Crude Justice — the story of a lifetime fighting Big Oil, and winning

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The story of my new book — Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America — begins with a phone call. Sometimes one call can change your life – maybe even change the world a little bit. In 1989, I was a young lawyer just a few years out of Loyola Law School. I’d already left one button-down law firm to work as a trial lawyer handling tort cases, but I still hadn’t quite found my niche – in the legal profession, or in life. Then the phone rang, and on the other end of the line was the thick-as-grits Mississippi accent of a machine shop owner named Winston Street. He said that radioactive gunk from cleaning out pipes for some of the world’s richest oil companies – like Shell and Chevron – had not only contaminated his property but made workers, even family members, ill. And he couldn’t find the right lawyer to take on two powerful corporations with unlimited resources. A number of my friends begged me not to take Winston Street’s case. They said it was a fool’s errand.

I said “yes,” of course.

What happened when we ended up doing battle with Chevron in a Mississippi courtroom was truly remarkable – a twisted tale of paranoia, 3 a.m. brawls between lawyers, and ultimately a massive cover-up. But what happened when we found the smoking gun in that case – the documents that showed that an iconic oil giant had known for years that it was poisoning the Gulf Coast oil patch with radioactive material – was not the end of the story, but merely the beginning. Over the last several years, I’ve worked to tell this story – my own story, and an American saga of corporate greed and the pursuit of justice – that stretches from the Gulf oil booms of the 1980s to today’s catastrophic aftermath of the explosion at BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.

Today, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of Crude Justice, my autobiography, by BenBella Books. It’s available in both a hardcover print edition and in digital formats such as Kindle. I didn’t plan it this way, but the book could not have arrived at a better time. America finds itself in the midst of a second oil boom – from the smelly fracking wells of North Dakota and quaint rural communities in upstate Pennsylvania, to the massive rigs that keep sprouting in the Gulf, undeterred by the BP mishap. And yet there seems to be little regard to the environmental consequences – the noxious air pollution, the radioactive water injected back into the earth or dumped into streams, the earthquakes that scientists are confirming is caused by fracking, or the flood of greenhouse gases that will surely speed up climate change.

Who’s an average citizen gonna call? Probably not their local elected official, not with so many elected officials bought and paid for by Big Oil. No, it is the tort lawyer that is the last line of defense. We may not be popular, but that’s not our goal. In the case of the oil polluters, we are the only ones who can win justice for the Little Guy, to make the big corporations pay and realize that the cost of doing bad is greater than the cost of doing good.

Crude Justice will take you inside the high-stakes world where we get it done. There’s no case in the book about which I’m more proud than when we took on the world’s biggest oil company, ExxonMobil, in a New Orleans courtroom a few years back. This company that rakes in as much as nearly $1 billion a week in profits had befouled the land of a prominent local citizen for decades, looked the other way as workers went home covered in radioactive dust, and then acted like it was no big deal. They refused to even talk settlement, so with my partners in the case we hatched an audacious scheme.

Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Crude Justice:

Some of the [workers at an Exxon subcontractor in Harvey, La., near New Orleans] were on the verge of getting very, very sick, like a man I met in the late 1990s called Milton Vercher.  By then, he was already in the middle of a long battle with leukemia, and he had many former co-workers battling illnesses of similar severity.

Vercher had come down to New Orleans as young high school grad from northern Louisiana in the late 1950s when the waterways of the Crescent City were booming, and for two decades he made a decent living at ITCO cleaning out miles of pipe. But by 1996, with cancer cells taking over his body, Vercher was too weak to continue working.

 The poisoning of Milton Vercher by one of the world’s most powerful corporations set the stage for what would be the climatic legal battle in our long fight against Big Oil and its radioactive trail of pollution, and it would play out right here in New Orleans, where my story began. As the calendar flipped from the 20th Century to the 21st, the chain of events that was triggered in that dusty pipe yard on the West Bank of the Mississippi set us on a courtroom collision course with the biggest oil company of them all, where a jury of 12 Americans would get to finally pass judgment on Exxon’s long record of dumping on a modest, working-class Louisiana town. None of this would have happened were it not for the astounding arrogance of the corporation, now writ larger as the merged ExxonMobil, and its lawyers.

There was a time, early on, when we would have accepted as little as $10 million on behalf of the man who owned the 22 acres of land in Harvey where ITCO had operated—our client, Judge Joseph Grefer. When Exxon cancelled three mediations and then refused to consider what seemed like a modest sum (especially in light of the massive radioactive pollution Grefer’s property had suffered), our legal team decided that we would make them pay, and that we would go for the big money.

We would ask the jury for an award of $3 billion dollars, with the hope that $1 billion wasn’t out of the question.

 If we lost to ExxonMobil and its top-dollar attorneys, we might not get one thin dime.

 All or nothing. Somewhere, my gambling man of a father had to be looking down at this bet and smiling.

The book takes you all the way to that incredible moment when the jury came back with its decision in 2001.  But Crude Justice is more than just a courtroom drama. It’s also a plea to the reader, to rethink our relationship with Big Oil, to stop letting the energy giants run roughshod over our communities. It’s funny: I went into environmental law looking for adventure and looking for justice…crude justice, if you will. But I came to understand that the reality of our addiction to fossil fuels requires a solution that’s bigger than any courtroom. Like most Americans, there’s a part of me that welcomes $2-a-gallon gas – while a part of me is terrified because it will slow our urgent need to move toward sustainable energy. And not solving climate change will be the gravest injustice of all…to the next generation.

To learn more about Crude Justice and where you can buy it, go to: http://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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