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Yannacone's involvement with DDT began around 1965, when his wife Carol expressed dismay at dead fish in Yaphank Ponds, her childhood swimming holes in Suffolk County, Long Island, NY. Yannacone, as reported in the Ann Arbor News on March 11, 1970, at the U of Mich Crisler Auditorium, "outlined his concerns with the environment as an offshoot of his work as a civil rights lawyer under Saul Alinsky". The young attorney developed some novel arguments and legal strategies, as well as spearheading a national publicity campaign, all leading to major court cases and the eventual US ban on the pesticide's use. The Environmental Defense Fund grew out the small local grassroots group that gathered to help organize the campaign, which included founders Art Cooley and Charles Wurster.
A similar effort in Nassau County about a decade earlier involved citizens and scientists who suspected a connection between widespread DDT use and rapidly declining bird life. Although they were unable to inspire any governmental action, their efforts (reported in the New York Times) interested the naturalist author Rachel Carson. She suggested to New Yorker editor William Shawn that he commission an in-depth piece on the subject, and she reluctantly accepted his request that she do it herself. The result was Silent Spring, a bestseller that produced a fierce response from the chemical industry. It was this well-funded and determined opposition that the nascent EDF had to overcome.
Yannacone's involvement in the Agent Orange issue was not an unqualified success, largely due to internal personality conflicts, and he left the campaign before its work was completed. His representation of a community group fighting to stop construction of a large tower at the Gettysburg Battlefield ran into even more controversy, when he accepted an offer to switch sides. The Gettysburg National Tower, as it was called, was built in 1974. Historic preservationists remained opposed to it and it was demolished in a public ceremony on July 3, 2000.
In 1979, prior to his involvement in the Agent Orange class action, Yannacone represented Linda Boreman, known by her screen name as Linda Lovelace, in a lawsuit to recover a portion of the substantial earnings of the film "Deep Throat". The lawsuit, brought in Nassau County, New York, was dismissed without a trial and was never appealed. Yannacone is a prominent figure in Boreman's 1986 autobiography "Out of Bondage".
Yannacone's work in the DDT case, and perhaps in the early phases of the Agent Orange case as well, remain among the more notable campaigns in the brief history of environmental law - a history that some say began in Yaphank in 1966.
Yannacone reentered environmental law in 2003, representing a group opposed to wind turbines in Kansas. The suit was unsuccessful and came at a time when renewable energy was heavily promoted.
Patchogue Village controversy
Around 1999, Yannacone became immersed in Patchogue Village politics, and in efforts to revive the fortunes of this fading commercial town on Long Island's Great South Bay. His party won, and the picturesque but hazardous remains of a large historic lace mill were soon demolished. This was said to be a giant step forward in the community's revitalization.
Yannacone's involvement in Patchogue Village politics also led him to a bitter fight with local teachers in the Patchogue-Medford School District over the issue of teacher tenure. While some, including Yannacone, disagree with granting tenure to public school teachers claiming that tenure keeps incompetent teachers employed, it fails to account for two issues. First, there are other mechanisms in place to dismiss teachers of lesser quality. Second, the public school teachers are subject to a board of education, whose members run elections to be on the board, that sometimes act like politicians with questionable ethics rather than altruistic public servants. (In the mid-1990s, certain candidates for the Patchogue-Medford board of education actually distributed a list of every teacher in the Patchogue-Medford school district along with every teacher's salary, claiming the people who were trying to educate the children in Patchogue and Medford were overpaid. While the information is publicly available though government agencies, the candidates decided to distribute the information in flyer form at supermarkets and other atypical venues. The flyers, however, failed to state the salaries of the candidates.)
Yannacone's position gave him some notoriety in the mainstream media when he was prominently featured on the ABC-TV newsmagazine 20/20 in a report about teacher tenure. The reporter, Lynn Sherr, highlighted two teachers of lower ethics. The failing of these two teachers were of the type that could occur in any profession or industry, but Sherr's report failed to show a legitimate connection that the two teachers' personal failings and the issue of teacher tenure, either in causing said failings or in causing the prevention of their dismissal in legal proceedings. These particular teachers were not part of the Patchogue-Medford School District. This fact, however, did not prevent Sherr from interviewing Yannacone, who had no legitimate connection to the particular teachers of questionable character, but he did have a loud and bellicose voice during the interview which tends to play well on television while hiding any flaws from an audience with minimal attention spans. Consequently, Yannacone appeared like a generic radio talk show host brought in by a television show to just talk rather than a competent attorney. The 20/20 report also featured exterior shots of South Ocean Avenue Middle School of the Patchogue-Medford School District (which also had no connection to the aforementioned teachers) and a cursory interview with a number of Patchogue-Medford teachers. The interview with the Patchogue-Medford teachers was conducted en masse, not solo as was the courtesy extended to Yannacone, and was also featured significantly less prominently, both in time on camera as well as verbal off-camera framing by Sherr, than the Yannacone interview.