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Intelligent Machines

Dennis Toft ‘79

Environmental lawyer combines science and action

Nine years ago, the former factory town of Edgewater, New Jersey, was home to a rundown strip of riverfront land that had been abandoned for years. “There were old, dilapidated structures and tank foundations,” says Dennis Toft. “Some chemicals had contaminated the soil, and others had reached the groundwater.”

Toft, an environmental lawyer who earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from MIT and a JD from Columbia University, worked with commercial developers, town officials, and representatives from the state and federal environmental protection agencies to transform the brownfield site into a thriving mixed-use development.

“Go there today and you’ll see a hotel and some high-end stores on the lower level and multifamily residences on the upper levels,” he says. “Look across the river and you’ll see the Manhattan skyline.”

This story is part of the November/December 2010 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Environmental law has been a natural career for Toft. A self-proclaimed science nerd, he remembers the thrill of participating in the first Earth Day when he was in seventh grade. He also remembers relishing MIT’s rigorous scientific training and wanting to apply it to practical–not just theoretical–problems.

Attuned to his interests, one of Toft’s physics professors suggested law school. For two years, Toft and Columbia law professor Frank Grad worked on a congressionally mandated Superfund study concerning personal-injury liability claims. In 1982, Toft graduated and became an environmental-law specialist at Wolff & Samson in West Orange, New Jersey, where he remains today.

“It’s exciting–right now there’s a big discussion among regulators in the environmental community about basing decisions on science,” he says. “Part of my job is to show that you have to look at multiple data points to understand trends; there’s no absolute measurement. Not all regulators readily understand that, but that’s part of the fun.”

In his spare time, Toft enjoys reading, running 5K races around northern New Jersey, and playing golf, as he puts it, “poorly.”

He lives in Berkeley Heights with his wife, Maria, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. They have four children. Dennis Jr. is a senior in high school, Elizabeth is a junior majoring in English at Bryn Mawr College, Richard is a senior majoring in economics at Vassar College, and their oldest son, Bill, is a combat engineer in the U.S. Army’s 1st Engineer Brigade.

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