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Contamination Victims Deserve a Lawyer, Too

Our work for contamination victims typically starts out like this: A group of families get “bad news”.  They’re told — often at a community meeting in the basement of a local town hall or church — that their water supply has just been tested, and that dangerous industrial chemicals are in the water they drink and bathe in.  Or maybe that the contamination has slipped inside their homes in a “vapor” form — called “vapor intrusion” — and now it’s been detected in the air they breathe while they’re sleeping at night.  Sometimes, the bad news comes in a certified letter, or the families read about it for the first time in the local newspaper. Sometimes, they are told who the environmental culprit is, sometimes not.  Sometimes, they get a lot of technical blah, blah, blah about how government or the polluter couldn’t possibly have known any earlier that the families were in danger. A bad day for these families, no matter how you slice it. That’s when we get called.  Understandably, these people are shocked, angry, hurt, and feeling betrayed by those whom they had trusted to protect them.  They’re scared, really.  Wouldn’t you be?  So, they want someone who will tell them what’s really going on, and, if necessary, who will fight for them… to fix the problem, or at least try to make things better.  They want some sense of peace and security restored to their homes and neighborhood. They hire us, because this is what we do.  We fight for these families.  We tell them the truth, and enlist the court system to make the polluter clean up and pay for the damage it has done.  And one of the first things we do is we meet with these folks, and start giving them facts in response to their questions.  Questions like:

  • What’s the chemical involved here, and how dangerous is it?
  • How far has it spread?
  • How long has it been in my water or home, or both?
  • Can I still sell my home?
  • How long has the (polluting) company known about this?
  • How long have my local environmental officials known about this?
  • Can the contamination be cleaned up?
  • How long will it take?

We usually address these questions in a very public way — at public meetings, or in the media — in order to get truthful information out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.  And, if we believe that the problem is bigger than the families are being told (it usually is); or has been around longer than they are being told (it usually has been); or has been allowed to linger and even worsen due to the inaction of the polluter and government (it usually has been), then we say that, too.  We’re as blunt and honest as we can be.  We’re not trying to win friends or run for office.  We’re trying to get the truth out to people who really need to know it and deserve to know it. That’s when the “anti-lawyer” smear campaign starts:  “Why do these families even need lawyers?”  “These lawyers are just here to make money and trouble.”  “The lawyers are going to sensationalize the problem, and hurt property values.”  “Why can’t these families just trust the government to fix the problem…after all, they’re already paying taxes to the government?”  “Everything was fine until these lawyers showed up.” This smear typically comes from the polluter, the government’s environmental regulator, or even sometimes from members of the media — who are asking questions planted by the polluter or government.  They know that most people don’t like or trust lawyers, and so they invoke this anti-lawyer sentiment to try to damage us in the community as early as possible.  They even portray our clients as greedy and whiney… interested only in parlaying an environmental tragedy into a big-money “score”. When I hear this stuff, I always think: “Who the hell are these guys to be saying this?” “What a bunch of hypocrites.” Why “hypocrites”? Because the polluter has usually had a small army of big-firm lawyers (not to mention high-priced environmental consultants) already working for a decade or more.  They’re trying to prove to the government’s environmental regulator that the contamination problem is not really their client’s fault; not really very serious; and not really deserving of an expensive clean-up (or any clean-up at all). In other words, in the polluter’s world, the polluter gets to have a lawyer, but its victims don’t.  The long-ago “lawyered-up” polluter resents it when the victims of its contamination want a lawyer to protect their rights, too.  No wonder.  The polluter has worked so hard for so many years to keep the contamination problem as quiet as possible, and to portray it as insignificant as possible, that when we show up, we pose a real threat to its years of investment in this secrecy and deceit. Basically the same goes for the government regulator… the one who was supposed to be protecting the people against the contamination… or at least tell them about it, so they could protect themselves.  Like the polluter, the regulator has had a team of lawyers long at work on the contamination.  In fact, by the time we get involved on behalf of the victims, the lawyers for the polluter and the lawyers for the regulator have usually been working together for so many years that they have even started to sound alike, like an old married couple.  “We don’t think that the contamination problem is very wide-spread, or very dangerous, or that any more testing needs to be done to even check to see if we are right,” is their joint mantra. The government regulator likewise resents that these families-in-danger are getting a lawyer, because, up to the moment when we bring the contamination problem into a public courtroom — in the form of a lawsuit — the regulator and polluter have had total control of defining the seriousness of the problem, and what will be done (if anything at all) to clean it up.  They have been accountable only to one another, and only privately, out of the sight of the people with the most to lose if they are wrong.  However, when we bring the case to court, in front of a Judge, we ask the Judge to “take control” of determining how serious the problem is, as well as how–  and how quickly — it will be cleaned up. Almost invariably, the court process results in the regulator winding up with serious “egg” on its face.  This is because we prove the problem to be far more serious than the regulator had announced it to be, and the regulator to have been far less competent and diligent than it would have people believe.  In short, the regulator very often gets embarrassed, and so, like the polluter, the regulator would rather that the victims not have a lawyer at all. In our experience, the typical contamination problem has been developing for 25-50 years before the victims find out about it.  The contamination has been in their neighborhood, or even in their homes, for decades before they find out about it.  The polluter and regulator have typically known about the problem for 10-30 years, and have had lawyers fighting for them for most of that time, before the victims find out about it. Don’t the victims have rights, too?  Don’t they deserve their rights to be protected, too?  Don’t they deserve a lawyer, too?  Who’s got more at stake here… the polluter and regulator, who return each night to sleep, bathe and eat in un-contaminated homes?  Or the family, for whom there is no escape from the contamination, who must drink and breathe it, or find someplace else to live… if only they could find anyone to buy their now-worthless, contaminated home? Of course, these families deserve a lawyer.  The best damn one they can find.

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