John Cruden left the Justice Department in June after two decades as the government’s top environmental litigator. On July 18, he will become president of the Environmental Law Institute, a research and advocacy organization established in 1969. Before he left his post as deputy assistant attorney general in Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, Cruden sat down for an interview with National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ Tell me about your career at Justice.
CRUDEN When I came here 20 years ago, I was chief of the environmental-enforcement section, which at that stage was the largest litigating group at DOJ, with 250 people—160 lawyers. We averaged almost a new case a day, and we had five or six record enforcement years.
NJ Did the number of cases change in different administrations?
CRUDEN I get asked [that] all the time, “Did it make a lot of difference which administration you were in?” [It did] some in the sense of priorities but never in terms of people saying, “No, don’t bring those cases.” It just didn’t happen. It did not occur.
I have not found that people who come [into] those political jobs are against what I think of as rule-of-law issues or environmental-enforcement issues.
NJ Is there a difference from administration to administration in how some of those cases come out, such as a willingness to settle or go easier on certain companies?
CRUDEN I realize people think that. But it’s not true, not at the Department of Justice. Now, do changes of administration matter? Of course it matters, but it matters in the agencies that are making policy determinations. So if you’re at EPA or the Department of Interior, it means a lot. You will change policies. You will do things that are different.
NJ Was there much change of emphasis when the Obama administration came in, such as more clean-air cases?
CRUDEN When the [new] administration comes in, there’s nothing magical on January 20. It’s not like, “My God, we’ve got a thousand cases that nobody would let us bring, so let’s file them.” It doesn’t work that way. But some of the rule-making changed pretty quickly. I mean, it would not be lost on anybody that the Bush administration took a different position on greenhouse gas than did the Obama administration, and that [change] happened fairly quickly between the two administrations.
We’re having an extraordinary national debate in some ways about environment and energy. We should have that kind of debate. But we need to separate the policy issues that are being debated—where do we want to be on greenhouse gas in the next decade? That’s different than this body of law that has been created for over 40 years. And those statutes—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund—have been quite successful, No. 1. No. 2, they were all bipartisan. They passed Congress by overwhelming majorities, and they were signed into law by the following three presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George [H.W.] Bush.
NJ Did you have any favorite cases or ones that you’ll always remember?
CRUDEN I actually led the settlement negotiations for the District of Columbia’s sewer problems, which continue. For years, the District, in high-water events, discharged its untreated sewage into the Anacostia River and to the Potomac River and to the outfalls in Anacostia and Georgetown and Rock Creek. We sued the District, and then I led the settlement negotiations. They are now working on a long-term plan that will take a lot of money, but at the end of the day, that is going to be better, and we’re going to eliminate those sorts of untreated sewage going in our nation’s waterways. I’m enormously proud of what we were able to accomplish.
In Michigan, I argued a case before the 6th Circuit where one day the local residents turned on their tap water, and it turned green. It was because there was a chromium-plating plant nearby that was obviously dumping, and it went into the aquifer and into their wells. We brought an action against them.
Those are not Deepwater Horizon [cases], but for the people in the area, you rise or fall. You want to have that comfort level when you’re canoeing down the Anacostia River that you’re not going to get scalded by untreated sewage, and you’d like to think that when I turn on my tap water it’s not going to turn green because chromium has leaked into my wells. We all take that for granted. And there are a lot of people out there making sure that that happens.
NJ What about regret—in terms of enforcement actions that weren’t taken or things that Congress should have done?
CRUDEN I work in D.C. but live in Virginia, and out of all of our back doors is the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. We would all want that to be a world-class area for clams, oysters, rockfish, drinking-water supplies—we all get our water from the Potomac. The Clean Water Act gives a lot of authority for [regulating] point sources [of pollution], but if you are not a point source, then there is very little regulatory or legal authority. That is what is happening to the Chesapeake Bay; it’s really not point sources any longer. It is runoff areas, it is streets, it’s a lot of things. That ought to be on everybody’s wish list. Clearly, it would take amendments to the Clean Water Act, and none of those are easy because it’s widely dispersed areas, and it could pick up farming, it could pick up streets, it could pick our backyards. It’s complicated.
This article appears in the July 9, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.