This Leader of the (Legal) Resistance Has Never Felt More Ready

NRDC Chief Counsel Mitch Bernard takes on big polluters, climate deniers, and their powerful allies—including those who sit in the West Wing.

Mitch Bernard in 2012

Credit: Reed Young

In the course of his daily work, Mitch Bernard, NRDC’s chief counsel, battles corporate titans and government behemoths. In his three decades with the organization, he’s racked up victories that have had, and continue to have, a major impact on America’s environmental policy.

He gives all due credit to the dedicated attorneys with whom he works on a never-ending docket of cases involving water, air, toxic chemicals, and environmental justice. But he also knows that all the legal expertise in the world can’t win a case unless it’s attached to a stirring narrative.

“We tell stories,” says Bernard of NRDC’s team of litigators. “We include details that relate to the theme; we use imagery that reflects and deepens and clarifies that theme.” By never forgetting this rule, Bernard and his team have successfully persuaded judges to force polluters to comply with regulations they have flouted and pressured regulators to enforce the environmental laws that are currently on the books.

The 2016 presidential election, of course, introduced a plot twist for our national environmental narrative. After decades of progress in the fight to defend a healthier planet, NRDC must now grapple with a president who, as Bernard puts it, is “hell-bent on dismantling our environmental and human health protections—and at a pace that’s unprecedented.” As a result, since the inauguration, he says, “our docket has exploded.” Within nine months, NRDC had brought 39 lawsuits prompted by actions of the Trump administration. That’s roughly one case a week. “We’ve never faced an administration whose values are so diametrically opposed to NRDC’s,” Bernard says.

To keep up with the crushing pace of cases, the team of attorneys that Bernard oversees has grown by 30 percent since January 2017, a dramatic increase in personnel. And the organization wants to expand the team even further. “The heads of the EPA, the Interior Department, and the Energy Department are taking a hatchet to the protections that we’ve come to count on over decades,” Bernard says.

The NRDC attorneys who worked on the Flint, Michigan, case (from left): Dimple Chaudhary, Anjali Waikar, Michael Wall, Mitch Bernard, Sarah Tallman, Even Feinauer, Jared Knicley
Credit: Anjali Waikar

NRDC’s legal team has consistently shown how litigating on behalf of the environment is, in fact, litigating on behalf of people. Led by Dimple Chaudhary, several of NRDC’s attorneys recently represented the citizens of Flint, Michigan, in their battle for clean water and environmental justice. As a direct result of the suit, the government will spend $97 million to replace all the lead-bearing water service lines in Flint—a major step toward ending the city’s water crisis.

Another long-running case has pitted Bernard and colleagues Aaron Colangelo and Jared Thompson against a chemical company that dumped up to 12 tons of mercury into Maine’s Penobscot River. But for the pressure brought to bear by this citizen-inspired litigation, Bernard says, people in the Penobscot region would still be eating contaminated fish and shellfish, including Maine’s iconic lobster. State and federal environmental agencies were prepared to just leave the issue alone. But data generated by a court order in the case caused the State of Maine to close a 12.5-square-mile portion of the river in order to protect the public. NRDC and its local client, Maine People’s Alliance, are now seeking a comprehensive cleanup of this vital waterway.

Bernard (left) and NRDC’s Michelle Wu (center) and Nancy Marks (right) on a 2013 site visit to the Penobscot River.
Credit: Jared Thompson

The Penobscot mercury case “returned NRDC to one of its first principles,” says Bernard. “Polluters, no matter how powerful and no matter how well they’ve managed to escape government enforcement in the past, have to comply with the law. They must clean up the messes they make.”

When he began his career, “the mainstream environmental movement was dominated by concerns for land and resources by themselves,” says Bernard. And while those original values persist, environmentalists have broadened their sense of what’s at stake and what deserves their protection—such as public health, cultural heritage, and universal access to clean water, clean air, and green space. In other words, advocates like Bernard believe the movement must defend not only our varied habitats but all of their inhabitants, too.

Nancy Marks, Bernard’s NRDC partner in many cases, sees her colleague as the ideal marriage of principle and ideals. “He believes our court system can be petitioned successfully to obtain justice for those without the resources to buy political influence,” she says.

The fight has never felt more urgent. But Mitch Bernard has never felt more ready.

“The Trump administration, during its first year, has exited rapidly from [the executive’s] role as the primary enforcer of environmental laws,” he says. “Citizens are going to have to fill that space.” Fortunately, a host of federal statutes exist to empower citizens to sue polluters directly when the government fails to act.

Bernard notes that NRDC has added nearly 150,000 new members since Election Day—and he feels that every one of them joined the organization expecting him and his team to lead the legal resistance against the administration and its harmful environmental policies. “Their outpouring of support for the work we’re doing is enormous,” he says, “and enormously gratifying.”

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