Bar Admissions: DC
"The chance to take on the kind of thinking that can tout clear-cutting as forest management is what makes it worthwhile to be a lawyer."
Twelve years ago, I was ready to give law up altogether. I'd spent three years in a commercial law firm. The prospect of another 40 was not appealing. I took some time off, shipped my bike to Vancouver, and started a long ride down the Pacific coast.
I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the forests in Washington and Oregon and Northern California. As I was beginning to absorb the majesty of the trees around me, though, I noticed that many of them were horizontal -- passing by on logging trucks at 60 miles an hour. I don't know if this is still true, but there were enough big trees back then that the whole cargo of an 18-wheeler could be one gigantic trunk. It frequently was. And in much of the countryside, the "forest" turned out to be one or two rows of trees concealing a massive clear cut. The logging companies placed signs beside the road touting their environmentally friendly "forest management" policies.
The devastation of the forests and the utter cynicism of the logging companies' propaganda were, in an odd way, inspirational. This was something worth fighting!
Of course, my next job had nothing to do with trees. When my bike ride was over, I took a job with an environmental group in Washington, D.C. My boss pointed me toward a pile of old packing boxes in the hallway containing files on medical waste incinerators. Hardly a romantic sounding subject, but it turned out to be fascinating.
There were about 2,400 medical waste incinerators operating in America in the mid 1990s, and they were among the worst polluters. Burning all the trash that hospitals generated -- batteries, body parts, used needles, plastic tubing, thermometers, bandages, and plain trash -- these incinerators emitted some 65 tons of mercury every year, as well as vast quantities of lead, dioxins, and PCBs.
The files told a grim story about the effects on public health and the environment. Pollutants like PCBs and mercury are highly toxic in millionths and even billionths of a gram. To make matters worse, they're persistent in the environment. Unlike other pollutants that dissipate in the air, these toxins fall back to earth, accumulate in water and soil, and work their way up the food pyramid. Predator species at the top of the pyramid -- polar bears, killer whales, beluga whales, birds of prey and, above all, humans -- are especially at risk. (Since then, the scale of the threat has been confirmed. A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that, as a result of exposure to mercury alone, 630,000 of the babies born in America each year are at risk of cognitive and developmental damage.)
In 1990, a bipartisan Congress had tried to solve the problem of incinerator toxics by amending the Clean Air Act to require highly protective emission standards. But by the mid-1990s, the Gingrich revolution had thrown a wrench in the works. Facing stiff opposition from industry and scant support from a beleaguered Clinton administration, EPA had delayed its standards for medical waste incinerators, then delayed them some more. Only after an Earthjustice deadline suit did it issue any standards at all, and these were significantly weaker than the Clean Air Act required. For some toxics, they were orders of magnitude too weak.
Needless to say, it did little to good to point out to EPA that caving in to the incinerator industry was bad for the environment. The agency knew that already. So there was only one place left to go: the courthouse. And there was only one organization that was willing to take on air toxics litigation then, Earthjustice. I started at Earthjustice in 1997, and the first case I brought was a challenge to EPA's medical waste incinerator standards.
The last eight years could not have been more interesting and rewarding. The chance to work with the dedicated, enthusiastic staff in the D.C. office has been invaluable. We've now forced EPA to revisit its standards not only for medical waste incinerators but for hazardous waste incinerators, municipal garbage burners, and commercial incinerators as well. We've branched out to tackle cement kilns, plastics plants, and plywood plants. There's no shortage of bad government policy on air toxics issues and no shortage of opportunities to use litigation to fix it.
Still no trees, but the chance to take on the kind of thinking that can tout clear-cutting as forest management is what makes it worthwhile to be a lawyer.
Jim Pew is a staff attorney in Earthjustice's Washington, D.C. office. He received a B.A. in history from Stanford University, a M.A. in law from Cambridge University, and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Jim practiced at a private law firm in Philadelphia for three years, at the Natural Resources Defense Council for two years, and at Earthjustice for the last eight years. Jim lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and cat, and still spends as much time as possible on a bicycle.