Each year, Earth Day reminds us that our planet must always come first. Fortunately, Cory Watson Attorneys understand that. Our attorneys fight diligently against corporations that are producing and exhausting large amounts of toxic chemicals that not only directly harm our planet, but our people.
Why do you feel passionate about environmental law?
JC: When I first started working here almost 20 years ago, one of the first cases I did was a gas contamination case. Chevron was dumping toxic chemicals into a water system, and one of the things that particularly stood out to me was that it was mainly affecting a lower income area.
I noticed early in my career that it almost always affects the most vulnerable people who have the fewest resources to protect themselves. Not only are they unable to get clean water and clean air, but these individuals often have worse healthcare and aren’t able to see a good doctor once they are affected – there’s an equity there that is shameful. Although we’re one of the richest countries in the world, we can’t even give clean water, clean air, and clean soil to all people.
That jumped out at me from the very beginning. As you get more into it, you realize this is something that has permeated the whole society – from the richest people to the poorest people. People are being poisoned every day.
AW: My first job after graduating college was working in the Cory Watson Marketing Department. At that time, we were handling the West Virginia PFAS cases against DuPont. I was asked to write some blog posts on that subject, and while reading about those cases – and DuPont’s 50+ year-long conspiracies and cover-ups – it all became very interesting to me. So when I began law school and revisited subjects and cases like that, it became an area I as particularly interested in and wanted to invest my career in.
What environmental cases are you most proud to have worked on?
JC: Obviously the one I’m most proud of is the Ohio C8 MDL case – being able to take a leadership role for all the folks that were affected by DuPont dumping harmful chemicals into their water. I eventually tried that case to a winning verdict for one of those families.
That was important work that was done, particularly because future generations will look back at companies who have contaminated our drinking water and realize it was completely criminal.
Do you see things getting better or worse going forward regarding corporations paying attention to how they affect the environment?
JC: Some corporations are starting to say the right things, but actions speak louder than words. Even with the implementation of legislation like the EPA’s Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, big corporations think they’re going to do everything they can to increase the share prices. I support capitalism, but businesses simply must make socially responsible business decisions.
A prime example is DuPont/C8, the PFOA contamination. They got busted in the early part of this millennium after 50 years of dumping dangerous chemicals and at least 30 years of knowing the risk and effects of doing so. Now, they’ve stopped using that, but they’ve started using a new chemical, GenX, that we’ve done no testing for. They’re doing the exact same thing with new chemicals that they did 50 years ago with the old ones. They’re just telling you, or hoping, that it doesn’t cause the same problems. We’re going to see the same problems down the line – they don’t learn from their mistakes. They just learn new ways around the regulations.
AW: Even though the majority of the carpet industry has transitioned away from the use of PFAS to non-fluorinated stain treatments, my belief is that move was motivated by the fear of litigation. There were non-fluorinated alternatives available in the 2000s, but there was not a concerted push by the industry to move to those alternatives until lawsuits started rolling in.
The carpet industry’s decision to move off PFAS chemicals was so rushed that a lot of the manufacturing equipment used to make the PFAS has just been switched over to non-fluorinated chemicals. There’s still potential for trace levels of those chemicals to appear in products they’re selling now.
The other component of environmental law is the regulators. We’ve entrusted them with studying these chemicals for 20 years, yet they’re still relatively unregulated. They want to keep studying it, but eventually you have to take action, and that doesn’t always happen in time to prevent people from getting hurt.
What can people do to stay safe and aware?
JC: It’s in every person’s hand. We have a whole generation of kids who will be affected by all these issues that will continue to effect the environment for the worse unless we all take action. I think that the overall health issues, increased levels of product-related diseases, fertility issues, and more are often side effects of all the industrial waste that’s being pumped into the environment all the time. So we need to support community leaders who know how much that matters. Good leaders can run things well even with bad laws. And on the other hand, you can have the best laws in the world, but if you have bad leaders, you’re in trouble.
AW: It’s tough because the chemistry of all of this can be daunting to the average person. Some states and water systems test for this stuff and make that publicly available. Water systems also publish and should mail out a water quality report. Pay attention to that if you can, but like I said it’s tough, especially with these intricate chemical compounds, to really understand what’s out there and understand how to really protect yourself. If you wanted to you could install a reverse osmosis filter in your home, but not everyone can do that, it’s expensive.
But there is journalism that comes out on those chemical compounds, so try to pay attention, even though you don’t want to think about your drinking water possibly being contaminated. I think generally just going outside and going to your parks, experiencing the environment and nature, that may be a first step to becoming aware of the fact that the things that we do as a society and in our economy have an impact on the environment. And these are resources that people depend on.
What are your long term goals for your career related to environmental law?
AW: The PFAS litigation is still ongoing for us – it’s a huge one and extremely consequential. These chemicals really are everywhere. They’re affecting every water system from humans’ drinking water to polar bears living in the arctic. The science is still not fully understood.
I foresee in the next 20 years, for myself, wanting to build on that and find more of those cases to get the chemical manufacturers to pay for it and clean it up.
What are your favorite outdoor activities/places in Alabama?
JC: We have so many great outdoor activities and opportunities here in Alabama. From Desoto Caverns in the northeast and all the hills and hiking trails in the northern part of the state, to hunting in the middle part of the state although I’m not a big hunter anymore, to the beaches in the South. Down at the Gulf of Mexico are some of the best beaches in the world. We’ve really got everything. Up near Lake Guntersville is particularly beautiful.
We’ve got a great, beautiful state, but we also have waste, manure, coal ash, and more that’s dumped here from other parts of the country. We’re taken advantage of, and we’ve got to stand up to things like that. We’re not a dumping ground for other people just so others can make a couple dollars.
AW: The corner of Alabama that I’ve really gotten into recently is the Locust Fork and Black Warrior River basin, plus the Little River Canyon area. I love fishing and kayaking.