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NRDC at Work

The Power of Truth
Attorney Joel Reynolds brings the war on the environment into the courtroom (and wins). And in the fight to save the whales, he'll even take on the U.S. Navy.

Soon after Joel Reynolds joined NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) in 1990, he took on a case for the Mothers of East Los Angeles, a group of largely low-income Latino women trying to prevent construction of a toxic waste incinerator in their community. Local officials had approved the project without conducting a proper environmental review, so Reynolds took them to court. At hearings, he says, his clients would “file quietly into the courtroom, filling every seat, listening to every word.” As the evidence mounted, “there was no denying that an environmental injustice was being done to them.”

by Joshua Horwitz, Simon & Schuster, 448 pp., $28

Justice prevailed. The Mothers of East Los Angeles triumphed, the incinerator project was blocked—and the community’s success reaffirmed for Reynolds that he had chosen the right field. “My outrage at environmental injustice, whether it’s being done to the people or places I love, is what got me started,” he says. “And it’s what has kept me going.”

Reynolds grew up 70 miles east of Los Angeles in Riverside, California, a perennial contender for the top spot on “Smoggiest American Cities” lists. Politics was an early passion: from the time he was in sixth grade, he could name and explain every proposition on the California ballot during each election cycle. In college, however, he grew disillusioned with politics as it was conventionally practiced. He enrolled at Columbia Law School, after which he embarked on a career shaping public policy outside the political realm.

Joel Reynolds has taken on polluters, developers, and even the U.S. Navy. In the 1980s, his work for a Los Angeles–based, public-interest law firm presented Reynolds with an opportunity that most lawyers can only dream of: the chance to present oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. That accomplishment, in a case involving the dumping of toxic waste, was one of several that caught the attention of NRDC, which hired him as a senior attorney. Today Reynolds is the organization’s western director, working out of its Santa Monica office.

Reynolds’s talent for using litigation as a stepping-stone to negotiation has resulted in important victories for communities, wildlife, and habitat in western states and beyond. When he learned that tests being conducted by the U.S. Navy of its underwater explosives and high-intensity sonar systems were drowning out the natural acoustic environment of whales—leading to the animals’ injury and even their death—he strategically employed this two-step approach.

In a series of cases beginning in 1994, Reynolds obtained court injunctions, followed by settlements requiring the Navy to conduct environmental reviews of its training exercises, adopt new safeguards, disclose previously classified information regarding past testing, and fund new marine-mammal research. (In July, Simon & Schuster will publish War of the Whales, a book by Joshua Horwitz detailing Reynolds’s role in exposing and curbing the Navy’s sonar tests.)

In 2006, Reynolds was instrumental in brokering an agreement between conservationists and land developers that preserved nearly 90 percent—a quarter-million acres—of Tejon Ranch, one of the last remaining expanses of pristine native grasslands and ancient oaks in Southern California. The land-use agreement is now cited as a model in conservation and preservation circles.

More recently, Reynolds has spearheaded NRDC’s effort to stop the Pebble Mine project, proposed in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and the communities that rely on it. The latest sign of NRDC’s success in this campaign came in April, when mining giant Rio Tinto pulled out of the project, donating its 19.1 percent stake to charity. Only one of the four original stakeholders remains committed to the mine, with prospects for its completion looking increasingly poor.

Reynolds’s victories over a quarter-century have borne out his youthful hunch about litigation’s ability to shape policy. “Some are drawn to the law as an outlet for intellectual precision,” he says. “I’m not interested in the law for its own sake. I’m interested in it for what it can accomplish.”

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Emily Cousins blogs about life after cancer for young survivors at She also writes about climate change, clean energy, and toxins in the environment for NRDC. After four years exploring the redrock desert, she and her family now live in Seattle. MORE STORIES ➔
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Keep up the great work and passionate advocacy! Thank you thank you thank you! joey