Walter Benjamin Fisherow is a seasoned litigator and warrior for the environment whose diplomatic style has brought powerful polluters to the settlement table and helped make our air safer to breathe.
Since joining the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1987, Fisherow has overseen the work of dozens of government lawyers whose teamwork has helped rid America’s atmosphere of two million tons of toxic pollutants generated by coal-fired power plants each year. His work in enforcing Clean Air Act mandates resulted in some of the largest environmental settlements ever.
“These settlements take such a large amount of that bad stuff out of the air that you go to sleep at night truly believing that your job matters. You have an impact on people’s lives,” said Fisherow. “That is very satisfying. To go to bed thinking, ‘wow, I have impacted 300 million people.’”
It was in 1999 that Fisherow first assembled a team of DOJ attorneys that launched a series of actions against utilities whose coal-fired power plants were emitting massive quantities of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air. The emissions can cause asthma and other health effects, particularly in children and the elderly, and contribute to acid rain and smog that cloud our skies and damage forests.
His leadership has resulted in 16 settlements with electric utilities, the installation of more than $11 billion worth of air pollution control equipment and a drastic reduction in harmful air pollutants each year. The effort is ongoing.
Fisherow’s crowning achievement was the 2007 settlement with American Electric Power (AEP), which agreed to invest $4.6 billion on cleaner coal-burning technologies, pay a record $15 million fine and spend $60 million to mitigate damage to the environment. The result was the elimination of the 813,000 tons of air pollutants each year.
The AEP case remains the largest civil environmental enforcement case ever brought by the federal government, involving some 50 government lawyers, 50,000 lawyer-hours and millions of documents.
Fisherow’s colleagues describe him as a motivational force at the helm of a concerted effort to protect the environment, but also as a commander who wields the awesome power of federal legal forces fairly and inspires his troops with good humor and charm.
“They are against the top law firms in the nation and Ben is like the general in the war room. He’s motivating people, helping them along and inspiring them,” said Justin Smith, assistant section chief in DOJ’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
At the same time, Fisherow’s leadership style is hardly authoritarian. “He’s the one that will make a little comment on the side in a stressful situation that will give you a belly laugh,” said Smith.
Fisherow’s success is also notable because he took on an industry that has historically had strong ties to government. Fisherow used his considerable skills as a negotiator to convince both the administration and the polluters to accept cleaner coal-burning alternatives.
“He did it repeatedly. He personally led the settlement negotiations for most of the cases. When you are handling a negotiation, you not only represent the government at your best, but you have to be willing to listen to the people on the other side of the table and to find common meeting ground that can be the basis of a settlement that avoids further litigation,” said Catherine McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“They don’t come better than Ben. He has a presence. He commands respect,” added Bruce Gelber, chief of the DOJ’s Environmental Enforcement Section.
It’s not just Ben Fisherow’s presence that commands respect. It’s his track record as an enforcer of federal environmental laws, which is unsurpassed across government.
This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.