The Environment

What would the environment be like without the civil justice system?

Laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s were supposed to protect the environment, but lax enforcement left corporations with little incentive to comply. Ultimately, trial attorneys were the ones who sought justice for communities destroyed by corporate polluters. Without the civil justice system, many corporate polluters would never have been held accountable for the disaster they caused.


Even after Congress passed the Clean Air Act, corporations continue to pollute the air we breathe with chemical and carcinogens from arsenic to zinc. In the face of weak federal enforcement, it has been trial attorneys who have led the fight, seeking justice against all the odds for communities such as the cancer-ridden town of Globeville, poisoned by
the cadmium-spewing smelter that rose above it for 100 years.

For decades, corporations handling waste disposal and hazardous materials have targeted low-income communities as locations for processing plants, dumps and landfills. State and federal agencies were of no help, routinely allowing permits for sites in economically vulnerable communities without any oversight. Trial attorneys have worked on behalf of targeted communities, such as Camden, New Jersey, which was forced to accept an industrial plant producing over a million tons of hazardous waste a year in a neighborhood already marked by 15 contaminated sites. Trial attorneys were successful on behalf of Camden and continue to stand up on behalf of many other similar communities.

Incidents such as the Exxon Valdez and BP’s Deepwater Horizon disasters have poured billions of gallons of oil into waterways worldwide. Trial attorneys worked for two decades to force Exxon to clean up its mess and have worked to hold BP accountable for its negligence and the environmental and economic disasters it caused.


Trial attorneys were the first to take action in the 1970s, holding Velsicol Corp. accountable for contaminating drinking water in Tennessee with 300,000 barrels of chemical waste. While federal agencies pursue only three percent of the more than 23,000 companies that violate federal law by contaminating rivers, streams and groundwater sources, it continues to be trial attorneys who offer the best protection of America’s water supply.

Nearly half a billion pounds of that hazardous waste is so toxic that it will not break down in the environment. In cases such as Love Canal, Hooker Chemical Co. dumped 20,000 tons of chemical waste in an unlined canal and then sold the land to the local school board. Time and again, it has been trial attorneys who have worked to stop corporations from dumping toxic
waste and held them accountable for the injuries they have caused. More than 50 million U.S. residents live with unhealthy air. As many as 49 million Americans have water supplies that contain levels of arsenic, radioactive substance and coliform bacteria. U.S. corporations produce more than 25 billion pounds of hazardous waste every year. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the Alaskan coast and spilled more than 10 million gallons of oil over 1,000 miles of remote coastline. Exxon’s immediate response to what would become one of the most devastating man-made environmental disasters ever to occur was to embark on a campaign to avoid responsibility that would last decades. BP adopted Exxon’s playbook decades later and thousands of miles away on the Gulf of Mexico. The British oil giant has fought to evade accountability in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, even after corporate officials repeatedly promised Americans they would take responsibility for their actions. Trial attorneys worked to for 20 years in court to hold Exxon accountable, as the corporation did everything it could to avoid liability. Even so, Exxon was forced to pay over $3 billion in clean-up costs and civil and criminal settlements. Meanwhile, BP, which has been convicted of multiple felonies— including 11 counts of manslaughter— associated with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, has signaled that it is ready to dig in and fight back against all attempts to hold it accountable for the disaster its reckless actions caused.

 Originally published in “Why we need a strong civil justice system” by AAJ, June 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s