Traverse City attorney best known for challenging Nestle Water, promoting the Public Trust Doctrine
Traverse City attorney Jim Olson’s environmental law career started when by chance, he noticed a poster in the Michigan State University student union announcing a lecture by the iconic law professor, Joe Sax.
It was 1971 and Olson was a recent law school graduate working as a law clerk for a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Sax was lecturing on a new law that allowed citizens to bring legal action to protect the environment.
After the lecture something clicked for Olson. "This is what I wanted to do, I wanted to be part of this law to protect our surroundings and community," Olson said, in an email exchange with Great Lakes Notebook.
That led to Olson and a colleague starting a law practice where they took on a potpourri of cases to pay the bills. Then came the first environmental case when they were asked to represent citizens who wanted to stop a major hotel chain from expanding on Traverse City’s waterfront. The genie was out of the bottle and an environmental law career was launched.
Fast-forward to 2021 and Olson has announced that after 50 years, he is stepping back from the rigor and intensity required by a full-time environmental law practice.
“I guess you would call it semi-retirement or shifting to less defined day-to-day work,” Olson said.
Environmental law evolved rapidly in the 1970’s when Olson was getting his legal footing and he said that made it possible for his environmental work to be a “full-fledged area of practice.”
He cited Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) as an example of the emerging changes. MEPA provided a legal basis for citizens to sue to protect the environment, specifically referring to “any person.” Prior to MEPA the standard for protecting the environment was the province of public agencies. Toss in an environmental review board and a polluter pay law and Michigan had “one of the strongest state environmental law frameworks in the country,” according to Olson.
At the federal level, the government established a wetlands program that enabled Michigan to become one of the first states to enact its own wetlands protection law, Olson said. Wetlands are known as Earth’s kidneys because of their ability to absorb pollutants and improve water quality.
But the 1990’s brought the beginning of budget cuts and staff reductions, Olson laments, which led to reduced government enforcement and occasionally rules were changed that facilitated environmental degradation.
Olson cited a recent law passed by the legislature and signed by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as an example. Late in Snyder’s second term a law was enacted that prohibits any new environmental laws or standards that are more stringent than federal standards.
Federal environmental laws tend to be general in nature and are designed to allow states to set more stringent standards of protection based on conditions in the state.
Olson is best known for representing a small water activist group, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), in its effort to stop Nestle Water from taking groundwater for bottled water.
The citizens claimed the withdrawals were causing damage to a stream. In a classic underfunded grassroots group defeats corporate giant case, a court ruled in favor of MCWC and Nestle was ordered to reduce its withdrawals.
The Nestle case “cemented” Olson’s reputation as a major environmental protection lawyer in Michigan, the Grand Rapids Legal News said in 2010 when it honored him with a Defender of the Environment award.
In 2010 as an offshoot of his work with MCWC versus Nestle, Olson founded For Love of Water (FLOW), a non-profit focused on water policy in Michigan and the Great Lakes region.
FLOW’s primary focus is emphasizing the importance of public trust principles, the doctrine that says natural resources are held in trust for the people by the state.
The Public Trust Doctrine was cited by Attorney General Dana Nessel in a late 2020 lawsuit brought against Enbridge Energy. Nessel alleged that Enbridge violated the easement granted by Michigan to operate the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. The case is pending.
Praise for Olson
As a law student, Noah Hall said he admired Olson's work even before meeting him. Hall is an environmental law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who specializes in water law. "I am personally grateful for Jim’s wisdom, teaching, forgiveness, and tireless devotion to the work," he said.
Canadian social justice and environmental advocate Maude Barlow praised Olson saying he “has been one of the most important voices in the world promoting the public trust doctrine and is widely respected for both his legal analysis and his tireless advocacy.”
Barlow, formerly a senior adviser to the United Nations on water, said Olson has brought energy and commitment to every court case and issue where he has engaged. Olson is “one-of-a-kind,” Barlow said.
With the daily demands of a law practice behind him, Olson said he will spend time advising FLOW and on personal writing projects that “have been on hold for many years.”
In September, FLOW established a fund to support its future work in Olson’s name and in that of his colleague, Great Lakes author Dave Dempsey.