COMMENTARY: Excerpt from The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival

Stanley N. Alpert was Chief of Environmental Litigation at the U.S. Attorneys" Office in New York City when, in 1998, he was kidnapped at gunpoint by a gang of robbers. He now runs The Alpert Firm in New York City, bringing environmental and toxic tort lawsuits. His book, The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival, released by Putnam in January, relates the grueling ordeal, path to survival, and investigation that led to the roundup of the perpetrators. As it is a memoir, Alpert reflects upon environmental law and his career as an environmental prosecutor, both civil and criminal, in the following excerpt from the book:

Stanley Alpert cracks down on toxic offenders from his NYC law office.© GETTY IMAGES

I began my career with a federal court clerkship in Miami, then came back to New York City to work at a fancy Park Avenue law firm, which for a kid who’d toughed it out on the streets of Brooklyn was a big deal. But my heart told me I needed to do something bigger with my life, and when the offer arrived in 1990 from Andy Maloney, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, to become an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I knew I was going to take it, even if it meant going back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a place to grow up and get out of after all the excitement of the disco days. But this was progress. The office of the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York covered Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and all of Long Island. Long Island: the home of Joey Buttafuco, Texas-style high hair, and some of the finest white sand beaches anybody’d ever want to sift through their tired bare toes.

Maybe because I was a city boy whose skin touched asphalt as often as a snake’s touched grass, I was all the more keen on the outdoors. In Maloney’s office, I became an environmental prosecutor, to try to keep those beaches clean. Most of my defendants did not put guns to people’s heads to make them turn over their money. My law enforcement career dealt with contamination of the air, water and land, threatening the basic quality of human life. Industry in America needed to be properly regulated and violators relentlessly pursued by the federal, state and local governments. Otherwise they gave you widgets plus some surprisingly nasty free gifts: asthma, genetic mutations, filthy air, and lakes and oceans where the fish gasped and the humans were required by local authorities to keep their butts out of the water. Black mothers in the Bronx wanted to know why their kids had so much more asthma than the separate but equal children in the Village of Scarsdale, and I wanted to help.As a federal prosecutor, I got to hunt bad guys, those who killed people the slow way. My bad guys kept Sloan Kettering in business. They wore thousand dollar suits when they sent their loyal employees to inhale the sweet aroma of a benzene pool knowing that nobody would wear the respirators even if they knew where to find them. They poisoned the fish so that when a Latino casts his sorry rod in the Dyckman Street Hudson, what sits under the cilantro and next to the platanos that evening will eventually kill a member of his family. My bad guys put profit over human health and safety, and it was my job to stop "em cold in their tracks. If it was a typical violation, you’d pay me a heavy penalty and clean up your mess and have a court supervise you for the next ten years. If the violation was rotten to the core, you could go directly to jail do not pass go.

When I mentioned over a jack and ginger that I did environmental law in New York City, people would screw up their face muscles and say, "New York — what environment?" like there was nothing worth saving. They didn’t understand that the Eastern District of New York was a great place for my job. There was lots of industry slopping lots of chemicals on the ground. A sole-source drinking water aquifer soaked up oil company gifts of MTBE so the pasta could smell like turpentine. The area was rumored to have the highest rates of breast cancer in the country. Sludge was dumped in the ocean, dredge in Long Island Sound, with lawsuits for and against the government. On the gorgeous white beaches, men and dogs killed endangered species such as the piping plover. Touch "em, boys, and me and my fed pals would take you to see the friendly judges for life on Cadman Plaza. We had two of the country’s major airports, through which flowed not only the illegal drug trade but the illegal wildlife trade, not to mention the ozone-depleting canisters of banned chlorofluorocarbons smuggled in by Russian mobsters. Other Serbs recently over from the former Yugoslav republic thought nothing of ripping out asbestos with no moon suits, spreading fibers that kill, in basement laundry rooms where unsuspecting tenants hauled their quarters to get some clean socks. I wanted them — or at least their bosses — in jail.

Federal law enforcement, to which I had devoted my career for some seven-odd years, had made a positive difference. In 1998, the New York City air was a lot more breathable than during the leisure suit days twenty years earlier when people doing the hustle were coughing and wheezing. Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act saw to it that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio no longer would catch fire. And even though PCBs remained, a few people seeing a cleaner river were brave enough to start swimming in the Hudson again, as one could do when my father was a boy. The herons had even returned to nest on small islands in the Arthur Kill, a body of water in New York harbor once infested with the industrial desolation which had become the emblem of Staten Island and New Jersey but which was now clean enough for the birds to struggle back. A lot more work needed to be done.Not that that meant a whole hell of a lot to me now, as I rode fetal-positioned in the back seat of a spanking new Lexus, my head in the lap of a stocky, angry African American young man, holding a Tech Nine automatic machine pistol against my skull.

—Copyright 2007 Stanley N. Alpert

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival