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Take Five: Patricia Tummons on environmental legacy of Lewis Green

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - "Litigation is not for the faint of heart," prominent St. Louis environmental lawyer Lewis C. Green once wrote.

Green is the subject of a new book, "A Force for Nature: The Environmental Litigation of Lewis C. Green," by Patricia Tummons and Florence Shinkle, both former reporters and editors with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The book provides blow-by-blow accounts of some of the region's most memorable environmental cases, and makes it clear that Green didn't shy away from protracted, highly divisive legal battles.

Green fought the Environmental Protection Agency over enforcement of the federal Clean Air Act and Union Electric Co. over its sulfur emissions. He challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the environmental safety of controversial development plans. He was a central figure in the lengthy dispute over land use at Queeny Park and became an ardent opponent of plans to build a football stadium in the floodplain of the Missouri Bottoms.

A St. Louis native, Green first made his name in local Democratic Party politics, and in 1965 was appointed by then-Gov. Warren Hearnes to become the first chairman of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission, an agency that adopted clean air regulations for St. Louis, a city once known for its coal smoke. (This was well before the Clean Air Act was in place.)

Green was a founding member of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment  and often represented the group in legal disputes. Shortly before his death in 2003, he donated $600,000 to start the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center,  a nonprofit firm that does public interest environmental litigation. (Green's daughter and longtime legal partner are among the lawyers who continue to advocate for environmental causes.)

The Beacon spoke with Tummons Wednesday about the book. Here's a condensed version of our conversation.

What was your interest in looking back at the life of Lewis Green?

Tummons: When I was writing editorials for the Post-Dispatch, I came to know Lewis. Then I came to also know him personally because I got invited to something called the Wednesday Lawyers' Lunch. This was an institution that was made up of mainly middle-aged and older men, most of whom were lawyers, all of whom were of a liberal frame of mind. Florence then joined the lunch group, and that's how the two of us got to know him. Mrs. Green approached Florence asking her to do something about the major cases that Lewis handled so that his grandchildren had an idea of the important work that he did. We were struck by the range of his work, the importance of his work, starting really coincident with the very earliest federal environmental laws. We thought that was an amazing opportunity to make this available for the broader public.

My sense from reading the book is that Green viewed the environmental laws as just the start. He seemed focused on the battles over how these measures were enforced.

Tummons: That's right. He got a hold of something and wouldn't let go. I think he recognized that the laws were the open door to enforcement and if you had no enforcement than you have litigation, and so he was willing to go the administrative route to seek enforcement, but if that enforcement wasn't made by the agencies responsible, the courts were the next step. He never shied away from a court battle. On the other hand, he never regarded litigation as the first step. And as you'll read in the book, he wasn't batting 1,000 in the courts.

It's certainly true that Green rarely got everything he wanted in legal disputes, but he rarely got nothing, either. Being in that middle ground, how did he measure success?

Tummons: The success is in the eye of the beholder. There were clear-cut successes, as in the case of Fort Leonard Wood (in which the U.S. Army had decided to move its chemical warfare training facility from Alabama to Missouri. Opponents, like Green, worried about potential discharges into streams and waste processing, among other things.) In the sense of interpretation of clean water laws, it went to the Missouri Supreme Court and there was a really clear decision that has far-ranging impacts that you do not have to be only an adjacent land owner to challenge a permit for pollution that would be given by the state. (The court overturned a previous decision that had effectively denied third parties from challenging permits issued under the state's clean water law). That's a really powerful and important decision. On the other hand, the installation at Fort Leonard Wood that was the object of all of this litigation went forward (the facility ended up moving), so maybe that was a defeat. You have to look very carefully to determine if something is a victory or setback.

The name Great Rivers Environmental Law Center indicates that safeguarding the water was at the top of Green's agenda. To what extent was this true, and what about clean air litigation?

Tummons: He was an avid canoer; he loved the wild and the water. He wasn't just an armchair environmentalist. Not only did he love the free-flowing waters, but he also had such respect for the need to be deferential to the laws of nature. If you are going to build on flood plains, expect to be flooded. And he didn't think that flood plains were appropriate for building sites. There again there are mixed victories -- Earth City is pretty well built up at this point. It's hard to remember when Gumbo (now the site of Chesterfield Commons) was a flood plain. Nonetheless, some outcomes are still being defended today.

His work to protect the air bookends his career. He starts with clean air ligitation against Union Electric. And he ends with clean air litigation against the EPA. I think that concern grew out of his tenure as the first chairman of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission. I think it's appropriate that clean air would be on either end of his career as an environmental litigator.

What's the environmental issue now that he would feel most strongly about?

Tummons: One of the things that amazed me was reading back through testimony he gave in 1969 to a Congressional committee headed by Sen. (Thomas) Eagleton on clean air. He started talking about global warming. That was a time when carbon dioxide was beginning to be seen as a potential agent to warm the atmosphere, and Lewis mentioned that. Right now if he was litigating he'd be out there trying to get controls on CO2 emissions.

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