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He’s been described as a modern Lone Ranger — a Western lawyer fighting in the courts to police power plants that violate the Clean Air Act. Reed Zars, a Laramie, Wyo., solo practitioner, rides the line between a self-funded public interest lawyer and a pro bono crusader. His environmental law practice is made up almost entirely of Clean Air Act cases — cases he takes pro bono but that can bring him a reimbursement of fees, if he’s successful. Which he largely has been. Nevertheless, he estimates that about 25 percent of his work is straight pro bono — time spent filing comments, doing administrative or state court work where there is no fee-switching provision or taking on a suit where there is no chance for recovery. “In a way, I’m an entrepreneur,” said Zars. “You can do pro bono and still make ends meet. It is a hugely underutilized area of the law.” When Zars started practicing 10 years ago, he knew he wanted to be his own boss doing environmental work for the side that wasn’t “already over-represented.” When he looked to other lawyers as models — including one who tried to get funding through foundations and others who tried to pay for their “good guy” cases by representing the liable parties — he decided that neither model would let him work as he wanted. So he signed on for an enormous caseload from the Sierra Club and other non-profit groups, in cases where federal laws provide a fee-shifting provision, which enables the plaintiffs’ attorneys to obtain fees from the defendant when the plaintiff prevails. However, Zars said that before taking on a suit, he always weighs the importance of the case to both people and the environment. The Sierra Club’s deputy legal director, Alex Levinson, who christened Zars the Lone Ranger, said the Wyoming attorney’s work ethic and integrity put him in a special class. “There are lawyers who do good work, but on cases where there’s $50,000 in penalties and $70,000 going to them,” said Levinson. “Reed brings really hard cases with a serious chance of losing,” said Levinson. And, he said, Zars wins, “with fantastic results.” Zars has a wide-ranging case load, but one of his primary focuses at the moment is a series of clean air suits against the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Zars, working with several other attorneys, has sued, or has notice letters proposing to sue, nine separate plants of the dozen that make up the TVA. “The Smoky Mountains is one of the most polluted national parks in the country — the air quality is often worse than downtown Atlanta,” said Zars. The suits rest on two claims: that the plants have made major modifications without installing pollution controls as required under the Clean Air Act or that the plant has opacity violations, meaning that its plumes of discharge contain too many particles of pollution. So far, he’s been involved in in-depth litigation in three of the suits, filed in 2000. Two are idling while he awaits the outcome of a suit brought by the federal Environmental Protection Agency on similar claims. Zars is also handling additional Clean Air Act litigation against Tucson Electric Power in Arizona and the San Juan power plant in New Mexico. STRIP-MINING CASE As for his pure pro bono work, Zars is involved in a strip-mining case in New Mexico, where he’s arguing that the land was not properly restored. Zars estimates that he’s spent hundreds of hours pro bono because the case is before an administrative court. “I can’t say it has great nationwide significance,” said Zars, adding that land reclamation is of particular interest to him. “It just felt to me interesting at the time, and it has been.” Levinson praises Zars’ integrity and approach to the work, which, he said, differentiates him from other attorneys looking to make some money off these cases. Levinson noted that Zars refuses to discuss fees until a settlement is completed, and will go to court over his fees rather than have them settled as part of the case. He said that Zars is often able to leverage the legal violations to get power plants to clean up other kinds of pollutants, like sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxide, even though those emissions may not necessarily be in violation of the legal levels. Levinson also praised Zars’ litigation style: “In Reed’s cases, these are clear wins for us. He could settle them more easily. He risks his fees by doing it, but he does.” Zars’ commitment is demonstrated by his sacrifices. He has made no money at all this year. His office furniture is made up of two-by-fours and he drives a 1995 Subaru, bought last year. He confesses that before law school, when working for $115 a month at a citizens’ group in Wyoming, local ranchers would call to tell him about road kill — which provided an important supplement to his income. When he does get a big fee award, Zars puts most of it back into his practice. “I’ve seen lawyers who get a large recovery and they shut down,” he said. “If I hit the jackpot, I’d still be here doing this. I want to keep working on the cases that I want to work on that are in the public interest and will have a salient effect on people and the environment.”

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