Peter Goodman

When Peter Goodman learned in December 1996 that a new glass plant would soon start spewing toxins into the air just six miles from his western New York home, he didn't stage a protest at city hall or canvass in the streets. Instead, this soft-spoken, 54-year-old social worker did his homework. He discovered that state regulators were about to give Guardian Industries a license to emit 30 percent more nitrogen oxide than necessary.

State leaders had given the Guardian glass plant their full backing from its inception. After all, it was to be the largest industrial project built in the Finger Lakes region in 20 years. The plant would bring millions of dollars and more than 260 new jobs to the city of Geneva. It would also, supposedly, be the cleanest plant of its kind in the nation.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

All the same, Goodman was concerned for his community's welfare and set about learning everything he could about the plant. He waded through reports in the local library, picked the brains of university professors, and badgered government bureaucrats. During his research, he stumbled upon a glass plant in California run by one of Guardian's competitors. To his surprise, the plant employed a superior technology, producing much cleaner emissions.

Further research convinced Goodman that this technology could also be used at the Guardian plant. He raised his concerns with regulators at a public hearing in February 1997. The state listened to Goodman's findings but left the permit unchanged; by April, Guardian had final approval to proceed with its plant.

Frustrated, Goodman mailed a copy of his findings to the EPA. The EPA promptly wrote back to inform him of his right, as a participant in the February hearing, to appeal Guardian's permit under provisions of the Clean Air Act. Goodman hired a lawyer and filed an appeal, claiming that Guardian failed to meet the act's best-available-technology provision.

The appeal was not a popular move in Geneva. "People were scared," Goodman says. "We needed the jobs. We needed the economic stimulus."

But in early May 1997, Goodman and an ally, Linda Ochs, convinced state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky to begin an investigation into the state's handling of the Guardian affair.

Under pressure from both state and federal investigators, Guardian approached Goodman at the end of May with an offer to settle the case out of court. After some negotiation, Goodman agreed to the settlement in July 1997. Soon afterward, Guardian announced it had discovered a new technology that would cut pollution at the plant by 1,638 pounds of nitrogen oxide per day. It made no mention of Peter Goodman.

Behind the scenes, though, the company paid Goodman's $20,000 in legal bills. Several months later, an EPA regulator wrote Goodman to commend him on an effort that was "instrumental in achieving a fine result for the environment." The Guardian plant, completed in April 1998, now sets the national standard for the glass industry.

Goodman insists he doesn't deserve much credit. "It was the laws on the books that allowed an individual to have this clean air lawsuit," he says. "If those laws had not been on the books, I would have been nowhere."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.