As he prepares to step down, the founder of the Southern Environmental Law Center looks back on three decades of defending the region’s natural treasures
Ambitious and naive.
That’s how Rick Middleton describes himself 33 years ago, when he founded the Southern Environmental Law Center, a small nonprofit that would protect the air, the water, and the special places of the southeastern United States. It was 1986, and he was 39 years old.
“I didn’t have enough sense to know how challenging it was going to be to start up an organization,” he says, and he didn’t have much of a plan for how he’d build it over time, either. With the goal of hiring about five lawyers who would work regionally out of a single office on the city’s Downtown Mall, he says his “grandest dream” was that maybe a dozen attorneys would someday come on board to support his vision.
But today, with 140 employees on his staff and nine offices on the map, Middleton has built the largest environmental advocacy organization in the South. And as one of the country’s pioneers of environmental law, this is the legacy he leaves behind as he prepares to retire this spring.
So why did he do it? The Alabama-born-and-raised University of Virginia alum says the answer is quite simple: “Love of the South.”
While there’s been much talk lately about preserving Southern heritage, history, and culture, Middleton is concerned about protecting the South as a physical place, whose treasures include the Appalachian mountains (which run through each state the SELC represents) hundreds of miles of Atlantic coast, and hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest, all of which the organization’s army of attorneys has fiercely defended.
Middleton says that of the few environmental advocacy groups that were around when founded the SELC, none knew much about the historically conservative South, nor were they interested in learning.
“The South needed an environmental advocate,” he adds, but even more than that, it needed a lawyer.
Environmental law was just emerging as a distinct field in the 1960s and ’70s, as the federal government passed a wave of landmark legislation to protect our land, air, and water. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1971, Middleton went home to Alabama, where he worked at the attorney general’s office to enforce those laws against some “pretty big” polluters like the Tennessee Valley Authority and U.S. Steel.
He then practiced law with national environmental nonprofit Earthjustice in Washington, D.C., for seven years. But while that organization was scoring some big wins on the federal level, Middleton wanted to have more impact on the place he loved the best—the South. And he decided he’d do it right here from Charlottesville.
A graduate of UVA, he knew the university brought in some of the brightest people from across the Southeast. And “I felt like Charlottesville was a unique and special place that would attract like-minded people,” aka smart and capable lawyers who cared about the environment.
Middleton admits that environmental advocacy in the South hasn’t always been easy. But he grounded his approach in staying local, tapping into people’s connection with their home.
“The way we view the world is that the environment shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” he says. We all should love and care about the places [where] we live, work, and go have fun.”
In his experience, if you can bring major environmental issues out of the national, highly polarized political world and down to a local, place-based level that people can easily understand, “I would say almost always the local public is on our side.”
Global issues, local impact
Here’s a not-so-fun fact: If carbon dioxide emissions from the six states the SELC represents were combined, the region would be the eighth-largest contributor to global warming on Earth, Middleton says.
The Southeast can attribute rising seas, loss of beaches, wetlands, and other natural resources to global warming, “but we’re also having this devastating flooding from these monster hurricanes that are clearly because of changing weather patterns from climate change. So we’re not only producing more carbon dioxide than anywhere in the country, the Southeast is [also] suffering the consequences of this.”
In other words, the region he’s worked so hard to protect is also the epicenter of the problem.
But tackling climate change is one of the big issues the SELC is equipped to take on.
“We now have an organization that is smart enough and big enough and has enough staying power that we can do things today that we never could have dreamed about 30 years ago,” he says.
Roughly 12 years ago, the SELC created a strategic plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions across its six states. And, Middleton says, they’ve done it.
Twenty staff members are currently working on the project, which began with Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy. In this case, SELC attorneys represented the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and Environment North Carolina when Duke wanted to rebuild and extend the life of a dozen of its coal-fired power plants without installing new legally required pollution controls.
They took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won—a unanimous victory that required power companies to always install new pollution controls on rebuilt plants, and set off the largest power plant cleanup in U.S. history. Since 2010, the SELC and its partners have reduced one-third of the Southeast’s coal plant capacity by pressuring companies into retiring their plants.
“The reduction [of emissions] has been something like 30 percent,” Middleton says. “I mean, it’s incredible.”
Going forward, the SELC is working on the South’s first carbon cap-and-trade program for power plants. If adopted, it will give utilities incentives to opt for low- or zero-carbon energy resources.
Building the team
But before there was a staff of 140 people who could tackle such large-scale projects, there were just three attorneys.
The first to join Middleton’s fledgling organization was David Carr, a Princeton grad with roots in Albemarle County. Carr had graduated from UVA’s law school in 1983 before moving to Seattle, where he practiced general business litigation and did some business advising.
But what he really wanted to do was environmental law. At the time, there were few jobs available in the field, so when a friend saw an ad for the new SELC, he jumped on it. About a month later, he was back in Charlottesville.
He was 30 years old. Now he’s 63, focuses primarily on alternate energy and protecting wilderness, and is one of the first names that usually surfaces when asking about the enormous impact the law center has had on the Southeast.
“It all happened pretty quick,” says Carr, who had no idea he’d spend the rest of his career at the organization. Middleton had secured a grant and funding for only three years. “We didn’t know if we’d be in business three years down the road —at least I didn’t.”
But it wasn’t long before Kay Slaughter, whom Middleton recruited from UVA’s law school in ’86 and who would serve as Charlottesville’s mayor 10 years later while still at SELC, turned their duo into a trio.
Slaughter, who retired in 2010, says the three lawyers focused on bringing their knowledge of federal environmental laws to city and state laws in the South.
“We’re certainly a very different organization than we were when there were three of us,” says Carr, but he commends Middleton for maintaining a sense of camaraderie and collegiality as the organization grew.
Middleton built a management committee to help him lead the staff as it sprawled across six states, while still holding onto his original vision of protecting the South’s environment and the people who depend on it for their wellbeing at a local level. And he’s maintained high standards across the board for SELC’s work, whether that be its legal advocacy, fundraising, or communications, Carr says.
“That’s been the secret sauce.”
Like Middleton himself, many of the attorneys who work for him are motivated by their love for the outdoors, and Middleton has always encouraged—even insisted—that they get out and visit the places that they’re working on, Carr says.
Getting boots on the ground can give attorneys a visceral sense of the particular place, stream, mountain, or beach they’re fighting to protect.
“Plus,” says Carr, “it’s good for the attorney’s outlook and spirit to get out of the office and enjoy the places that they’re working on. …A lot of my best memories in working with Rick have been visiting some of those places together.”
He specifically recalls an SELC-sponsored retreat to the barrier islands of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a three-mile boat ride from the coast of North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks. It was 2001, immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
About 25 SELC staff watched as fishermen reeled in an “incredible catch” of croakers and spot from the sound side of the Cape. The fish would usually be destined for New York’s famous Fulton Fish Market, but because it was closed due to the tragedy unfolding in the city, the fishermen were trying to figure out where they could sell their catch of the day.
“And on the ocean side, there were surfcasters reeling in these huge flounders,” Carr remembers. “I’d never seen flounders this big.”
He also recalls early trips to Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore and North Carolina’s Cedar Island, which the SELC successfully protected from development and other destruction. Staff hikes around The Priest and Three Ridges, two of Virginia’s most popular hiking circuits, are also at the top of his list.
Because of Carr and the SELC, the Nelson County spots are now congressionally designated wilderness areas, which means they’re federally managed and designated for preservation in their natural condition.
Protect and defend
Longtime environmental advocate Ridge Schuyler, who has worked with the SELC in a couple of different roles, says Carr’s dedication to preserving The Priest and Three Ridges is a prime example of the law center’s outstanding work.
As a chief policy advisor to Senator Chuck Robb in the ’90s, Schuyler worked closely with the nonprofit to protect national parks and other forests. Later, as director of the Nature Conservancy, he worked with the SELC on protecting the Rivanna watershed, and specifically restoring healthy river flows to the Moormans River in the early 2000s.
That presented a dual challenge: protecting the river while still providing water for the community.
“Working together,” Schuyler says, “…We took what is often seen as an intractable challenge and figured out a way to solve it.”
Though this primarily involved policy and regulatory work instead of litigation, when asked if the Nature Conservancy could have navigated the situation without the aid of the SELC, Schuyler doesn’t mince words: “No.”
SELC attorney Rick Parrish brought his expert knowledge of the Clean Water Act and state regulations to guide the Nature Conservancy in developing a plan that would meet water supply needs and the law’s requirements to protect the environment, Schulyer says.
“Rick was an excellent partner during a stressful time—both good for nature and good-natured,” Schuyler says. During the course of the conversation, he also praised a string of other SELC attorneys such as Carr, Slaughter, Morgan Butler, and Trip Pollard for their passion and reputation.
Adds Schuyler, “Their work undergirds a lot of what makes Charlottesville a wonderful place and an attractive place to live.”
Grey McLean, director of the locally based, climate-change-combatting Adiuvans Foundation, has supported the work of the SELC for years. After getting to know Middleton and the attorneys, first through their projects in Virginia and then throughout the Southeast, he joined the organization’s board of trustees a few years ago.
He’s impressed by the SELC’s “extremely high degree of professionalism,” he says. “These are really committed, talented lawyers who, quite frankly, make a significant financial sacrifice working at a nonprofit, relative to working for a for-profit law firm.”
He says the reputation of their work precedes them, “and I think that has an impact on the behavior of folks who might otherwise be ready to run roughshod over the environment.”
Adds McLean, “I often think if it were not for SELC, what would happen?”
It’s a rhetorical question, but Carr suggests some answers: For starters, likely more than a million acres of wildlands and other wilderness and national scenic areas like the George Washington and Jefferson National forests would be unprotected, vulnerable to things such as pipelines, fracking, and coal mining. The Southeast might be smothered in a film of air pollution, and the shift to solar energy and other renewables might not have taken off. (Now North Carolina is ranked second in the amount of solar systems installed nationwide, with SELC’s other five states ranked in the top 25.)
“We’d probably be lagging behind the rest of the country, whereas we’re helping lead the rest of the country in those transitions now,” says Carr.
Though he’ll remain president emeritus of his law center, Middleton is stepping down at a particularly fraught time, as the Trump administration fights tooth and nail to tear apart the protections he has defended for 30 years. But as Middleton hands over the reins to Jeff Gleason, a 28-year veteran of the organization and an expert in clean energy and air, he says the SELC is better prepared than ever to fight back.
“It’s almost like every organizational decision we’ve made in the last 30 years has been to build an organization capable of succeeding at this challenging time,” Middleton says.
One of the policies under attack by the administration is the Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972 to regulate pollution, and is to thank for increasingly cleaner waterways despite population growth. SELC research found that gutting it would affect the drinking water supply of 2.3 million people in Virginia alone.
The president’s goal is to reduce Environmental Protection Agency oversight of what gets released into the country’s wetlands and isolated streams, seemingly because the current law doesn’t sit well with some of his base. The Clean Water Act limits how folks such as rural landowners, real estate developers, and golf course owners can use their properties, including restricting the quantity of pesticides they may use.
“There’s nobody in that administration who’s interested in protecting the environment,” says Middleton. “It’s up to us.”
Now the SELC is the central organization defending the Clean Water Act with a team of about a dozen attorneys, and thousands of environmental allies on their side. They expect their litigation will play out in the courts over the next two years, and ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Middleton calls the administration “over the top” and “extreme” for things such as denying climate change and a refusal to act to reduce carbon pollution.
“There’s no rationale to it,” he adds. “It’s all just ignorance, hostility, and greed.”
Take offshore drilling as another example. It has never happened on the South Atlantic seaboard, because when former President Barack Obama initiated a plan to explore it, the SELC helped to convince more than 100 communities from Virginia Beach down to the Florida-Georgia line to pass anti-drilling resolutions, which further convinced the former administration to change its mind. Now more than 200 communities are on board, but not Trump. His administration and supporters are hellbent on extracting that petroleum.
With a sly smile, he does a quick and fairly tame impersonation of those pushing offshore drilling: “More oil! More gas! Drilling! Who cares about the coastal communities? Who cares about listening to people locally? I’m promoting maximum fossil fuel extraction. Let’s crank up the global temperature! We don’t believe in global warming!”
Now, Middleton’s law center has found itself back in the epicenter of the argument, “and this time it’s going to take the lawyers. We’re not going to be able to convince the Trump administration any other way,” he adds.
SELC attorneys currently have a lawsuit underway in Charleston, South Carolina, and just won an injunction to prevent things from moving forward until their suit can be heard. They’ll challenge any seismic testing permits that are issued, as well as a final drilling plan.
“We’ve never been so busy,” says Middleton. “And it’s never been so important, but we are winning.”
At the same time, he says the SELC must stay true to its roots: “people and place.” That means focusing on the preservation of specific communities’ unique culture and ecology across their six-state region.
“Don’t lose sight of that kind of heart and soul of who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing,” says Middleton, who plans to spend time after retirement visiting many of the places he’s worked to protect and “spreading the good word” about the SELC.
Says Middleton, “It’s not just enough to win a case—you’ve got to win hearts and minds and values.”
Here’s what Middleton has his eye on in Virginia—and you should, too
Defending the Clean Water Act to keep pollutants out of Virginia’s streams and protecting its coastal communities from offshore drilling are top priorities for SELC attorneys. Here’s what else they’re working on across the commonwealth.
Opposing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline
Environmentalists have strongly opposed the 600-mile, $7 billion natural gas pipeline that will slice through Nelson County on its way from West Virginia to North Carolina since it was proposed half a decade ago. The SELC has also dug up mounting evidence that casts doubt on the need for a pipeline. And the organization has brought several lawsuits that have delayed the ACP’s construction, including convincing a federal court to throw out a U.S. Forest Service permit that would have allowed the ACP to cross two national forests and the Appalachian Trail. They also plan to challenge the pipeline’s entire approval permit.
Protecting our forests
A longtime champion of the George Washington and Jefferson National forests, the SELC helped draft the Virginia Wilderness Additions Act, which Senator Tim Kaine introduced a few weeks ago. If passed, it would permanently protect 5,600 acres in the Rich Hole and Rough Mountain Wilderness areas in Bath County.
Advancing clean energy
Accelerating a transition to renewable energy is an SELC priority, and it has several opportunities to do so in Virginia. Attorneys are currently defending the appeal of a March 2017 ruling that Dominion’s coal ash pits at a plant in Chesapeake are in violation of the Clean Water Act. The SELC also encouraged the administrations of former governor Terry McAuliffe and Governor Ralph Northam to propose the South’s first carbon cap-and-trade program for power plants, and will have an advisory role as the proposal moves forward. And lastly, the SELC is fighting for solar power access for all Virginians.
In three decades, SELC’s attorneys have scored some significant victories. Here’s a sampling:
Moving the South away from coal
In April 2007, after a seven-year battle, the SELC won a U.S. Supreme Court case, Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy, which ruled
that power companies could no longer continue their practice of burning coal without installing new pollution controls on rebuilt factories. This ruling set off the largest power plant cleanup in U.S. history, in which the SELC also blocked or deferred companies’ plans to build seven new coal-burning units across their six states, and had a hand in the retiring of one-third of existing coal towers in the region. Carbon dioxide levels have now dropped 29 percent in the Southeast. That’s a lot.
Cleaning up 90 million tons of coal ash
Utilities generally store their toxic coal ash in unlined, leaking pits, but through SELC legal action and public pressure, utilities in South Carolina have agreed to safely store or recycle all coal ash, and in North Carolina, Duke Energy has agreed to clean up eight of its 14 sites. The law center’s suit challenging the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dumping of coal ash at its Gallatin Fossil Plant achieved a landmark ruling when a federal court, for the first time in the nation’s history, ordered the utility to excavate its toxic ash, finding it a violation of the Clean Water Act.
Saving special places
When traditional native fishing grounds on the Mattaponi River were threatened by what the SELC classifies as the largest proposed wet-
land destruction in Virginia’s history, or when a proposed Navy jet training facility wanted to squash an Atlantic Coast tundra swan and snow geese habitat, attorneys were there to say, “not so fast.” So far, they’ve been able to protect and preserve dozens of these natural areas.
No acres lost
The law center defended more than 700,000 roadless acres of national forest in the southern Appalachians from logging, road building, and other destruction, and celebrated their permanent protection in 2013.
SELC attorneys take the position that unnecessary roads induce unrestricted growth, and take away from funds that could address other transportation needs. Over a period of many years, they were able to halt the doubling of Interstate 81 across Virginia, a 210-mile outer perimeter of roadway around Atlanta, and a string of roads in the Carolinas such as the Garden Parkway, which would have been a limited access toll road. They’re now seeking new ways to advance forward-thinking land use strategies and steer funding toward public transit.