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Judge Feikens, who oversaw decades-long Rouge River suit, dies

“People are becoming more aware that you can’t have any quality of life if you don’t have clean water. You cannot have any world-class industries in southeast Michigan, like the Ford Motor Company, unless the area itself has a very definite concept of quality of life and a very definite idea of what’s necessary to have quality of life.” - Judge John Feikens

On Sunday, May 15, 2011, Judge John Feikens died at the age of 94.  His most lasting legacy will no doubt be his oversight of the Rouge River Watershed and all the communities within it since 1977.  The case, which started when I was a freshman in college, continues to this day with Judge Sean Cox presiding.

It is extremely likely that any environmental attorney who has practiced in Southeastern Michigan over the last few decades spent some time in Judge Feikens' courtroom in the McNamara Federal Building.  The case started as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement action against Detroit for releases of contaminated water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).  It eventually turned into a case that involved every community within the Rouge River watershed for releases into what was once considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

I recall attending multiple hearings in which dozens of attorneys and local elected leaders appeared before Judge Feikens.  The attorneys grappled with Judge Feikens time and time again, at times appealing his Orders to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  But, eventually, the case evolved from discharges from DWSD to include stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, illicit sewer connections, failed septic tanks, and whole host of sources from all 40-plus communities in the Rouge River watershed that contributed to its degraded state.  Judge Feikens finally retired from this case in November 2010.

Judge Feikens surely had his critics over the years he presided over the case.  But, his watershed approach to resolving pollution issues took into account that it is rarely one source that results in degraded waters.  In fact, EPA seeks to adopt a watershed approach in regulating and restoring waterways.  There is little doubt that Judge Feikens' legacy will be the improvement of the Rouge River watershed and a more comprehensive approach to restoring impaired waterways. 

The author, Saulius Mikalonis, is an environmental attorney with over 25 years of experience in the Bloomfield Hills offices of Plunkett Cooney.  He is also the author of The Green Blawg, in which he writes about environmental law issues for the non-lawyer.  In addition to practicing law, Mr. Mikalonis is an adjunct professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Auburn Hills Campus, at which he teaches a course entitled "Sustainable Development Law & Policy" and a Board Member of the Detroit Regional Chapter of the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).


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