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The Rule of Law

In 1972, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times wrote that "NRDC's shrewd young lawyers carry a workload that only enthusiasm can explain -- or sustain." That was just two years after the creation of one of the nation's first public-interest environmental law firms. Our purpose was to prevent the interests of a few from destroying the natural world that belongs to us all. We took our battles to the one place where we could find a level playing field -- the courtroom. There we faced an array of corporate attorneys backed by big money; yet we were mostly triumphant. In our earliest years, we won the nation's first lawsuit curbing acid rain. We forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce toxic lead levels in gasoline. During our second year on the job, we took on the Department of the Interior and mighty oil interests, forcing them to look to energy conservation programs as a substitute for increased oil drilling.

As the environmental movement has evolved over the past several decades, many advocacy groups have sworn off litigation. It's too cumbersome, they say, too expensive. But we believe that our other forms of advocacy are more effective because we reserve the option of going to court. When negotiating with large, powerful companies or government agencies, our willingness to litigate is a constant reminder that we will not be pushed aside.

This is as critical now as it was in our fledgling years, because today the executive and legislative branches of our government are as hostile to our environmental work as they were when we began. So, again and again, we have returned to our roots -- to the courts -- to safeguard our clean air and clean water through the power of litigation.

We have proved such a dogged force that some are reluctant to face us head-on. Last year, after decades of government inaction, we announced our intent to sue several major corporations whose predecessors had contaminated Newark Bay with huge amounts of dioxin some 40 years ago. Just hours before we were to file our case, the companies ducked the lawsuit by entering into an agreement with the EPA to study and clean up the bay.

Other battles have been won less swiftly, and some, not at all. In January, a court in London decided not to halt the construction of a controversial hydroelectric dam in Belize -- a project that we fought for many years. But with a staff of 45 superbly talented lawyers, our record is mighty. We forced Vice President Dick Cheney to make public the records of his Energy Task Force in a high-profile Freedom of Information Act suit. We stopped the Bush administration from turning back energy-conserving regulations for home air-conditioning systems. Even the U.S. Navy found us a force too powerful to overcome when a federal court blocked its plans for a high-intensity sonar system that would have violated several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act.

After all the battles, we find that we are more energized than ever. We will continue to marshal the power of the people to confront those who would seek to plunder our natural resources and ultimately our health and well-being. We will remain a force that, even in the most challenging of times, will not grow weary and will not be stopped.

John H. Adams

Photo: Brennan Cavanaugh

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council