Thomas J. FitzGerald receives the Heinz Award in the Environment for being the courageous advocate of those whose health is most at risk.
Founder and Director of the Kentucky Resources Council, Thomas J. FitzGerald has been hailed as the "watchdog of the environment" in the Bluegrass state. Over the past 30 years, he has been a thoughtful and courageous advocate on behalf of those whose environmental health is most at risk, providing an influential voice in improving the environmental landscape within his home state and across the nation and making the name "Fitz" synonymous with environmental protection in Kentucky.
Mr. FitzGerald has dedicated his career to helping citizens and organizations secure full and fair implementation of policies intended to safeguard their health, safety and quality of life. He is an authority on the enforcement of the national Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977, the federal law designed to protect against the adverse environmental and societal effects of surface coal mining operations, as well as other regulatory issues affecting the environment.
After earning his law degree, Mr. FitzGerald worked as a law clerk and environmental specialist for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, and in 1984, reshaped the Kentucky Resources Council, providing free legal assistance on environmental matters and pursuing environmental advocacy. Having worked to secure passage of a national mining law from 1972 forward, he was active in developing regulations under the 1977 law and in working with other attorneys to defend those regulations against decades of industry lawsuits.
Mr. FitzGerald's influence extends well beyond issues related to coal. Working always on a pro bono basis and most often alone, he has helped draft ordinances to protect communities from sewage sludge disposal and factory hog farms as well as negotiate state statutes providing environmental protections related to brownfield redevelopment, solid and hazardous waste management, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Mr. FitzGerald has been a fixture in the halls of Kentucky's General Assembly since 1978 and has lobbied to defeat scores of bills that would have lowered environmental quality and polluter accountability.
Looking toward the future, Mr. FitzGerald has developed plans for an environmental leadership training program designed to cultivate the next generation of environmental watchdogs and create teams of volunteers, drawn largely from retired state environmental employees, to assist citizens and communities impacted by pollution.
Thomas FitzGerald has been a ubiquitous leader in advocating for the fair and equitable application of environmental laws and has tirelessly shouldered the causes of those without the resources or expertise to fend for themselves. He is singularly responsible for the health and well-being of countless individuals thanks in large measure to his vigilant commitment to seeing that environmental protections are enforced and the welfare of our citizens regarded as sacrosanct.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
10/21/2008 - Acceptance Speech
Ms. Heinz, Directors of the Foundation, colleagues, and family, thank you all so much.
It's been my privilege and my great honor these past 30 years to have represented thousands of individuals and community groups who live downhill, downwind and downstream, and who have borne the burden of our failure to fully cost production of energy and goods.
As an activist, I cut my teeth in lobbying for what would become the 1977 Surface Coal Mining Act. As a Senator from a coal producing state, John Heinz authored two important amendments to that law - the first, to allow homeowners near mining operations to request a pre-blast survey of their homes, in order to assist in documenting blasting damage; and the second, to create a state research institute in each state to improve mining and reclamation practices, and to train mining engineers and scientists. The Senator was both candid and somewhat prescient in noting, as he introduced the amendment, that "the use of coal, at once, despoils our land and pollutes our air. It is our most precious and our most dangerous mineral."
It is unfortunate that the implemented law has failed to accomplish what Congress intended. The rich human and ecological capital of the Appalachian region is being squandered by mining methods that impoverish human and ecological communities. The twin promises that mining would be a temporary use of land and that full protection would be accorded to coalfield citizens, have been honored in the breach. The deferred debt of "cheap" coal-fired power has come due in the form of dramatic climate change, and demands that we honestly price energy to enable informed policy choices. We have our work cut out for us as we transition beyond our current dependence on coal and oil.
I have been blessed with family, with clients and mentors that have shaped in me the belief that people of good faith can create in themselves and their communities, durable positive change. John Heinz, in his time, and Teresa, in hers, have led by example, and have made enduring contributions to the restoration and achievement of justice in its many facets, and to improving the economic, social, cultural and moral health of our nation and its many communities. I am humbled beyond words (an occurrence that my family would tell you is rare for me) to be in the august company of the previous Heinz Foundation environmental award winners and to be among this year's honorees.
After 30 years, I have worked long enough in this field to understand that Margaret Mead was right when she said "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does!"
May we aspire to be less acquisitive, less aggressive in our relationships with each other and our environment. May we face our tomorrows with hope and humility and continue together in struggle and in fellowship to create an environmental legacy worthy of our children and theirs. Thank you for helping to assure that my work with KRC can continue for another 30 years.