River Watch Guest Editorials
Press Democrat, March 16, 2002
By Jack Silver, Legal Counsel
Alan Beaven, friend and mentor, was on of those who taught me about public interest environmental law. He was also one of those who died September 11, 2001, a passenger on flight 93 returning to San Francisco to settle a Clean Water Act citizen suit. When I first caught heat from pursuing a pollution case he just said, in his distinct New Zealand accent, “Jack, Jack, Jack, what did you expect . . . flowers?” I think of Alan at times like this.
The focus of “River Watch Ripped Over Suits” (Press Democrat, March 12, 2002) is that the business of environmental compliance is in fact a business. It’s certainly business for polluters and their attorneys. The dollars spent in environmentally harmful development and the sums paid defense counsel to support it dwarf the money raised by environmental groups and paid to their public interest lawyers in the effort to protect the quality of our communities and open space. So . . . let’s talk about the money. An easier topic to discuss than pollution, at least for polluters. Yes, I get paid, sometimes. To put it more accurately I get what’s left over after I pay co-counsel, investigators, experts, staff, case costs, etc., on balance about $50 per hour, a modest salary for an attorney, and a fraction of the amount paid to defense counsel. However, unlike the defense, I’m only paid if the suit is successful. So, if as the articles suggest, I’m only in it for the money, why don’t I defend polluters rather than sue them. Well, the answer is simple, I’m more than an attorney, I’m an environmentalist activist with a law degree.
What the recent articles fail to mention is that River Watch have generated nearly one million dollars in funds used for water testing, habitat protection, restoration, and environmental education. All of River Watch’s consent decrees require these funds go back into the community to redress the underlying harm. In addition to project funds, River Watch has succeeded in requiring polluters spend millions of dollars on pollution prevention, improvements and upgrades. Approximately 20% of all River Watch cases are pro bono (for free). River Watch also helps its members and in a recent case was able to force a polluter into drilling a deep aquifer well for a member whose other well had been contaminated. In that case they also paid for the costs.
Although the sums mentioned in connection with River Watch seem large they pale in comparison to the economic benefit these polluters make from noncompliance. River Watch is accused of pursuing “minor violations” that are “already being addressed.” We are told this by polluters and the agencies. We are told that polluters settle only to avoid the costs of litigation. What a bunch of BS. If a case is brought without merit it is the defendants, not the plaintiffs who are entitled to attorney fees.
Is the real issue money paid to public interest lawyers? The polluters would like you to believe so. The real issue is that we live in a time of unprecedented environmental destruction. And its getting worse. Gone are the ancient forests, gone is safe drinking water, going is natural habitat. Cancer rates are epidemic. We have lost our respect for nature and worse, we do not see nature, which we are a part, we see natural resources which we can exploit. We do not speak the language of nature nor hear her song only the sounds of commerce, development, exploitation. If you believe that the government or the agencies will fix the problem or that the polluter out of their own volition will stop polluting than believe the negative press about River Watch.
I have lived in Sonoma County most of my life and watched with horror as our County Supervisors push their dream of making it “Santa Clara North.” I watch other Counties look for ways to rob our heritage. They fill our creeks and streams with treated sewage and sell it back to us as reclaimed water. If there is a problem, they say its minor, then say its being fixed or they don’t have the money to fix it, all the while paying millions to consultants and attorneys to justify further exploitation.
Yes, it’s disturbing to think about these problems. It’s more disturbing to do nothing about them. If what I do disturbs the status quo, all the better.
I know what Alan would tell me, “Give ’em hell.”