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Environmentalists Rattled by Justice's Remark In Refinery Case

Tesoro Corp.
Environmental groups were considering their options after Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Lee made a remark about doctors who were pursuing the case.

The Utah Supreme Court listened to attorneys on Wednesday arguing about pollution from a refinery, but a quip by one of the high-court justices is getting most of the attention.

The Sierra Club and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment have been fighting an expansion at Tesoro’s Salt Lake City refinery, and they say state regulators were wrong to approve a permit that allows Tesoro to add another 59 tons of industrial emissions each year to an already polluted air shed.

But Justice Thomas Lee zeroed in on technical questions, like whether the doctors’ group had legal standing to press the case.

“I mean I would think,” he said during oral arguments Wednesday, “that the economic interests, the cognizable economic interests of the physicians, you know, would cut the other way – more patients, more patients with more problems. I mean, not that we want that.”

Some observers heard the comment as an attack on the integrity of the doctor’s group, which says it’s pursuing the case on behalf of patients who suffer and even die because of dirty air.

“I don’t know any physician that would look at our bad air as a way to increase their revenue,” said Tim Wagner, executive director for the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “Physicians aren’t made in that kind of mold at least the ones that I know are not.”

“I think it was quite inappropriate, to be quite blunt about it,” he said.

Wagner says the doctor’s group is considering its options for lodging a complaint.

But University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell says there really isn’t any avenue for that sort of protest.

“Justices aren’t required to maintain some kind of even-handed approach to oral argument,” said Cassell, who’s served on the federal bench and argued before the high courts in both Utah and the U.S. “To the contrary, they’re entitled to test the arguments and push hard and explain to people that they think maybe they’re advancing something of a weak case.”

He says oral arguments can seem like verbal jujitsu as judges and attorneys explore the legal issues.

The justices are expected to rule on the refinery-pollution case next year.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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