By Bryan Hay

Richard “Rick” Engel ’74 remembers helping clean up the Elizabeth River, at one time a polluted waterway in urban New Jersey, during the first Earth Day in 1970.

Richard “Rick” Engel ’74

Richard “Rick” Engel ’74

“I’m old enough to have participated in the first Earth Day when I was a senior in high school,” says Engel, recalling the poor condition of the river, which still flows next to his high school campus. “I was always interested in the environment, from the very beginning.” 

A formidable force against polluters since that Earth Day experience, Engel has been a deputy attorney general for the state of New Jersey for more than 40 years.

Since 1981, he has been with New Jersey’s Division of Law (DOL) Environmental Enforcement/Environmental Justice section, ensuring that polluters remediate some of the most notorious hazardous waste sites in New Jersey, including a dioxin/Agent Orange manufacturing site in Newark, chromate waste sites in Hudson County, and a former radioactive waste site in Montclair.  

“I feel like I’ve been doing some good, which is really important to me,” he says modestly, estimating that he’s worked on thousands of cases over his career. “In my 44-year career, I have not been bored one single day. It’s always something new, something different, something interesting. Most importantly, you’re making an impact on people’s lives.”

For his tireless work in enforcing environmental laws, Engel earned a recent nomination by his DOL peers for the 2021 New Jersey Law Journal Lifetime Achievement Award. 

As part of the formal nomination submission, Larry Stanley, who worked with Engel from 1981 through 2006, described his lifetime of service at the DOL: “Rick is among the best and most persevering of the dedicated lawyers who answered the call of the environmental era that began in the 1970s.” 

Never a heavy-handed prosecutor bent on settlements involving crippling fines, Engel has always approached each case holistically, compassionately, and practically.

Recalling a case involving a paper recycling facility in Elmwood Park, Engel took a contrary position to that of his colleagues, working out a settlement that saved 1,000 jobs and prevented the company from filing for bankruptcy.

“They produced most of their products from recycled paper. Not only did it employ a lot of people, but it was doing good work by recycling,” he recalls. “They had all kinds of environmental problems at the site, and everybody in the Department of Environmental Protection resigned themselves to letting the company go bankrupt and shutting the plant. ‘We’re never going to be able to work this out,’ was the resounding sentiment.”sustainability graphic that says "share your sustainability story"

A new owner, unable to pay for the necessary remediation but willing to find a solution, worked with Engel, who managed to reach an amicable settlement, despite the contrary views on the case.

“There’s no way I’m willing to shut a plant that employs 1,000 people just because of some environmental problems that I think are solvable,” he remembers saying at the time. “So I worked and worked at it. And sure enough, we worked it out. I saved all these jobs, and we got money for a cleanup of the environment. That was probably my most satisfying case.”

It all comes down to protecting human health and human prosperity, he says.

“We’re trying to clean up contaminants that otherwise would cause health problems,” Engel notes. “The idea is to have a clean environment, so people can grow up and live without being harmed by all the chemicals and everything else. And that’s why I really liked this site remediation stuff, because it really is ultimately cleaning up sites so that they can be put back into productive use and employ people.”

 

Mentoring attorneys 

As the senior member of his division, Engel now finds himself mentoring younger attorneys. He preaches honesty, an ethic instilled in him at University of Virginia School of Law and when he and his late wife, Brenda, also an attorney, worked early in their careers for former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, when he served as Missouri’s attorney general. 

“Never take positions that are dishonest,” he says. “An honest, ethical approach is always the best way.”

For aspiring attorneys, Engel recommends pursuing an undergraduate path that offers interest and inspiration. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal pre-law program.

“Just take college courses that you like,” says Engel, who studied history at Lafayette and never took any environmental courses. “My belief, generally, is to get a good general education, learn how to think, and then you’ll be fine as a lawyer.”

Attorneys also need to ask themselves if they’re entering the field solely to make money for themselves and their clients, or perhaps to do something more selfless, he adds. 

“I’m up against senior partners at some of the biggest law firms in the country. And, you know, they’re doing their jobs and they’re doing them well. They’re helping their clients advance, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. There’s nothing wrong with that,” Engel says. “But I like the idea of thinking that you can use your position maybe more for the good.”

 

Lafayette, always Lafayette 

Engel, the chief fundraiser for his class for the past 10 years, remains close to Lafayette and works tirelessly to advance its reputation.

“I’m a big fan of Lafayette, where I learned independence and how to think critically, and have been very involved in serving on leadership councils and on the Board of Trustees,” he says. “I try my best, because I believe in Lafayette. Whenever I’m doing fundraising and get pushback, I always say to my fellow alumni, the better Lafayette looks, the better you and your degree look. When you can say you went to Lafayette, people are going to be impressed with you.”

Engel, who’s battling cancer, shows no signs of slowing down and plans to continue working as long as he can make a difference for the people of New Jersey. 

During the height of the pandemic, Engel took a moment to express his gratitude in an email message to his peers.

“It is remarkable that such a fine group of people have been assembled to work for the people and environment of New Jersey. I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from you, and I also continue to be amazed how smart and dedicated you are. Just so you understand how appreciated you are, it just happens that yesterday I was in New York to see a doctor at Sloan-Kettering who I had not met before.

He asked me about what I do for a living. When I described my work, he was so effusive in his praise for what I and all of you do. He said how remarkable it is that we give up an opportunity for more money and many other benefits so that we can serve the people and environment of our state. He continued, saying that I was a hero to him.

Imagine that a doctor who is the head of a department in a cancer facility who saves lives every day would call us heroes. I hope I can continue to enjoy your company for a long time, and that we can continue to do our tremendous work with support from each other.” 

“Rick’s email reflects his modesty and comradery,” says Michael Schuit, deputy attorney general in New Jersey’s Department of Law and Public Safety. “As a young state attorney in the late 1980s, Rick was my mentor. 

“I worked with Rick to negotiate the remediation of the Agent Orange/dioxin site in Newark and numerous chromium contaminated sites throughout Hudson County,” he adds. “The residents of New Jersey are fortunate that Rick was there at the right time and at the right place to successfully battle some of the nation’s worst polluters.”

Engel says he could have retired a long time ago, but there’s still work to do.

“I just feel like as long as I can do some good work, I’ll stick with it,” he says. “It’s satisfying work.”

 

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Categorized in: Alumni, Alumni Profiles, Alumni Success Stories, Class of 1974, Featured News, History, News and Features, Sustainability
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1 Comment

  1. Daniel Dantas says:

    Have known Rick since our days together at Theta Chi. He’s still as smart, generous, kind and dedicated as he was almost 50 years ago. I’m so glad he has worked so hard with such great results to preserve the environment in my state

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