to sue people, using all these resources on the state side, and, in the end, not really seeing the fruits of the labor and seeing the property cleaned up, maybe there could be an alternative way to help people without the state getting involved.”
Ryska realized his passion for environmental law while taking an elective at the St. Mary’s University School of Law, where he was also on the Board of Advocates and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Team.
“Tyler was a superb student who skillfully blended intellectual insights and heartfelt idealism with plenty of good, old-fashioned studying and class participation,” Teeter said. “I’m extremely proud of Tyler’s work in the Environmental Protection Division.”
Ryska’s work aligns with the University’s commitment to Pope Francis’ seven-year action plan to implement environmental sustainability measures, known as the Laudato Si’ Action Platform.
“Ultimately, you’re not just helping that person, but you’re helping the community, the city, the county, and anywhere that we’re able to reach out and help people,” Ryska said.