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Hal Thomas

Year of Graduation: 
1970

"Exeter really sparked my interest in the law as a way of making change."

The film was short— no more than eight minutes — but the images it contained were shocking, Hal Thomas ’70 thought. The red-brick smokestack of the Milliken textile mill belching streams of dark smoke into the air over downtown Exeter flickered on the screen, as did shots of the orange effluent the plant would dump into a holding pond along the Squamscott River bordering Swasey Parkway. 

It was 1970, and Thomas, a senior in Hoyt Hall, served as chairman of Ecology Action, or Eco-Action, the leading environmental group on campus at the time. As part of efforts to commemorate the first Earth Day at the Academy and in the surrounding community, he and fellow student environmentalists had lobbied successfully for $200 from the Student Council to make the 8-millimeter short film depicting examples of pollution around town. They showed it in Assembly Hall, as well as in Exeter’s local churches and at civic group meetings.

“It wasn’t like there were PowerPoint projectors in every church,” Thomas says. “You ended up bringing speakers and an old-fashioned projector with two reels. It was a big deal, and it was quite rare at that time that students would be out making movies.” 

The Milliken textile mill, circa 1970.

The film was part of Eco-Action’s multipronged campaign that first Earth Day (April 22, 1970). Exonians also joined Exeter High School and Exeter Junior High students in cleaning up roadside litter and trash around town, handing out informational material on pollution to local residents, and canvassing for signatures on a petition to install an incinerator and sewage treatment plant in Exeter. 

As quoted in The Exonian at the time, Thomas, along with other club members, aimed to “make citizens of Exeter aware that the problem of pollution, which may seem very distant in Los Angeles or Lake Erie, exists right here in Exeter.” 

They had some help, and inspiration, from members of the faculty. Eco-Action’s adviser, Science Instructor David Walker, helped Thomas and his peers sample and test local water sources to demonstrate that contamination existed from coliform bacteria, among other pollutants. Walker’s mentorship had a major impact on Thomas. “He was a biology teacher who taught ecology,” he marvels. “No one in 1970 taught a class called ‘ecology’ to high school students. 

“It was just so empowering,” Thomas continues, “when you’re nearly failing French and you take a science class, and all of a sudden everything makes such good sense.”

A sign near the Exeter River warns of pollution in the water, circa 1970.

Now living in Sacramento, Thomas is (mostly) retired after a long legal career, including 16 years as an environmental prosecutor in Butte County, California. Exeter “really sparked my interest in the law as a way of making change,” Thomas says. He remembers well an assembly given by Thurgood Marshall, then a newly minted justice on the Supreme Court. (Marshall’s son Thurgood Jr., known as Goody, is a member of the class of ’74.) Later, Marshall sat in on Thomas’ history class. 

“He talked about how lawyers, starting in the late ’30s and early ’40s, plotted the strategy to get Brown v. Board of Education,” Thomas says. “He’s sitting in our class telling us how he started out working in a back-office NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and [how] they brought an end to segregation in the United States.” 

After graduation, Thomas headed west and launched his own legal career. In his first job, as a lawyer for California’s Department of Fish and Game, he joined the legal team arguing the plaintiffs’ side in the landmark Mono Lake Case. The state supreme court’s verdict in their favor applied the public trust doctrine (the principle that natural resources like air and water belong collectively to the people) for the first time to water use in California, allowing the government to regulate private water use according to the needs of the general public. 

“The idea that the government could impair your property interest because [there] was a public right is revolutionary,” Thomas says of the case. “We were able to collectively get the public trust doctrine adopted as California law, and eventually [it spread] all over the world.” 

An abandoned car near the Exeter River, circa 1970.

Later in his career, Thomas developed and participated in a state program called at the time the Rural Prosecutor’s Association, which placed specialty prosecutors of environmental crime in rural counties around the state. As a deputy district attorney in Butte County, which is home to Lake Oroville, one of the state’s largest man-made reservoirs, Thomas prosecuted more than 300 cases. One of the most important involved shutting down three large bio-mass power plants that were burning garbage from San Francisco and other cities. 

“It was nominally environmentally clean RPS [renewable portfolio standard] power,” Thomas says. “But in fact, when you’re burning wood waste contaminated with garbage, you’re basically polluting the community you’re in.” 

The ash that comes out of those plants is toxic, he explains, and the company was paying local farmers to use it as a soil amendment. The local case ended up as part of a statewide civil suit that lasted some five years, ending with the shutdown of the three Butte County plants, among others. 

Thomas could trace that victory over industrial polluters all the way back to the first Earth Day at Exeter, and his efforts to make more people aware of what was happening in their own neighborhoods and towns — efforts he’s still passionate about today, given the worsening effects of global warming and climate change. 

“We all have a duty to our children and to the world to not pollute,” Thomas says. “That’s the 1970 guy talking, and it’s sort of disappointing 50 years later that we’re not a little bit further along.”

— Sarah Pruitt ’95