John Adams (Photo: Anthony Clark/NRDC)
In 1970, a landmark case to protect an iconic mountain in New York from development led to the founding of one of the most powerful environmental action groups in the country. The Natural Resource Defense Council, headed by founding director John Adams, brought together skilled litigators focused on the creation - and enforcement - of environmental laws. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood speaks with Adams to learn more about his memoir, A Force for Nature and NRDC’s four decades of fighting for the environment.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The 1960s and early ‘70s were a time of great social upheaval and environmental activism. It’s when John Adams help found the Natural Resources Defense Council.
ADAMS: Well, the mood was in the air for change. People were worried about the war and they were working on civil rights issues and the environment seemed to be a burgeoning issue led by books by Rachel Carson, the burning of the Cuyahoga River, the oil spill out in Santa Barbara, and the Storm King case.
GELLERMAN: Storm King Mountain, with its iconic view of the Hudson River, was
threatened by plans to build a power plant. In a landmark court case, a conservation group was permitted to sue on behalf of the public interest and Storm King Mountain was protected. That success was one of the first for what has become one of the nation’s most powerful environmental action groups.
The NRDC or Natural Resources Defense Council was founded in 1970. NRDC's first Executive Director was a young lawyer named John Adams. Over the span of the next four decades, the NRDC has been at the forefront of many of the most important environmental battles, which Adams chronicles in his new book, “A Force for Nature.” LOE’s Steve Curwood got John Adams to tell some of those stories:
CURWOOD: Now, what did you initially hope to accomplish with NRDC?
ADAMS: Well, the first thing we wanted to do was to help establish the laws that were needed to help protect the environment. Laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act. Remember that in 1969, there were no environmental laws. The laws were written in 1970 and that next, and the decade and the years that followed. And we wanted to be there for the writing of those laws so that they were strong, and then to work on the regulations that followed so that they could be enforceable and we could really accomplish something with them.
CURWOOD: Lets get your history right here. I mean, you were a cop before you started working for the creation of the NRDC. I mean by a cop you were a prosecutor enforcing the law.
ADAMS: That’s right. I was, for almost five years, in an assistant US Attorney working for Robert Morgenthau. I would say I was getting an education. We were trained how to litigate, how to make decisions, how to work on public policy issues, and really learn how to get a strong backbone at a young age.
CURWOOD: And, so, the way you tell the story it sounds like the NRDC was set up to be the cop of the EPA.
ADAMS: Well there’s no doubt that we were set up to protect the citizens- citizens who cared about the environment. My belief is that NRDC strength is that we represent people out across this country who care about the environment and we will bring actions on their behalf to make sure that that environment that they care about is protected.
CURWOOD: Now one of the first cases that you take on in a big way is that you sue the nations’ largest electric utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority- a federal authority. What was that case about and what did you accomplish?
ADAMS: The case was about strip mining. And, we were after a big quasi-governmental company because they were a huge user of coal. And, we wanted to force them to clean up their act and stop the strip mining of eastern Kentucky and into West Virginia, and Tennessee and we won an initial victory. But, ultimately, we lost. What we learned from that battle is that coal is a very difficult customer. And we have been engaged in the coal issues, for, really, three decades, most recently on mountaintop removal.
CURWOOD: John Adams, back in 1989, you and the NRDC released a report on pesticides and other agricultural chemicals called ‘Intolerable Risk.’ And, you initially focused on the chemical used on apples known as alar. Can you tell me that story please?
ADAMS: There were several of our NRDC people who were married with little children, and one was Robin Wyatt. She was worried about what her little children were eating. She was studying the amount of food and the amount of pesticides that gets into food and particularly she focused on alar because her children were drinking a lot of apple juice, and alar, a known carcinogen, was on a lot of apples. And, the standard for measuring apples and the carcinogen was based on a 160 lb man, and her child was some 28 pounds.
And, so, they did a market-basket study of food that came into households. The apples, particularly, came up with very high levels that exceeded the legal limit. So, we went public and we issued a report. 60 minutes did a program and ultimately, a real big bang happened out there. There was a lot of charges and counter charges that we were trying to scare people. And, they really went after us. But, you know, ultimately Uni-Royal withdrew alar from the market. And a lawsuit that had been brought by the apple growers against NRDC was dismissed. The alar case led to, really, the beginning of the great new food movement in this country of food free of chemicals and pesticides.
CURWOOD: I think one of the most interesting stories about the NRDC that I found in your book is the story you tell about NRDC’s role in verifying the test ban treaty with the United States and the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union. And, you ended up working with the KGB…
ADAMS: It’s a great story. And, it’s the story of a great person, Tom Cochran, who’s a physicist with NRDC. And, he was approached by people from the Soviet Union at a meeting presumably KGB, and he was told that the Soviet Academy of Science, run by a man named Velakov, was interested in seeing whether or not there could be something done on a test-ban treaty, particularly with verification using seismometers.
CURWOOD: And, I don’t imagine the KGB actually told you that they were in this operation?
ADAMS: No, but we knew they were. We were traveling with Henry Brick, a banker here in New York who came on the trip and he was a former CIA employee, and he set up a couple of his own traps around his briefcase and found that they were being disturbed. When Tom called me about this opportunity, I said, “Tom, this is really very important. Every time you’re contacted by anybody make a file record and send a copy of it to the FBI.”
CURWOOD: Did the FBI follow you around when you were dealing with these KGB guys?
ADAMS: Well, that’s interesting. I don’t know. But I do know the KGB followed us everywhere.
ADAMS: You know then we became friends with several of the people and they told us that they could not have done the work that they were doing if they were not a part of the apparatus.
CURWOOD: Why was it so important that NRDC provide this material to verify the presence of nuclear explosions?
ADAMS: The United States didn’t trust the Soviet Union. And that was it, pure and simple. The president didn’t trust them. And so, a trip was arranged to Moscow, and Tom presented his plan about bringing over to the Soviet Union seismometers and the scientists worked in this area to set up a system to test whether or not an underground test could be verified by the use of seismometers.
Theoretically you could tell the difference between an explosion with dynamite or a nuclear explosion or an earthquake or even an industrial explosion. And we had signed an agreement with Velokov and the Soviet Academy and off we went and they drilled holes in the mountain in Tajikistan and several other places to set up these seismometers. They set off the explosion, and that test and the continued use of seismometers in the Soviet Union helped to bring President Regan and the administration into an agreement with them on the verification.
CURWOOD: So, with this equipment in place provided by the NRDC, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to execute a test-ban treaty?
ADAMS: It became the basis for it, yes.
CURWOOD: So, why didn’t you guys get the Nobel Peace Prize?
ADAMS: You know, I’ve often wondered why Tom Cochran didn’t get a major prize for this work. But, you know, we were a small organization and we were only growing into our size, and maybe if it had happened this year we would have. But, maybe someday he’ll be recognized for it the way he deserves.
CURWOOD: So, John Adams, 40 years after you gave up that nice, secure job at the US Attorney’s office to go with the fledgling Natural Resources Defense Council, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned?
ADAMS: Well, the most important thing is to have a great wife who’s the co-author of this book. As for my view of what is absolutely the single most important thing is- we have created an organization that allows the public to participate in decision-making. And, we challenge the government, we challenge the companies, and we represent the environmental positions on the environment and on health, and we think that’s a very, very important role that could well have been over-looked.
CURWOOD: John Adams is the co-author of “A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save our Planet.” Thank you so much, sir.
ADAMS: Thank you very much for doing this.
GELLERMAN: John Adams, founding director of the NRDC, spoke with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood.
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