Environmental: George W. House

By Frank Maley

Outside George House’s big office window, 20 floors above downtown Greensboro, a gray mist heralds a dying storm’s approach. Inside, Hurricane George already has taken his toll. Papers cover his desk. Brown folders cover a nearby table. He has to walk between boxes of documents to get to his desk chair. “It’s a hazardous dump — that’s what my friends say.”

House is better at cleaning up his clients’ legal messes than he is at clearing away the clutter they create in his office. When Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro needed to defend environmental permits it had been issued and keep site preparation for a FedEx package-sorting hub on schedule, it turned to House. So did PCS Phosphate, a fertilizer and feed producer owned by Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, when it needed to defeat a challenge to a water-quality permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a mine in Beaufort County. He won that case in August.

The airport has prevailed so far, though not all appeals have been exhausted. One of the most important things he has done was to block efforts to stop the $500 million FedEx project, scheduled to open in 2009. “It is a huge project and just staying on schedule is very important,” says Bill Cooke, general counsel to the Piedmont Triad International Airport Authority.

After nearly 30 years litigating environmental matters, House has a strong sense of what to do, where to do it and when, Cooke says. “You need to be able to focus on the heart of the issue: what is going to be most persuasive to the judge, what issue the case is going to turn on. To be a good trial attorney, you need to have that kind of judgment. And he does.”

House usually isn’t dramatic in court or in administrative hearings, Cooke says. Theatrics play better with juries than with the judges who hear most environmental cases. But a good litigator still has to put on a good show. “All litigators have to have a bit of P.T. Barnum in them,” House says. “If they don’t like the circus and can’t direct the circus, they don’t want to be a litigator.”

A good litigator also needs a competitive streak. House got his playing sports growing up in Martin County. His dad grew tobacco and peanuts, raised cattle and ran a fertilizer warehouse. House helped — if he couldn’t avoid it by playing sports or joining a club at school. “Daddy said, ‘As long as you’re doing something productive, son, you can do it. But if you’re sitting around, you get to work.’ It was a pretty good motivator. I became committed to many school activities.”

He went to Davidson College on an ROTC scholarship and majored in chemistry at first. That got him assigned to Army chemical ordnance, training to disarm bombs, so he switched majors to English.

In 1976, a senior partner at Brooks Pierce asked him to represent Burlington Industries in a dispute over a water-discharge permit. The federal Clean Water Act had been passed four years earlier, and few lawyers were familiar with environmental law. Few wanted to be. “I was in the right place at the right time,” House says. “Somebody handed me this case and said, ‘Nobody wants to do this. Go do this.’”

The early years were tough. Courts still were figuring out how to apply the new rules. “I used to say that half of environmental law was written on things that I lost the first 10 years of my career.” Since then, he has figured out how to win. And though it might not look like it, he says he has figured out how to manage his paper flow. “I do know where everything is — I think.”