By Andy Mead
HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER
FRANKFORT - The first meeting of the Toxic Air Pollutant Workgroup started 10 minutes late, and the man in the black polo shirt, black pants and white sneakers came in eight minutes after that.
The chairman welcomed the newcomer, explaining that the others had just introduced themselves.
"I'm the late Tom FitzGerald," the man in black said to the suits sitting around the table.
It's a line that FitzGerald, the state's leading environmental lawyer, has used many times.
He rushes to many meetings. Rushes to complete complex comments on obscure but important state and federal regulations. Rushes to advise someone fighting a proposed power plant, or an Eastern Kentucky homeowner whose drinking water has been ruined by coal mining.
FitzGerald is closing in on 50, and the gray that appeared on his temples a few years ago now is rapidly colonizing the rest of his head.
He will be honored tonight by a group of supporters for 20 years of running the Kentucky Resources Council, a non-profit environmental advocacy organization.
He shows no signs of slowing down.
Most days begin at 7 or 7:30 a.m. at a computer in the cluttered basement of his Louisville home. He takes a few hours for his family in the evening, then it's back to the grind until 1 a.m. He was once mentioned in a Men's Health magazine article about the negative consequences of not getting enough sleep.
"It catches up to me occasionally," he said. "Then I will crash and burn."
FitzGerald is something of a patron saint to Kentucky environmentalists.
Aloma Dew of Owensboro, who is associate Midwest representative for the Sierra Club, calls him "the constantly vigilant guardian of Kentucky's environment."
He is reviled, or grudgingly admired, by many others.
"He always sees the bad in business and industry and thinks they're always going to do bad," said state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said that over the years, FitzGerald has earned respect from the coal industry. Then he qualified that statement.
"I need to be careful when I say that because a lot of our people will get mad at me," he said. "There are times when he is unreasonable, just as there are times I am viewed as unreasonable by the environmental community."
Coal operators have learned that FitzGerald is someone they can work with, Caylor said, because he "is not viewed as much as trying to shut down the industry as make it comply with the law."
A major impact
Phillip Shepherd, a Frankfort lawyer, has known FitzGerald since the two entered the University of Kentucky law school in 1977. But he said he didn't appreciate FitzGerald's reach until Shepherd became state Natural Resources Secretary in 1991.
Shepherd quickly mentions clean air, clean water, strip mining, underground storage tanks, landfills and hazardous waste. "Tom has had a major impact on every one of those programs," Shepherd says.
He was part of the battle in the 1980s to stop coal companies from strip-mining without compensating surface owners. He pushed for tougher landfill regulations to stop a flood of out-of-state waste in the early '90s.
He has fought against factory-style livestock farms, for better cleanups of environmental problems and against state laws requiring that Kentucky regulations must be no more stringent than the federal government's.
Last month, Shepherd joined FitzGerald in suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of several citizens' groups. The goal of the lawsuit: Force the feds to keep Kentucky waterways from becoming more polluted.
FitzGerald is most busy when the legislature meets. And often, at the end of those grueling sessions, he measures success not in bills that were passed, but in those that he managed to block.
"A very high percentage of registered lobbyists have weakening of environmental regulation as one of their top priorities," Shepherd said, "and on the other side it is essentially Tom."
FitzGerald has become a built-in part of the process.
"The leadership of both houses have learned to include Tom in forming legislation, because if they ignore him they're likely to end up in court," Shepherd said.
FitzGerald regularly tracks dozens of bills and, in e-mail alerts, asks people to contact legislators to push or kill a particular bill. Many do so, including a large network of people who don't have much money, but feel gratitude because FitzGerald has helped them with some environmental problem over the years.
Joan Robinett was a part-time teacher's aide living in the Harlan County community of Dayhoit in 1989 when the state discovered wells had been polluted by a company that used degreasing chemicals to clean mining equipment.
"Probably the first person I called was Fitz," she recalled this week. "He helped educate me about how the system works, or doesn't work. He would help me set up meetings with regulatory people."
That first call began a relationship that helped Robinett grow into an environmental activist in her own right. And, she says, "He never sent me a bill."
Because so many Kentucky environmentalists depend on FitzGerald, some are worried about what would happen if anything happened to him.
"He works alone," said Judith Petersen of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance. "There is no heir apparent."
Coming to Kentucky
Thomas Joseph FitzGerald was born on Nov. 22, 1954, in New York City.
An older brother was working on a church project in Eastern Kentucky, and started sending Tom books such as Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which detailed Appalachia's long slide into depression.
FitzGerald arrived in Kentucky in the early 1970s, when the major environmental push was for regulation of strip mining, and plunged in.
He worked for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund and got a law degree.
In 1984, he started the Kentucky Resources Council with a little retirement money from the defense fund, and $5,000 from a relative of Nellie Wollums, the former postmistress at Ages in Harlan County who was killed in her sleep by a wall of coal sludge in 1981.
In the early years, much of the council's support came from Mary Bingham, whose family had owned the Courier-Journal. Finances have been more uncertain since her death in 1995.
The council employs Fitz-Gerald and an assistant. There are usually a couple of unpaid interns.
The council's income tax return for 2002, the most recent year available, shows income of $203,000.
Most of that came from a few large contributors whom FitzGerald declined to identify.
FitzGerald is paid $90,000 a year, with no benefits. Some months, he forgoes a salary because the money isn't there. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Louisville.
Money for the Kentucky Resources Council is the main reason for tonight's "Tribute to Tom" at the Smith-Berry Vineyard and Winery in New Castle in Henry County, said Shepherd, one of the organizers.
Tickets are $250 and the event, which has room for 100, is sold out. Some people who won't be able to attend made contributions, Shepherd said.
There will be music, a reading by author Ed McClanahan, and no doubt a few toasts to the guest of honor.
And, if they ask FitzGerald for his assessment of the state of Kentucky's environment over the past two decades, they are not likely to get a glowing report.
When the question was put to him last week, he said that environmental progress can be maddeningly slow, and that the political climate has been difficult for a number of years.
But, given that, he says, "There has not been significant erosion, and we've actually made some modest progress."