In VOA's weekly spotlight on notable Americans who have made a difference in how we think, live and act, we spotlight Thomas FitzGerald, a man who has been called a "watchdog of the environment" and who has worked to ensure the health and safety of citizens across his home state of Kentucky and around the nation.
Born in 1955, Thomas FitzGerald grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Queens, New York, a short subway ride from New York City. He says public service was a family value. His older brother Rick spent a summer helping build a camp for impoverished boys located in the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1976, armed with a college degree and inspired by his brother's stories, he headed to Kentucky, hoping to make a difference in people's lives.
And he did. FitzGerald joined a church-sponsored campaign to call public attention to the harmful health and environmental impacts of surface coal mining. The group's efforts helped win passage of a major piece of federal legislation, the 1977 Surface Strip Mining Act.
FitzGerald says it's been no easy task enforcing that law, especially in a major coal-producing state like Kentucky, which is 98 percent dependent on coal and other fossil fuels for electricity. "There is still a significant amount of people whose lives are daily disrupted by mining impacts, not only by the extraction but by the transportation of coal."
In 1980, after graduating from law school, FitzGerald resumed his efforts to hold coal companies accountable for their actions. He has done much of that work for the nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council, which he has headed since 1984. His clients are groups or individuals impacted by the coal industry who cannot afford a lawyer and whose health has suffered because of poor mining practices.
"We've seen systematically larger and larger machines that are more indiscriminate to the environment replacing a workforce and displacing communities," he says.
Over the years, FitzGerald has been able to use a provision of the 1977 Strip Mining Act to have certain environmentally sensitive areas designated "off limits" to mining in various parts of Kentucky. His approach has been used by activists in other parts of the country as a model for blocking potentially harmful or destructive mining practices.
"We were able to permanently protect the water supply of Middlesboro, Kentucky, ridge top to ridge top," he says. "We were able to do the same for the city of Pineville, Kentucky." FitzGerald also used his negotiating skills to save Black Mountain, the tallest peak in Kentucky.
While FitzGerald is an authority on strip mining, his pro-bono work extends beyond coal to cases dealing with hazardous waste, sites for coal-fired power plants and air and water pollution.
He says for such a small nonprofit -- whose employees include himself, a second lawyer and an office manager -- he makes a lot of noise. He says it takes an active and informed citizenry to make change. "The price of environmental accountability, like the price of freedom, is one of eternal vigilance," he says.
FitzGerald says he wants to help people empower themselves to demand more accountability from the private and public sectors and from each other.
FitzGerald teaches these skills to law students at the University of Louisville and to citizen groups. He says he hopes to inspire a new generation of community-based advocates "… to try to demystify the laws and regulations so that people understand that they do have the ability to create in their own spheres of influence, a more just and more sustainable future."
FitzGerald's work as an environmental watchdog has won him wide recognition. In September, he was named one of five recipients of the quarter-million-dollar Heinz Award in the Environment, among the largest individual achievement prizes in the world.
"It is my clients that keep me going and give me strength," he says, "individuals who show grace and courage against daunting odds."