David Sive, a father of environmental law, dies at 91

NEW YORK — David Sive, who argued precedent-setting cases of environmental law and helped establish a string of advocacy groups when such issues had barely penetrated public consciousness, died March 12 in West Orange, N.J.

He was 91.

His family confirmed the death.

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At his death, Mr. Sive was a retired founding partner of Sive, Paget & Riesel, a prominent environmental law firm in Manhattan. Well before 1970 — the year in which the US Environmental Protection Agency was established, the federal Clean Air Act was passed, and the first Earth Day was celebrated — he had begun working to preserve wild areas across the country from pollution and development.

His efforts centered on the Northeast — in particular the Hudson River Valley, the Adirondacks, and the Catskills — but also extended as far afield as Alaska.

A significant early case, which Mr. Sive joined as a litigator in the mid-1960s, was Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission. At the center of the case, which originated in the early ’60s, was an immense hydroelectric plant that Consolidated Edison had planned to build into Storm King Mountain, on the west bank of the Hudson about 50 miles north of New York City.

The ensuing legal battle, known as the Storm King Mountain case, lasted nearly two decades. The defendant, the Federal Power Commission, had granted Con Edison’s license for the project.

Members of the preservation group argued that the plant would mar the beauty of Storm King, famed as a scenic spot, and imperil local water and fisheries. But at the time there was little precedent for private citizens to bring suit in cases in which economic harm was not at issue.

In 1965, in a decision that had enormous ramifications for future environmental lawsuits, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs had standing as an “aggrieved party” on the basis of potential environmental and aesthetic harm to their region.

In 1980, in a negotiated settlement, Con Edison agreed to abandon the project.

Mr. Sive also argued Citizens Committee for the Hudson Valley v. Volpe; that case, decided in 1969 and affirmed on appeal the next year, helped halt construction of the Hudson River Expressway, a proposed six-lane highway on the river’s east side, extending north from the Bronx to Beacon, N.Y.

In Committee for Nuclear Responsibility v. Seaborg, a 1971 case that drew international attention, Mr. Sive argued against the US plan to test a nuclear warhead of some 5 megatons in Alaska by detonating it underground on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian chain.

The case ultimately reached the US Supreme Court, which declined to delay the test; the blast, code-named Project Cannikin, took place Nov. 6, 1971, rocking Amchitka with deep shock waves. But the suit helped focus worldwide concern on the issue of nuclear testing, and the United States abandoned further tests of that sort.

David Sive was born in Brooklyn, the son of Abraham Sive and the former Rebecca Schwartz, and as a youth fell under the spell of the wild on hikes in the Catskills and Adirondacks. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Brooklyn College in 1943, he served with the US Army in Europe.

Carrying Thoreau’s “Walden” to war with him, he took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Wounded twice, he received the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster; while recuperating in an Army hospital in England, he read Wordsworth and other pastoral poets.

After earning a law degree from Columbia in 1948, Mr. Sive joined the firm Seligson, Morris & Neuberger. He helped start his firm, originally known as Winer, Neuberger & Sive, in 1962.

A Democrat, Mr. Sive ran for Congress in 1958 from what was then New York’s 28th District, comprising much of the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. He lost to the Republican incumbent, Katharine St. George, as had the previous Democratic challenger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin, in 1956.

Mr. Sive, who lived in Montclair, N.J., and Margaretville, N.Y., in the Catskills, leaves his wife, the former Mary Robinson, whom he married in 1949; three sons, Alfred, Walter, and Theodore; two daughters, Rebecca Sive and Helen Sive Paxton; and six grandchildren.

A past chairman of the Atlantic chapter of the Sierra Club, he was a founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Law Institute, Friends of the Earth, and Environmental Advocates of New York, among other groups. He taught at Columbia, Pace University, and elsewhere.

Mr. Sive’s first case to attract wide attention in the news media occurred in 1951 and concerned an environmental scourge long familiar to New Yorkers: double-parking.

The case, which sought only $14 in damages, involved a car, parked legally on a Manhattan street, that became hemmed in by two double-parked ones.

When the driver of the legally parked car tried to extricate it, he scraped the double-parked car in front, damaging the door of his own vehicle. A municipal court judge held the owner of the double-parked car liable for the damage, a verdict upheld by the state Supreme Court.

For Mr. Sive, the ruling was a double victory: The damaged car was his own.