The boots, stained with mud and muck, with a blue plastic poncho rolled inside, lie behind the door in Robert Jackson’s law firm office. There are days — rainy days — when Jackson has to race from his office in downtown Atlanta to investigate a client’s property, which is awash in mud because somebody violated the code on runoff and basically said, “The hell with the guy downstream.”
It’s Jackson’s job to throw on the boots and poncho and wade into the water to find out where the silt, raw sewage and tree limbs are coming from so he can give hell right back.
“Look at these two pieces of property,” Jackson says as he flips through a binder full of evidence. “They belong to two teachers in Marietta. Here is a developer’s retention pond adjacent to their property. Here is a culvert, essentially a pipe from his retention pond, leading right to their backyard. Every time it rains it dumps water into their backyards and they get flooded.
“When you put down new pavement, gutters, storm drains and pipes you have to put that water somewhere, and who bears the brunt of it? The person who is downhill.”
It is cases like the one in Marietta that drove Jackson, 41, into law. For seven years he had been a research engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency but realized it was not the EPA scientists making policy; it was the appellate lawyers firm the future of appellate law.
“Science is great, science is my passion, but I realized the law is where the decisions are being made,” says Jackson, who works in the all-environmental law firm of Stack & Associates in Atlanta. “As a lawyer you look at the client and say, ‘Here is the data. What do you want it to say? Is the glass half full, is it half empty? Is it neither? Is it both?’”
That, anyway, was what happened to his data. Jackson graduated from the University of Georgia in 1988 and received a master’s degree in science in 1990. Soon he was working in the EPA labs in Athens, on issues involving global climate change and storm water.
“Part of our research was to determine how much CO2 in the atmosphere was being sequestered in agricultural soils,” Jackson says. “So we had these numbers and we thought, ‘This is great. We can improve what the U.S. is doing and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.’
“Then at the Kyoto Climate Change Conference [in 1992], the question came up about what is the U.S. going to do about the issue and George [H.W.] Bush’s response was ‘Look at this research we have here, which shows our greenhouse gas emissions are offset by what our national agriculture is doing.’
“When I saw that it was being used that way, as an argument that we shouldn’t have to do anything to reduce greenhouse emissions because we are offsetting those numbers, I said to myself, ‘I am at the bottom of the food chain here.’”
The environment is not a new passion for Jackson. As a small child in Sunday school he was asked to draw a picture of what God meant to him. “I drew green fields, blue skies, clear water,” Jackson says. “I have always been interested in the outdoors, the environment. I look back at that little drawing and say, ‘That’s interesting, considering what I do now for a living.’” It helped that Jackson’s parents, Robert and Linda, encouraged him to find something to believe in and make it his life’s work.
In high school, Jackson won the state school science fair with “Auto-tropic Responses of Plants” and at the EPA he was a published research scientist whose career was on an upward track; but the legal tread marks on his work eventually bothered him so much that he pursued a law degree at Georgia State University and became a lawyer in 1997.
He quickly became a valuable commodity in environmental law.
“It takes years of work to understand environmental laws,” says Ed Hallman, one of the first environmental lawyers in Atlanta, and a man who hired Jackson in the late 1990s. “Robert had an in-depth knowledge at the outset, which made him very valuable. In fact, based upon that experience with him, I have hired other people who have backgrounds as environmental consultants or some other previous active involvement in the environment.”
Jackson skipped around different firms before finally settling in at Donald Stack & Associates; Jackson says it’s the only all-environmental law firm in the state. The culture at the firm fits his style of investigation and his ethics; he’s allowed to wade into the muck and stand beside the little guy even if the client has trouble paying.
“One client said she didn’t have money, but she could come babysit for our daughter,” Jackson says. “I said that’s fine. We take cases like that. Sometimes we get paid, sometimes we don’t. We have to eat, so we’re going to try and make the polluter pay, if we can.”
Don Stack, the head of the firm, says Stack & Associates will make “a major mistake” each year that will cost them a half-million dollars in fees because they are willing to chase a polluter for a client who cannot pay. The firm views itself almost as a private attorneys general’s office, because the state government is too under-funded and under-staffed to provide adequate remedy for plaintiffs. In many cases when the firm brings an environmental suit, it feels it is enforcing environmental law and has the power of the state behind it.
“People in the state have a great deal of faith in the regulatory apparatus to protect them at the state and federal level from environmental harm,” Jackson says. “But the state does not have the resources to get to all the places they need to get to, and take the kind of action that needs to be taken.”
There have been disappointments. His clients, Rouse and Cole, who chased D.R. Horton-Torrey for damages, had a $2.3 million verdict reduced to $853,000 this spring.
In another case, Jackson represented a south Georgia landowner who bragged about his well water and how sweet it tasted. When Jackson tested the water he found it laden with trichloroethylene, a chlorinated solvent that tastes sweet to humans. The solvent was coming from a nearby federal government facility, but Jackson could not win a case for damages. The best he could do was to get the government to pay for his client, and the entire subdivision, to be hooked up to public water.
Jackson does not like protracted disputes. It means his clients’ property — maybe even the foundation of their home — is eroding. But just because a ball-and-chain is fixed to the case does not mean Jackson looks for an early exit.
“It was almost like his heart was my heart when my lake was being damaged,” says Fran Jones, a Rockdale County homeowner whose private lake was deluged by runoff from a Georgia Department of Transportation project. “He worked endless hours on my case and treated my lake like it was his own. That case took six years and he didn’t quit on me. I finally got a settlement [in 2003] and my lake is being cleaned up.”
“He’s smart as crap,” Don Stack says of Jackson. “But more importantly he is dogged, he is persistent, he is creative. He comes up with concepts where I will sit there and go, ‘Hmm, I don’t know about that,’ and then we knock it around for a week or two and we decide to try it.”
Stack worked for the EPA, too, and knows the value of having a scientist in the courtroom. It’s as if Jackson could pass for the expert witness as well as the lawyer.
“My whole theory for judges and juries,” says Stack, “is the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But you can only do that when you have got the mastery of the details. Robert gets the mastery of the details.”
Jackson’s office looks as if he does not spend much time there. The walls have paint on them but nothing else. A long table is covered with court documents. There are two chairs for visitors, a desk, a chair behind his desk, and a picture of his 2-year-old daughter, Madison. Plus, of course, the mud-stained boots behind the door.
On this Thursday morning Jackson is not dressed for court but for a walk over a client’s property later in the afternoon to examine runoff damage. He is dressed like a field scientist, wearing jeans and a faded pullover shirt.
Jackson often walks to the edge of his client’s property and stands and looks at the offending property. He has dueled junkyard owners, landfill companies and developers with poor erosion controls. He has seen odd colors in water and plants dead from toxic waste.
“My background helps me sniff out the bullshit,” Jackson says. “I’ve had developers tell me, ‘We just developed this property that used to be forest and now it’s rooftops, but there is no more water going on your client than there was before.’ “Anybody with a minimal amount of science is going to know that’s not true.”
He insists the environment and the economy — the developer and the homeowner — do not have to be at odds. The new plant does not always have to mean more pollution and runoff issues and dead flora. There can be a balancing act.
“On both sides, everyone is going to agree they want a clean environment, a healthy environment,” Jackson says. “The only divergence is how do we get that. For a long time there was the belief you could not have a healthy environmental movement and, at the same time, have economic growth. I think that myth has been dispelled.”
In his office Jackson turns the pages of a binder with “before and after” pictures of various clients’ property. He turns to pages where the colors in the photographs are brown or a hideous, slimy green. When he turns the pages to show bright green vegetation and clearer water, his delight is obvious. The photographs look a little like his Sunday school drawing from years earlier. Of course, that drawing was the result of a child’s imagination. The photographs are the result of a lawyer’s determination.