Jerry Balter, 94, of Philadelphia, a public interest lawyer who represented poor and minority communities seeking redress from environmental pollution, died of heart failure Saturday, July 16, at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
Mr. Balter became a lawyer at age 55, relatively late in life, after a career as an industrial engineer in Rochester, N.Y., designing supermarkets. While there, he also became interested in community activism.
From that experience, he said, he learned that lawyers skilled at arguing cases in court were often clueless when it came to talking with citizen activists.
"I thought that there was a real need for lawyers who could communicate with the community, and for helping community members communicate with lawyers," Balter told the Inquirer in 1993. "I thought that my experience in community work might be helpful, and that was one of the reasons I decided to become a lawyer."
Mr. Balter earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law-Camden in 1977, and in 1979 joined the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), a nonprofit practice that engages in various legal matters.
Among his efforts was a push to change the practice of locating industrial polluting facilities in low-income and minority neighborhoods. To that end, he directed a study showing that neighborhoods near heavy industry had higher cancer mortality rates than other neighborhoods.
When asked by a reporter where he proposed putting heavy industries that pollute, Mr. Balter gave a tongue–in–cheek response: "The people of Chestnut Hill have a right to have some of this waste like everybody else," he told the Inquirer.
Mr. Balter filed lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia under the 1973 Clean Air Act, forcing the city to clean up trash incinerators and curb air pollution from the sewage treatment plant. He successfully sued coke and smelting operations in the city, stopping air pollution.
He also was responsible for drafting Philadelphia's Right-to-Know Law, giving city residents the right to be told of hazardous materials being stored or used by manufacturers in their neighborhoods.
Mr. Balter spearheaded efforts to implement Pennsylvania's first auto-emissions inspection program in the 1970s. When the state balked at such action, he persuaded a judge to cut off its federal highway funding. After a lengthy court battle, auto emissions were implemented in the mid-1980s.
In 2011, PILCOP gave Mr. Balter the Thaddeus Stevens Award for his contributions to the cause of environmental justice.
In Rochester, N.Y., where he spent most of his adult life, Mr. Balter was a fixture at peace and civil rights marches in the 1950, '60s and '70s. He advocated for integrated classrooms, and helped minority families to obtain housing in the city's segregated suburbs.
Mr. Balter grew up in the Bronx, New York City, during the Great Depression and graduated from Stuyvesant High School and City College of New York.
In leisure time, Mr. Balter was an artist. He made paper sculptures while watching Eagles games on television.
He is survived by his wife of 71 years, Ruth Gottdank Balter; daughter Kathë; sons Joseph A. and David M.; five grandchildren; and a brother and a sister.
Mr. Balter donated his body to science. Funeral plans were pending.
Donations may be made to PILCOP via www.pilcop.org/donate.