In 1981, the city of New Brighton received just about the worst news a town could get: Its water supply was mortally polluted and unsuitable for consumption by its residents.
Fortunately for the Ramsey County suburb, a young, ambitious attorney named John Drawz was available to investigate and determine the source of the pollution, which turned out to be the U.S. Army and its Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant just north and east of New Brighton.
Today, 34 years later, Drawz is still on the case, having just negotiated an additional $59.4 million from the federal government to ensure clean water for New Brighton residents until 2045 and beyond.
It has been a defining case for a self-described blue-collar kid from the west side of Duluth who discovered a flair for the spoken word on the debate team at Denfeld High School.
“It’s astounding,” Drawz said of the three-decade-old case in a recent interview. “Who thought I would still be around?”
City officials, for one, are glad Drawz is still working.
“He’s like a bulldog with a bone,” said New Brighton Mayor Dave Jacobsen. “It hasn’t been an easy struggle. The city of New Brighton owes a great debt to John Drawz.”
Drawz is the first to point out that it was not a solo effort to take on the Army and secure one of the largest settlements ever in an environmental case against the U.S. government.
Drawz was first assisted by the water quality experts at Twin Cities-based Barr Engineering and then recruited a team of younger lawyers from his firm of Fredrikson & Byron.
He calls Barr’s chief operating officer, Greg Keil, “absolutely indispensable” and credits the New Brighton City Council for having the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the Army when the Army denied it was the culprit for the polluted drinking water.
“It took a lot of guts for New Brighton, an older, first-ring suburb,” Drawz said. “But they cinched it up and said, ‘We’re not going to take this.’ ”
Alexandra Klass, an environmental and energy professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said abandoned or closed federal military facilities are notorious for the contamination they leave behind. But, she said, it is still a considerable task for a local government to challenge the federal government with all of its resources and expertise.
“Local governments often have limited resources, so this is a pretty good result for the city,” Klass said of the New Brighton settlement.
The Army did not respond to a request for a comment on the New Brighton settlement.
At 5 feet 10 and 160 pounds, Drawz looks considerably younger than his 72 years. But retirement is not in the foreseeable future.
“I’ve got so many interesting cases to work on,” he said from a conference room in Fredrikson’s 40th floor downtown Minneapolis offices.
Indeed, Drawz has a history of high profile legal jobs.
Before the New Brighton assignment, Drawz had been lead counsel for Cooperative Power Association, which along with United Power Association was embroiled in a mega-controversy in the 1970s as the two utilities built a major power line across central Minnesota.
Public outcry and protests were headline-grabbing, top-of-the-evening-news events. Landowners worried that the high-voltage transmission lines could have health consequences for humans, as well as livestock, living below them.
Among the protesters was a young firebrand from Carleton College named Paul Wellstone, who would build his champion-of-the-little guy reputation to eventually become a U.S. senator from Minnesota.
“That’s all I did for six or seven years,” Drawz recalled about the power-line construction. “New Brighton figured anyone who could do the power line deal could handle the water case.”
“John is better prepared and better organized, and he knows what he’s up against better than anyone else,” said Keil, who joined the case on Barr’s behalf in 1988. “He’s tenacious that way.”
Focused is another way to describe Drawz. As a golfer, Drawz at one time had an admirable five handicap. He was a competitive handball player at the old Minneapolis Athletic Club and played hockey until he was 42.
A 1964 graduate of Macalester College with a degree in political science, Drawz went straight to law school, graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1967. With the Vietnam War in full swing, Drawz knew he was about to get drafted, so he enlisted in the Air National Guard, became a first lieutenant and was a navigator on a C-97 Stratofreighter used to ferry troops and supplies. He flew six years, one of which was on active duty.
After a brief stint working for then-Attorney General Doug Head, Drawz went into private practice.
The New Brighton water case against the Army began in 1981 when the Minnesota Department of Health discovered that New Brighton’s water supply was polluted and ordered the city to find a new source of uncontaminated water for the suburb’s 20,000 residents.
For years, the Army denied being the source of pollution. In 1984, the city sued the Army, and in 1988 the Army acknowledged the solvents and residue from its ammunition plant had contaminated New Brighton’s water supply. In 1992, the Army committed $17 million for a water treatment facility for New Brighton.
“For seven years, the Army lied and that profoundly offended John’s sense of right and wrong,” said New Brighton City Manager Dean Lotter. “This was not your average lawsuit. The city spent a lot of time and money to secure a safe water supply.”
But in 2011, the Army attempted to rewrite the settlement so the water filtration process would be regulated under federal instead of state law. The Army also wanted to convert the reimbursement system to an annual appropriation instead of providing long-term funding.
In 2014, the city, with Drawz in the lead, went back to federal court in order to make the Army stick to the original terms of the earlier settlement. After several marathon sessions under the supervision of U.S. Magistrate Judge Janie Mayeron, the new 20-year deal was hammered out.
“We were the aggrieved party that was injured by the Army’s negligence. We didn’t want to be treated like a government contractor,” Lotter said.
Keil said Drawz was offended by the Army’s change of heart.
“John went back to the original agreement and maintained a position along those principles and was dogged about it,” Keil recalled.
In the end, after more than $3 million in consulting and legal fees were paid by the Army, Drawz and his team received another tribute: a standing ovation from the New Brighton City Council.
“I’ve been representing different cities for all of my life, and that was the first time for that,” Drawz said.