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Environmental lawyer receives $250,000 award

FRANKFORT — Kentucky environmentalist Tom FitzGerald might be able to get a new pair of shoes with the $250,000 cash award coming his way.

FitzGerald, who wears scruffy shoes during state legislative sessions and vows not to shine them unless lawmakers do something good for the environment, is one of five national recipients of this year's Heinz Awards.

The awards are given by The Heinz Family Foundation, chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Massachusetts U.S. Sen. John Kerry. They are in memory of her first husband, the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

"I am simply floored by this," said FitzGerald, whose non-profit agency, Kentucky Resources Council, is not known for a wealth of funds.

FitzGerald's name is synonymous with environmental protection in Kentucky, said he was speechless when Heinz called and told him he was the 14th annual recipient of the Heinz award in the environment category.

"It's uncharacteristic of me to be speechless, having been vaccinated as a child by a phonographic needle," he joked.

Heinz, in a statement, said FitzGerald has "generously and tirelessly shouldered the causes of those without the resources or expertise to fend for themselves."

FitzGerald, 53, said he has no idea who nominated him for the award but he is grateful. The money, he said, "couldn't come at a better time. We have three boys in college. I want to help them as much as I can."

FitzGerald has been involved in major environmental issues in the state since the early 1970s.

He is a national authority on the enforcement of the 1977 surface mining act, the federal law designed to protect the environment against surface coal mining. He also has been instrumental in the last 25 years on key environmental measures in the state legislature.

"I've polished my shoes four times in that period," he said. "Once for a comprehensive solid-waste bill in a special session, another for a bill to provide funding to clean up old dumps, another dealing with power plants, and the energy bill in this year's legislative session that offers incentives for energy-efficient buildings."

His shoes are legendary in Frankfort. Years ago, Rep. Herbie Deskins, who was the House natural resources chairman from Pikeville, asked him when he was going to shine them. FitzGerald replied, "Whenever the legislature passed good environmental legislation."

FitzGerald still butts heads with the state legislature's natural resources chairs — House chair Jim Gooch, D-Providence, and Senate chair Tom Jensen, R-London — but they say they admire him.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said FitzGerald "ought to give me part of his award because he earned a lot of it going after my hide."

Caylor described FitzGerald as "a formidable foe. On a professional level, I think he is wrong on many issues pertaining to coal but he always sticks to his word.

"The main problem with Tom FitzGerald is that he's too smart."

Teri Blanton of Berea said anyone in the coalfields who doesn't understand environmental laws can go to FitzGerald for help.

Blanton received assistance from FitzGerald about 20 years ago when she was a member of Concerned Citizens Against Toxic Waste in the Harlan County community of Dayhoit.

The problem was carcinogenic well water, said Blanton, who believes her mother's death from cancer stemmed from the bad water.

"Tom helped us understand the Superfund laws," she said. "He was right there with us all the way, getting authorities to act."

A native of Queens, N.Y., and one of five children, FitzGerald came to Kentucky in 1972 when he was 17 to work in Berea with the Council of Southern Mountains, a now-defunct agency for justice issues.

FitzGerald graduated from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island in 1976. After earning his law degree from the University of Kentucky in 1980, FitzGerald worked as a law clerk and environmental specialist for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund.

"I'm so proud of all his accomplishments," said John Rosenberg of Prestonsburg, former executive director of the Appalachian fund who noted that FitzGerald was named last week to the UK law school's Hall of Fame.

Since he started reshaping the Kentucky Resources Council in 1984, providing free legal assistance on environmental matters and pursuing environmental advocacy, FitzGerald has been aided by family foundations, particularly the Binghams and Browns in Louisville, and individual donors.

The council, which has three full-time employees, has had an operating budget of about $200,000 a year for the last six years.

Besides its legal work, it is developing plans for an environmental leadership training program designed to produce the next generation of environmental watchdogs. The agency also hopes to create teams of volunteers, drawn largely from retired state environmental employees, to assist citizens and communities affected by pollution.

To help with personal finances, FitzGerald has been an adjunct professor of energy and environmental law at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law since 1986.

His wife, Patty Walker FitzGerald, is a family court judge in Jefferson County.

Their oldest son, Garrett, is starting the fall semester at Harvard Divinity School. Luke is a sophomore at U of L, and Sean started last week at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

Money from the Heinz award will "be nice," but the "most rewarding" part of his career, FitzGerald said, is "the wonderful people I've met."

He mentioned the late citizen-activist Hazel King of Harlan County, who "stood up to renegade elements of the coal industry," and "the thousands of people the council has represented and my hero and mentor, John Rosenberg, and so many, many others."

He noted high-profile environmental cases he has worked on such as prohibition of mining in Eastern Kentucky's Robinson Forest and the saving of Black Mountain, Kentucky's highest peak, but he said he's "just as proud of the many cases providing safe drinking water to various communities."

His biggest disappointment, FitzGerald said, is, "I will always be plagued by the thought that I could have done some things better."

He speaks with concern about the "large, confined animal feeding lots that are ruining Kentucky's agricultural landscape and the pervasive myth that coal can be clean."

FitzGerald is to be in Pittsburgh Oct. 21 to pick up the Heinz award in a private ceremony.

So what shoes will he wear at the presentation?

"I have my legislative shoes and another pair for funerals and weddings," he said. "The legislative shoes will remain on the shelf until January, when lawmakers come back to Frankfort.

"If I'm going to wear them another 30 years, I will have to treat them gingerly. But here's hoping I get to polish them a whole lot more."