I’ve enthusiastically fallen into, climbed out of, floated down, swam in, and inadvertently drank from many of the major navigable major waterways in Northern California.
Non-profit environmental groups like Northern California River Watch have been looking out for my interests since the 1970’s and the advent of the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution . Passed in 1972, the act was meant to eliminate the release of toxic substances into water, ensuring that surface waters would meet standards necessary for human sports and recreation by 1983. The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal agency in charge of regulating any and all organizations that violate the CWA.
Northern California River Watch was founded in 1996 as a “501(c )3” non-profit by attorney Jack Silver in Sebastopol California. Using the EPA’s “citizen suit” provision, which was designed to to protect us small-fry whistleblowers against the high and the mighty, NCRW has spent the last the last 17 years rifling through the pending enforcement files of the Environmental Protection Agency and finding cities, corporations, and small businesses who haven’t fixed what was supposed to be fixed, and suing them on the taxpayers’ behalf.
NCRW almost exclusively focuses on CWA violators who operate near major navigable rivers. Their modus operandi follows a strict narrative: brazenly issuing a boilerplate notice of pending action to the offenders; demanding an exorbitant amount of money (up to $35,000 per violation) as legal fees, and setting an impossible time frame to respond. Estimates of their winnings run into the millions.
By law, to maintain their legal 501c standing, non-profits are required to reinvest all their profits back into the business and not share any largesse with shareholders. Despite reaping all this largesse, Northern California River Watch is and has always been a non-profit in good standing. Their Board of Directors meets according to California’s requirements, they file all required documents with the State and Federal governments in a timely fashion. They even post yearly financial reports on their web site. Here’s where it gets interesting: as you peruse their financial reports, their legal fees are easily their largest expense every year and their legal counsel of record is and has always been this fellow Jack Silver.
For attorneys in the know, water protection lawsuits are gold. While the Clean Water Act is definitive on paper, the practice of policing the waterways is nebulous at best. Additionally, most environmental laws, and the Clean Water Act specifically, fall under federal jurisdiction, and therefore the suits are argued in U.S. District Courts – an intimidating prospect for most attorneys and probably all defendants. The list of NCRW “settlements” is replete with examples of small businesses that haven’t filed the proper forms and cities stuck with grandfathered in legacy cases In virtually all the cases I’ve been able to find, the defendants had no alternative but to settle given the time and expenses involved.
There are two ways to look at this. One, NCRW is a noble organization fighting the good fight against the villainous polluters of Northern California. On the other hand – on paper – it also looks like a smart attorney set up a non-profit on the environmental high ground to (irony alert) strong arm opponents and extort money from those who have attempted to comply with an incoherent set of government regulations. Now I can’t say I disagree with NCRW’s goals, but I have to admit I do feel a little dirty knowing how it accomplishes them.