By Tim Johnson
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1984, pp. 5-9
Atlanta environmentalist Deborah Sheppard was organizing a state conference for a coalition of environmental groups in 1982. Among the offers of volunteer help she received, one stands out.
“This woman called. She was a mother of two, a former nurse with the World Health Organization and a law student at the University of Georgia. She was a ball of fire–talking about all the things she and her partner were doing. Upon graduation, they planned to open an Atlanta office of LEAF, the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation.
“She overwhelmed me with her energy and enthusiasm,” Sheppard says. “Then she said that she was the low key partner.”
When Vicki Breman called, very few Georgians knew her or her partner, Laurie Fowler. But they had been laying groundwork for years, and eighteen months later, were among the best known and most effective environmentalists in the state.
Breman began law school at age thirty-seven. At Athens, she met Fowler, twenty-five, also specializing in environmental law.
After hearing Birmingham attorney Suzi Ruhl talk about the LEAF office in Alabama, Fowler and Breman decided to start their own firm in Georgia.
“We weren’t sure if we should be a LEAF chapter or merely model ourselves after what LEAF was doing,” Fowler recalls. “We talked with activists all over Georgia about what the needs were and we decided to join with LEAF.”
A native of Marietta, Georgia, Fowler had worked with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco, the National Clean Air Coalition in DC, and environmental attorney Roger Leed in Seattle.
In its short existence, LEAF has become a remarkably effective tool for environmentalists in the Deep South. Its offices in Atlanta, Birmingham, Knoxville and Tallahassee, have opposed strip-mining, the spraying of paraquat in Georgia’s mountains, the construction of a nuclear power plant, air pollution, and hazardous disposal of toxic wastes. And, belying the usual sprout-eater image of lawyer-environmentalist groups, LEAF has targeted its resources to come to the aid of poor and working-class Southerners, the traditional victims of industrial toxins and chemical wastes both on the job and in their neighborhoods.
Toxic waste dumps, sanitary landfills, notorious polluting industries and major highways appear with more than coincidental frequency near poor neighborhoods.
In Alabama, where LEAF was organized by Birmingham attorney Ruhl in 1979, much of the group’s efforts have
dealt with toxic waste disposal: currently operating landfills, abandoned dumps that contain chemical wastes and proposed dumps.
LEAF’S Jeff Roseman, an Alabama epidemiologist, helped in investigation of the health of residents of Triana, and black community whose water was poisoned with DDT by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Army. DDT levels in fish and in Triana residents were the highest ever recorded in a US population. The government settled out of court, paying residents more than twenty million dollars.
In promoting alternatives to the dumping of toxic wastes in Alabama, LEAF argues that virtually all toxics now created by industry can be safely disposed of with current technology. (Radioactive wastes are a major exception.) It has filed comments with the state of Alabama in support of applications for alternative disposal technologies and has drafted model legislation to provide tax incentatives for the applicants. Alabama’s toxic law, which LEAF has targeted for reform, now automatically grants a permit to dump within ninety days of application if the state doesn’t act on the request.
“Our goal is to make Alabama’s law at least as stringent as the federal law,” says Suzi Ruhl. “If not, then we will move to have the federal government take over enforcement.”
Currently, underground injection of toxics is prohibited in Alabama, but Stanley Graves, one of seven commissioners of the state’s Department of Environmental Management, owns a well drilling company and is pushing for injection. So far, LEAF has successfully opposed Graves.
Alabama LEAF is also fighting a DEM effort to allow blanket permits for emitting pollutants into state waterways. Present law requires a permit for each water site that a company wants to pollute. LEAF is opposing a change in the law which would allow one permit to cover all the discharges of a company. With the law changed, a coal company would need only a single permit to dump wastes into streams anywhere in Alabama.
“If the law gets changed,” Ruhl points out, “a coal company could apply for a discharge permit on June l, then there would be a hearing on June 15. Then, in December, you might hear that the company was going to pollute the water in your community, but you would not get a hearing because the company would already have its permit.”
Citing the legislative history of the Clean Water Act, LEAF has argued in written comments that the single permit proposal violates the intent of Congress. “If the change goes through the legislature,” Ruhl says,” we’ll sue. They’re probably waiting for us to disappear,” she adds, referring to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, “but we won’t.”
LEAF is also grappling with air pollution in Alabama. It organized a state conference and is a cofounder of the Alabama Coalition for Clean Air. Pointing to deleterious
health effects. it is opposing Alabama Power Company’s efforts to convert two natural gas fueled steam generating plants in downtown Birmingham to coal.
In addition to providing counsel for individual members, LEAF-Alabama serves as the legal arm for two chapters of the Audubon Society, the Alabama Conservancy and the Sierra Club.
Even as attorney Ruhl sets about to organize a LEAF office in Tallahasse, she continues to coordinate the work on Alabama toxics issues while attorneys Larry Putt and Sally McConnell carry on other concerns.
“We’ve grown faster than I ever expected,” says Suzi Ruhl. LEAF is currently operating in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. The goal is to expand into seven more Southern states. All the staffers are natives, most are women.
“Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and the other national environmental law groups are very active in other areas of the nation,” LEAF boardmember Ogden Doremus notes, “but they don’t have offices down here. So we’re doing it ourselves.” Doremus, an attorney from Metter, Georgia, has argued many environmental cases over the last thirty years.
Stones in Their Pathway
Florida is the nation’s fastest growing state and many developers there see ecological concerns as nothing more than stones in their pathway to profits. LEAF-Florida, which did not begin operations until January of this year, is already involved in several efforts to protect the state’s close-to-the-surface groundwater from contamination and from depletion under the pressures of population growth and development.
LEAF-Florida is monitoring a state department of health epidemiological study of the impacts of the controversial fungicide ethyl dibromide (EDB).
Joining with the Romona Civic Association and residents of Jacksonville, LEAF is involved in a PCB clean-up and public education project at a chemical storage site which exploded, contaminating the surrounding community. One of the aims here is to have the site included on the Superfund list, making it eligible for federal money.
The LEAF-Central Appalachian Office opened in Knoxville in 1982 with support from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. Attorney Carol Davis left her job with the US Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining to work on strip-mining issues. Attorney Gary Davis, an appalachian native and former aide to California Governor Jerry Brown, is covering toxics. Davis set up California’s program for alternatives to land disposal of toxic wastes, a model. LEAF boardmember Neil McBride, an attorney with Rural Legal Services in Tennessee, has worked with Ralph Nader on
environmental issues, including a well-known investigation of pollution on the Georgia Coast described in the book The Water Lords.
In Tennessee, LEAF has taken on the US nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge where, from 1950 through 1963, nearly 2l/2 million pounds of mercury were dumped into the surface and groundwater–threatening the health of residents along the Clinch River.
Current standards used at Oak Ridge for toxic waste dumping include “unlined surface impoundments” (Department of Energy jargon for holes in the ground) which, says Gary Davis, “don’t even meet the standards of the 60s.”
The DOE, which operates Oak Ridge, says that the toxic waste laws don’t apply. It claims that the Atomic Energy Act exempts facilities involved in nuclear production from other regulation, a contention which Davis disputes. LEAF represented SOCM (Save Our Cumberland Mountains) on the Oak Ridge issue in state administrative proceedings and, in September of 1983, LEAF and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in federal district court in Knoxville against the dumping. If LEAF wins, the case will provide a precedent for other DOE operations, including the Savannah River Plant.
In Memphis, LEAF-CAO is assisting the League of Women Voters’ review of the Superfund cleanup of the Hollywood Dump–where Velsicol Chemical Company dumped toxics.
“The state people know we’re here,” says Gary Davis, pointing to notes of a meeting in which Tennessee regulators said they would have to comply with “the letter of the law since LEAF will be out there watching.”
The lack of enforcement of strip mining laws by the Tennessee Division of Surface Mining led, in the summer of 1983, to LEAF’s serving as legal representative for a coalition which included SOCM, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, the Tennessee League of Women Voters and the Tennessee Environmental Council. On behalf of the Sierra Club, LEAF has filed notice with the Division of an intention to sue unless substantial progress is made in the enforcement of strip mining law. Barbara Kelly of Chattanooga, active with the Sierra Club and SOCM, believes that state efforts to control strip mining “have fallen apart.”
On behalf of SOCM and TCWP, LEAF filed motions to intervene in a class action suit in Campbell County chancery court. Forty-nine coal companies were arguing that they should be given more time to comply with the state strip mining law. The case was removed to US district court in Knoxville whereupon the companies withdrew.
As it challenges the state’s overall laxity, LEAF is aiding various citizen groups in efforts to protect particularly fragile locations from the erosion, flooding and water pollution which accompany surface mining. It is representing citizens seeking protection for land adjacent to the Frozen Head Park in Morgan County and for the Douglas Branch Watershed in Campbell County.
In an effort at harassment, the M.C. Coal Company of Chattanooga sued the Sierra Club and Tennessee Friends of the Earth in March 1983, alleging libel in the groups’ request for a hearing concerning M.C.’s water quality permit and for articles in the Tennes-Sierran (the Club newsletter) which dealt with violations in the strip mining law. Following presentation of a brief and an oral argument by Carol Nickle of LEAF, the case was dimissed.
LEAF-Georgia opened its offices in Atlanta in July of 1983. Six months later it had become one of the busiest and most effective environmental organizations in the state.
In August of 1983, LEAF-Georgia challenged the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) use of paraquat on marijuana plants in the North Georgia mountains. Local residents and campers were outraged as helicopters sprayed the deadly substance (a half-ounce on the skin can be lethal) onto small patches of marijuana as DEA movie cameras whirled. The DEA intended to convince the government of Colombia to adopt spraying, in spite of Colombia’s questioning its safety. Area residents organized Citizens Opposed to Paraquat Spraying and asked for LEAF’s help.
LEAF worked with private attorneys David Walbert, John Bell and Paul Hermann who obtained a restraining order in August from federal court in Georgia’s Northern District. Meanwhile, LEAF joined with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and three other national organizations in a successful suit in US District Court for the District of Columbia preventing the spraying of paraquat on all federal
land unless and unfit DEA prepares an environmental impact statement.
Following the DC court’s ruling, in a January 1984 hearing in Atlanta (which DEA called a “scoping session”), DEA officials suggested that critics of the spraying were smokers and growers who were hiding behind environmental issues. (The DEA photographed all oponents at the hearing.) White County Presbyterian preacher Jerry Brinegar said that the citizens of area would be happy to go in with the DEA and pull the marijuana plants up by hand. Pointing out that the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River (which supplies drinking water for Atlanta, Columbia and towns below) rise on National Forest land, LEAF attorney Vicki Breman concluded that “Georgia’s water supply and wildlife are seriously threatened by the use of paraquat and other herbicides.”
The Forest Service’s use of the herbicides tordon and velpar are being challenged by LEAF Georgia on behalf of residents of Rabun County. These herbicides, explicitly labelled not for use in areas where water contamination is possible are being applied in the nation’s second-rainiest county. Both of these herbicides have been linked to health problems. Tordon, called “Agent White” when used in Vietnam (and chemically close to Agent Orange) is presently being investigated by the government of Brazil as the suspected cause of forty-two deaths along the route of a power line where it was sprayed. LEAF is raising money to test the Rabun County water and to publish an organizing handbook for residents.
Acting as legal counsel for the Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia (see “Money on the Mainline,” Southern Changes, March/April; 1983), LEAF has also prepared a petition for intervention against the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant now under construction by the Georgia Power Company. Plant Vogtle, the most expensive construction project in state history, is being challenged on environmental, safety and economic grounds. It is a prime example of economic and environmental concerns paralleling, not contradicting each other. If completed and placed in the rate base, Plant Vogtle would cause the largest electric rate hike in Georgia history. LEAF will provide ongoing assistance to citizens groups working to stop the plant.
LEAF-Georgia is working on many other issues: trying to force the state Department of Transportation to install promised noise barriers along the interstate highways near Atlanta residences; attempting to stop construction by Oglethorpe Power of a high-voltage line through a historic district of White County; presenting comments on the proposed restart of the L-Reactor at the Savannah River Plant where tritium and plutonium for nuclear weapons are produced; and providing technical advice on legal environmental issues to private attorneys around the state.
LEAF has financed itself through a variety of means. Most of the support for the Alabama and Tennessee offices has come from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. LEAF-Georgia has gathered money from individual donations and fundraising events A benefit concert by the new-wave band REM brought in more than six thousand dollars; an auction raised another thousand According to Sissy Kegley, administrative coordinator, LEAF-Georgia already has some 150 members who pay annual dues or monthly pledges.
LEAF’s rapid emergence and its frequent successes come with the dedication of its staff, the sophistication of their work and familiarity with the issues and the region, and–in view of the traditional tentativeness of established conservation groups in the region and the single-minded development policies often followed by Southern governments–from the fact that there is so much to do in the South.
Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF)
2330 Highland Avenue, South
Birmingham, Alabama 35205
203 North Gadsden Street
Tallahassee, Florida 32301
1102 Healey Building
57 Forsyth Street, NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30303
Central Appalachian Office
602 Gay Street, Suite 507
Knoxville, Tennessee 37902
Tim Johnson is executive director of the Educational Campaign for a Prosperous Georgia.