Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America

by Stuart H. Smith


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One day in the small Mississippi town of Laurel, a 26-year-old expectant mom named Karen Street sat down at the edge of her bathtub—and felt her hip split in two. The episode was so bizarre it wasn’t until later, after she saw the doctor, that she realized her bone disease was almost certainly linked to her father-in-law’s business. Winston Street ran a machine shop that drilled the gunk out of pipes used by Chevron, Shell and other giants of the oil industry—creating a white powder that covered Karen Street’s husband’s overalls every night, which then landed in their vegetable garden...and was highly radioactive.

Winston Street didn’t know the dust was poisonous, nor did his workers or his family. But someone did know. Indeed, there was evidence that America’s Big Oil companies were aware for decades that they were pulling up radium from under the earth, poisoning yards like Street’s while dumping radioactive water in unlined pits across the South. Now, to prove that and win justice for his blue-collar clients, an untested young lawyer named Stuart H. Smith and his eccentric team would have to get the better of America’s best-known radiation attorney and the global clout of Chevron inside a Mississippi courtroom.

In a gripping tale that reads as if torn from the pages of a John Grisham novel, Crude Justice tells how the Little Guy can take on the behemoth of Big Oil and win…with the help of a good attorney. Recounting more than two decades as a top environmental lawyer in the toxic oil patch of the American South, Smith tells the story of how he upped the ante again and again—getting the best of Chevron, then taking on the world’s most powerful corporation, ExxonMobil, with $1 billion on the line, and finally ferreting out the elusive truth behind BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Smith finally builds upon the courtroom drama of his past and the environmental threats of the present—from fracking to the Keystone XL pipeline—to issue a resounding call for America to break its crippling addiction to fossil fuels.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781939529237
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Stuart H. Smith is a practicing plaintiff attorney licensed in Louisiana. He is a founding partner of the New Orleans-based law firm Smith Stag, LLC. The firm’s practice is concentrated in the fields of environmental law and toxic torts. Smith has practiced law for nearly 25 years and is recognized internationally as a crusader against major oil companies and other polluters for damages associated with radioactive oilfield waste.

Smith has also been lead counsel on more than 100 oil pollution cases, which focus primarily on damages caused by the wastewater and sludge oil companies discharge into the environment. Smith’s litigation experience includes a lawsuit against Ashland Oil for contaminating the Lee aquifer, once one of the largest sources of fresh water for residents in eastern Kentucky. He also sued Chevron Corporation for damages associated with that company’s contamination of the groundwater in the rural town of Brookhaven, Mississippi. His firm also represents clients injured by chemicals and defective drugs.

Smith is currently representing commercial fishermen, whose livelihoods have been devastated by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Read an Excerpt



THE STORY OF MY LIFE is essentially split into two parts — everything that happened before April 14, 1986, and everything that happened after. The strange thing is that I didn't even realize the significance of that date until about three years after it had passed. Back on that spring morning, I was sitting in a classroom on the Loyola University law school campus in New Orleans.

Geographically, I hadn't gone very far in the world — I was still only a stone's throw from the string of Uptown apartments where my mom had struggled to raise me and two brothers while working multiple jobs. I was twenty-five, just days away from earning my law degree — and from jumping into an unsettled future. My ambitions upon graduation were bold but vague — to work in a big law firm where I could learn from the brightest lawyers and make a lot of money, which I needed to pay off my large student loan debt and start working toward the life I wanted. I didn't know exactly how all that was going to play out.

I couldn't even begin to imagine that the events that would change everything were taking place 100 miles to the north of New Orleans, in a town called Laurel, Mississippi, on a small plot of land on a quiet rural road, heavily shaded by towering scrub pine. There stood an unremarkable prefab metal shed and a small side yard cluttered with piles of thick metal pipe from the nearby oil patch, shrouded in a heavy sheen of white dust.

The man who owned that two-acre plot was Winston Street, and on the morning of April 14, 1986, he was doing pretty much what he'd been doing every day since he'd ventured forth from the backwoods log cabin where he was raised: hustling to make a dollar. What had started out for Winston as a whim — an all-night project in a machine shop for a friendly customer — turned into his own thriving business once he finally found a bank that would lend him $500. Soon thereafter, he rigged up a machine that could clear out the gunk that piled up and clogged the miles of oil-production pipe that the big oil companies used inside their wells out in the Mississippi oil patch. So when the price of a barrel of crude shot up at the end of the 1970s, Winston had more work than he knew what to do with.

By 1986, world oil prices had plunged, but there was still plenty for Winston and his crew of a dozen men to do. Out behind the work shed, Winston's yard was stacked deep with pipe from every big oil company you could think of — Shell, Chevron, Mobil — waiting for a turn in his big machine that would bore out that pipe and send a cloud of white dust into the hot and humid air of Mississippi's lush green pine belt.

On this fateful day, a truck pulled onto the asphalt in the front of Winston's pipe-rattling yard. About three or four men got out, and the man in charge of these unannounced strangers introduced himself. He said his name was Eddie Fuente from the Mississippi Department of Health. Winston's first thought was that they were checking for spilled oil on his property, since hazardous waste and polluted groundwater had become a big issue in the 1980s. But Fuente explained that he was head of the state's Division of Radiological Health. Winston had not been aware that such an agency existed.

Fuente asked if his crew could take a look around the property, and that's when Winston saw the men unloading unusual equipment from the back of the truck.

The men carried Geiger counters.

"I knew what Geiger counters were from high school so I knew they were checking for radiation," Winston recalled later. Caught off guard, Winston allowed Fuente's men to walk up and down his yard with the metal boxes. "I just went back into the shop and let them do their thing."

The men with the Geiger counters spent around two hours walking around the property. When they were finally done, Fuente came back into the machine shop to talk with Winston.

"I didn't think anything of it right then," Winston said more than twenty-five years later, remembering the details as if it had happened only yesterday. "I didn't know what they was doing, but he come back after a couple of hours and talked to me and told me what the hell they was doing and told me what they had found." Fuente told him that if Winston had to send his men out to the yard, he should do it quick and make them come back inside immediately.

"What does that mean?" Winston asked Fuente. "Hell, I don't want them exposed to none of it if it's going to hurt them. I'm not going to send them out there at all."

"That probably would be the best thing to do," Fuente responded.

The significance of Fuente's words and the Geiger counters was starting to sink in for Winston. "That's what killed me right there," he later recalled.

He didn't understand all the science or all the specifics — that would come slowly, over the next five years — but the crux of what Fuente told him that morning was this: All the white scale dust that Winston and his machine had rattled out of miles and miles of oil-production pipes over the years — that silty mist that they breathed into their lungs every day, the thin white powder that caked their overalls every night — was laced with high levels of radioactive material, contamination that the oil companies pulled up from deep under the ground. It meant the end of Winston's thriving business — at best. At worst, the invisible radiation was going to make Winston and his workers very, very sick.

He knew he was going to have to clean up his property and get rid of all the radioactivity that had sent the needles spinning on Fuente's Geiger counters. And that was going to cost a lot of money — more than he had. He would have to convince his Big Oil clients to pay for it.

Or he was going to need a lawyer.


But back in April 1986, the odds that Winston Street would end up connecting with me were about as good as the odds of the then-hapless Saints making it to the Super Bowl. After all, I hadn't even finished law school yet, and it had been a tough road just to get to that point.

I didn't really have a very happy childhood. Part of the problem was money. I'd been born into the American dreamland of the early 1960s, a nice home in the upscale suburbs just west of New Orleans. But when my dad took up gambling and my parents split up when I was seven, everything changed overnight. My mother moved my two younger brothers and me back into the city, into a downstairs apartment in the Uptown neighborhood right near the Tulane and Loyola campuses.

It's not that we lived in abject poverty — Uptown was congested, but it was a leafy, comfortable urban neighborhood, home to lots of college students and the occasional record store or head shop. But everything became a struggle after my parents divorced, especially for my mother, Judy, who hailed from one of New Orleans's oldest families: the Toledanos. The family started out with a large land grant on the Mississippi Gulf Coast from the Spanish king and had been involved with founding the city's Cotton Exchange in the 1840s, before the Civil War, and then remained active in the high society of the boisterous city that perfected Mardi Gras. My maternal great-grandfather was a powerful local politician — the longest-serving president of the Jefferson Parish Police Jury, the equivalent of a county commission. My mother's dad was a successful insurance executive who moved into real-estate development — and got burned when an economic recession in the late 1950s hit New Orleans especially hard. My grandfather lost everything, so when my gambling-addled dad walked out on my mother, for her it was, as Yogi Berra is believed to have said, déjà vu all over again.

But whatever my mother lacked in resources, she made up for in resourcefulness. While my brothers and I were moved in and out of a series of Uptown apartments, she labored around the clock. She worked as a secretary, sold insurance and cosmetics, and eventually worked as a travel agent. She did whatever it took to pay the bills, and she worked like a dog. It wasn't until years later that my mom told me the reason we'd always stayed in our Uptown neighborhood: It was where she had attended high school in the Holy Name of Jesus Parish, and she kept up her connections there so that when she moved back, she convinced the parish to let us attend Catholic school tuition-free. She knew that education was the ladder up for her sons — I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't always hold up my end of the bargain.

Holy Name did save my brothers and me from some of the worst public schools in the country — but there was a price to pay. Although I excelled academically, I chafed at Catholic school discipline. Let's just say that the nuns at my school were not an easy bunch to get along with. I remember at one point I needed a haircut as dictated by the meanest nun in the school, Sister Marcello, but my mother didn't have the money to pay for it. Sister Marcello ended up dragging me over to the Loyola campus and paid the barber there to give me a haircut. I was mortified. Situations like that made me stronger and drove me on an almost mad quest toward absolute self-sufficiency.

Another one of Sister Marcello's common practices was to beat errant boys' hands with a giant pointer — a long wooden stick that was supposed to be directed at the words on the blackboard — that she always kept within arm's reach. She would drag you up to the front of the class and hold your hand and beat it with her trusty old stick, always saying with each whack, "O"-"B"-"E"-"Y." Is it any wonder that I grew up to become a legal advocate for the poor and working class against big corporations? My experiences at Holy Name deeply ingrained in me a distinct distaste for authority and the control the powerful have over the meek. Despite the discipline, Holy Name was a fantastic school. The financial assistance I received at Holy Name and at Loyola College of Law have a lot to do with my success. I always hoped that one day I would make it big and give something back to these Catholic institutions that had done so much for me.

I was a big kid who liked sports — especially the organized baseball games in the wide fields behind the city's home for wayward boys, a place my mom threatened to send me when I acted up or talked back, which was often. I rode my bike up and down the magnolia-lined streets, spending more and more time in the down-and-dirty record shops, searching the bins of LPs and indulging a passion for comic books.

Life got harder when I hit puberty. There were subtle things about me that were just different from the way the other boys acted sometimes — different ideas and mannerisms and youthful attractions, some of which I couldn't really put a name to, not yet anyway. From middle school on, other kids bullied me — usually it was verbal, but sometimes it was physical and occasionally quite brutal. I paid a heavy price for being different — even though it thickened my skin for things that would happen later on.

It probably didn't help that I was a bookworm, something of an egghead — eventually graduating from comic books to heavier literature, everything from Tolkien to Herman Hesse to Plato. I was a straight-A student in grade school but I got so bored by the time high school arrived that the drug culture — which was in its inglorious heyday in the mid-1970s — was too much of a temptation. I bounced through a couple of high schools and finally bounced out altogether in 1975. I was only fifteen — with no high school degree in a city suffering through yet another recession, its traditional manufacturing and shipping jobs vanishing into the haze of the brutally hot Louisiana Bayou.

The funny thing is that despite my less-than-stellar academic career so far, I still had this idea in the back of my head that I might have a career in law. I had never forgotten my first real argument. It was with my beloved grandfather, Joe Montaldo, when I was still in school. We were having a heated discussion about who the best musicians were in the world at the time. This was about 1969 or 1970 — just as the hippie counterculture was peaking. I put forth my best argument for the Beatles, their rich body of work and the genius of both McCartney and Lennon on full display, as well as the more mortal talents of Ringo and George. My grandfather emphatically embraced Elvis Presley, and with good reason — he was the King. My grandfather never conceded but did say, in the end, with a sigh and a shake of his head, "You argue too much. You should be a lawyer when you grow up."

Now, as I was no longer in school, my parents ordered me to go to work. I stocked supermarket shelves for a while, until I found out that I had a knack for the art of telephone solicitation. I sold magazine subscriptions at first, and then I was offered a job selling bars to keep out burglars — cold-calling residents of various New Orleans neighborhoods. In the mid-to-late 1970s, fears about crime were running amok in the Crescent City. I sold a lot of burglar bars.

But that kind of hustle also made me realize that I really belonged back in school. The final motivator was watching my first cousin Jennifer start her freshman year at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. A short time later I earned my GED, and I enrolled in LSU that January, only a few months behind my former classmates. Like a lot of working-class students in the late 1970s, I was helped by low in-state tuition. I studied philosophy by day and kept on hustling at night, selling magazine subscriptions and helping my mom with some travel agency work. It was the time of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and there was a large group of Iranian students in Baton Rouge, some of whom enlisted me for help in finding a route that would get them back to Tehran in the summer of 1981. I'm still haunted to this day by what happened to them: The majority were conscripted into the Iranian Army to fight Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his poison gas. Many of them never made it back to Louisiana to finish school.

Ironically, I had protested on campus against the deposed Shah as I was somewhat politically active during my college years. I'd been a Democrat since I was twelve, kind of by accident at first. In 1972, a teacher was dividing up our class for a mock presidential debate. In our neighborhood, a white conservative bastion of New Orleans, all the kids wanted to be the incumbent Richard Nixon — myself included! But out of all the other kids, the teacher assigned me to argue for McGovern, so after school while throwing my paper route in the dormitories on Tulane's campus I wandered a couple of blocks over to the Tulane student union building, where antiwar students had tables, passing out literature for the upstart Democrat. They convinced me that it was McGovern looking out for the working people — and I've never looked back since.

But I'd be lying to you if I told you that politics, or some kind of sense of social justice, was the main thing that was driving me as a young man. The circumstances of my upbringing — starting out in suburban comfort and falling abruptly into the struggles of the working poor — were my guiding light. I realize this might sound crass to some, but I think I was more driven to succeed and make a lot of money. I grew up with people who had a lot of money — and I wanted to have more than them. When my father died when I was twenty-one — the congenital heart problem that had triggered his gambling spree finally took his life while he was on the waiting list for a transplant — my sorrow only seemed to heighten my resolve to go very far in a short period of time.

The law career that my grandfather predicted for me seemed exactly the right path — a good fit for both my talent in the art of arguing and my oversized career ambitions. By 1983, I was back home in Uptown New Orleans as an incoming law student at Loyola University College of Law. In hindsight, all the elements that made me the attorney that I am today — hardworking, uncompromising, competitive, risk-taking, and a champion of the underdog against the unbridled authority of the powerful — were all simmering at that young age. But it still took a couple of events to bring everything into focus.

The first was another family tragedy. This time it was the death of my younger brother Whitney.

My brother's death was one of those completely senseless and inexplicable episodes of the human existence that just crushes you. He was hit by a car while crossing a road in Destin, Florida. Just like that. Whitney hadn't yet turned twenty-one. He suffered a catastrophic head injury and was declared brain-dead by doctors at the hospital. He was on life support for several days while we went through the agonizing process of figuring out what to do next. My mother had to make the final decision to have him removed from life support and donate his organs. It was her call and making it, as you might imagine, left a deep scar on her entire being and a lasting impression on me and my brother Clark.


Excerpted from "Crude Justice"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Stuart Smith.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Rolling the Dice xi

Book 1

1 An Atomic Bombshell 3

2 The Curious Case of the Painted Spider 27

3 Metal and Bone 47

4 The Sin of Omission 71

Book 2

5 The Empire Strikes Back 99

6 Big Oil and the Single Digit 131

7 The Fire This Time 161

8 Pirates of the Gulf of Mexico 187

9 Betting on Planet Earth 219

Acknowledgments 243

Index 245

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