Backyard Talk

Spring Often A Sad Time For Families

Spring is here which is generally a very nice time of year where people look forward to opening their windows and planting gardens. Unfortunately in many of the communities that CHEJ works in people dread spring and summer. Why, because their air is contaminated and they have been told not to plant a garden. Consequently, they look out their kitchen windows with a sad heart knowing that the barren ground that once was rich with vegetables is now too toxic for human consumption. Families also understand that the ground is likely a toxic risk for their children to play out of doors, but what choice do they have<p>.

Although it’s warm or even hot in some places parents are fearful about opening their windows to let the breeze in because they know that along with the breeze is chemicals and nasty particulates. So a lovely spring day in neighborhoods impacted by chemicals, becomes a reminder of what they’ve lost by no cause or act of their own.

Corporations have the right to pollute. There are laws and regulations that outline how much they can pollute the air and how much harm they can do (based on a cancer risk analysis) but no one in the regulatory agencies puts together what the real risks are to people when you live in an industrial zone. Each facility is allowed to release a certain amount of chemicals but when you look at those releases collectively the levels at time is staggering.

Families living in areas with a number of industries never choose or even thought one day they would be poisoned. For example just outside of Baltimore, Maryland in Wagner’s Point families lived there for generations. This area is actually a peninsula that juts out into the bay. People had small summer homes and it served as a nice place for retirees. Men and women once went to the shore a block from their home to fish, go crabbing or to have a picnic. Spring was a welcome time of year for them.

However, over time the center of the peninsula became more and more industrialized. Oil storage tanks and chemical plants began popping up. Eventually the center of the peninsula was all industry. The air was foul, truck traffic a serious problem and the crabs were no longer safe to eat. Families were told that if there was an accident at any of the facilities that they would be trapped at the end of the peninsula and could only escape if they were to jump into the water. They were assured that a boat would make its way to them to pluck them out.

The families were there first. The regulatory agency permitted each of these plants like they were located on an island with no other industries around. Wagner’s Point and a northern community also on the peninsula became unsafe for children, adults and pets. CHEH worked with families there to help them obtain relocation. They won and were able to leave but where is the fairness in that. Families were there first, they lived in a beautiful water front community until the industries took over.

Today those same families, especially the seniors are remembering when they looked forward to spring. Remembering when the stood at water’s edge and fished or picnicked. Gone are the boat rides, looking for crabs or swimming in the water. For them spring is healthier where they live now but a piece of their heart, love and family tradition is gone.

Some say spring is beautiful for the privileged. Spring is for those who can live far from industries, those who can afford the time, resources and money to fight back to protect their community. I believe spring a beautiful spring is for everyone. We all need to just keep on pushing back and we need to help those who are in need of our assistance. A happy spring should be had by all.

Backyard Talk

Counting Heads Is Not Enough To Address Environmental Justice

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Alonzo Spencer CHEJ's BOD Chair

Today in the Washington Post was a front page news story that talks about how the large environmental organizations are not diverse enough.

This is the same story written many times beginning in the late 1980’s. It sparked a national conversation and action that lead to the first Environmental Justice Summit in 1991 and in 1994 Bill Clinton signed an executive order Environmental Justice Act. The story talked about counting heads (non-white) on staff, in decision making positions and members of the Board. That story is not new and I believe is way too narrow of a focus.

The large environmental organizations have brought more diversity to their staff and their board, then was the case in 1990, but they are still a far cry from being diverse. However, I think just counting people of color within an organization is not the only or even the best measurement of their efforts to address the multitude of issues within the context of environmental justice.

One point that the Washington Post article raised, I think is at the heart of the issues. “Today, minority communities — black, Latino and Native American — along with low-income white neighborhoods still bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s toxic pollution. They are in the shadows of petrochemical plants and coal-fired power plants, the nation’s greatest source of stationary pollution, according to the Congressional Research Service.” A diverse group of staff and board members will not change anything unless the large green organizations decide to makes a radical shift in their missions, goals and resource allocation.

It is a fact, detailed in a NCRP report that, environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the grassroots community-based groups that are most heavily impacted by environmental harms. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2% of all environmental groups, yet receive more than 50% of all environmental grants and donations. This makes it even more imperative that large organizations need to not only change the ethnic makeup of staff and board but also move significant resources to reflect their commitment to the field. The report makes the simple but profound argument that the current environmental funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at communities most impacted by environmental harms, the movement will continue to fail.

In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters. In other words, successful movements for social change — anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights — have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

Robert Garcia said in the Washington Post article, “The values of the mainstream environmental movement don’t focus on the needs of people. They focus on clean air, water and climate.” I agree with Robert Garcia, who founded and provides counsel for the City Project in Los Angeles and would add why are they not investing in communities on the front lines?

Alonzo Spencer, CHEJ’s Board Chairman, lives with a hazardous waste incinerator that has been out of compliance more often than in compliance. His community was designated an Environmental Justice Community by the US EPA in the 1990’s. Other than CHEJ, his neighborhood has no skilled national group helping them. Where are the lobbyists that are needed to change the laws, not at the national level but at the state level?

In Ohio if you are out of compliance (not obeying the law) but you have a plan or schedule to come into compliance, you are considered in compliance. I know this because that is what the appeals court ruled when CHEJ took the case as far up as we could. So, in reality the facility never really needs to be in compliance they just need to keep putting together plans that say they will someday comply with the law. Yes, it is a fence line problem but it is also a climate issue given they release more than permitted of chemicals that impact climate and discharges contaminate the Ohio River and other sources of water.

Alonzo’s community has the highest rate of cancer in the state. Their elementary school was closed, which was a necessary action because the top of the stack of the incinerator was almost level to the school windows due to it being built below the bluff where the school stood. The local taxpayers had to pay to move the children to another school. A low-wealth county, spending money they don’t have to keep their children safe.

Or where are the resources to assist communities in Corpus Christi, TX? Along refinery row, all the industries say they are in compliance, and maybe they are, but when you have miles of refineries collectively the air is not breathable. Who lives there? Suzie Canales, another member of CHEJ’s board who tells the story about how the city charter designated section of the city specifically for African Americans and Latino’s to live. If you were Latino or African American family you could not purchase property outside of the cities designated area for your ethnic group. Therefore, homes were purchased near the refineries because they were not permitted to buy other properties. Now the properties are not only unsalable but a health risk to families who live there.

The conversation about environmental organizations and environmental justice really needs to be about resources and assistance to the front line communities rather than head counting. Someday, maybe all of the Green Groups would be diverse, but that alone will not translate into playing an active role in bringing real aide and justice to front line communities. There needs to be diversity, resources and a core commitment to solutions and necessary actions that come from the people who are impacted.


Backyard Talk

The Next Wave of Recycling: Food Waste

Recycling glass, plastics, metals and paper has become a part of every day life for most Americans. Recycling rates (including reuse, remanufacture, composting) have reached 32% nationwide, which is more than double what it was 10 years ago. Many municipalities have successfully added curbside collection of yard waste and are now posed to take the next step in this evolution – the collection of food waste scraps for composting.

Americans generated 33 million tons of food waste in 2010 of which only 3% was recycled. The remainder went to landfills or was burned. It’s the next major component of the waste stream to take on in the efforts to reach zero waste. Currently about 170 communities in 18 states offer curbside collection of residential food waste which represents a 50% increase since 2009. In 2005, there were only 20 food waste collection programs in the US. Most of the existing programs are on the west coast with California offering 53 programs and Washington offering 52. California pioneered organic recycling when it passed a law in 1989 to divert half its waste from landfills by 2000. The city of San Francisco took this mission even further when it set a goal of diverting 75% of its trash by 2010 and now has set a goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. One strategy employed by the city has been to charge residents and businesses based on how much trash they generate (known as pay as you go). By doing this, individuals and businesses have an incentive to find ways to reduce the amount of trash they generate, which in turn, has helped to boost recycling rates.

The primary limiting factor to starting a food scrap collection program has been and remains a place to take the waste.  There are not enough facilities that can process food waste into compost.  The city of Portland, Oregon which began weekly collection of food waste and yard waste in October of 2011 recently decided to send its commercial food waste to a facility in Washington more than 200 miles away. The city had no choice as the county that had been accepting this waste voted to no longer allow the facility to accept commercial food scraps because of numerous complaints about odors from nearby residents.

Changes are coming however as the big guys like Waste Management, the largest waste hauler and disposal company in the country gear up to get into the composting business.  In addition, companies have incorporated simple steps to make it easy for people to participate. Many companies provide buckets lined with a plastic bag for people to place their food scraps and organic waste. The bucket is placed at the curb along with a trash barrel and a recycling bin. Many communities are starting slowly with pilot programs, but others are already reaping the benefits. In the first year of its food waste collection program, for example, the city of Portland, Oregon reduced the amount of residential waste it generated from 94,100 tons to 58,300 tons, a 38 percent drop. Keep your eyes out for a food waste collection program coming to your community.  It’s only a matter of time.

Backyard Talk

A day in the life of CHEJ staff.

A Cold Wednesday in March Demonstrated the reach CHEJ has and how much is really accomplished.

A Cold, Windy and Snowy Day Did Not Stop Us.

Wednesday March 6th a storm was brewing across the Midwest and Northeast.  Despite the snow and travel warnings CHEJ’s leaders moved forward.  Here is what happened on that cold, windy and snowy Wednesday in March.

A day in the life of CHEJ

As I juggle calls from activists across the state of Ohio working on fracking, deep well injection, air pollution, cancer clusters and more I’m freezing outside at and anti injection well rally at the state capital.  Cold and tired watching e-mails cross my phone from CHEJ’s home office I realize how much CHEJ does in a day to move the country toward a safe, healthy and justice place for American families.

While I’m in Columbus, Ohio participating with my neighbors and friends to speak out about fracking waste disposal.  Even with the nasty weather, over 125 people gather at the state house to ask legislators to  stop accepting out-of-state fracking wastes. Ohio now has over 200 injection wells and last year accepted  581,559,594 gallons (that’s right over 581 million gallons) of fracking wastes.

My co-worker is working on greening the market place organized a shareholder action in Arizona around Disney’s use of poison plastic in toys and other children’s products.  This morning a shareholder action was held in Phoenix, Arizona.  Leaders handed out informational packets to Disney shareholders to ask them to stop using PVC the poison plastic in their toys.  Many shareholders had no idea that toys were being made in a way that could harm young children.

Commemorating 35th Anniversary of Love Canal

In New York City

That same evening a celebration and fundraiser was held in New York City with our Executive Director Lois Gibbs.  This was our first event  of several, commemorations of Love Canal events 35 years ago were underway.  Chevy and Jayni Chase joined us as our special guest along with 67 others who braved the weather to celebrate with us that evening.  CHEJ surpassed our fundraising goal at the event and launched the Leadership Training Academy.  Great time was had by all with great food, drinks, conversations with colleagues and a preview of the new documentary A Fierce Green Fire, The Battle for A Living Planet.

Backyard Talk

Dear Legislators by Elisabeth Hoffman

This blog posted by Elisabeth Hoffman is worth sharing especially as activist try to move the state of Maryland to place a moratorium on fracking until studies are conducted that prove fracking is safe. I thought I’d post this instead because it moving.

So, we are taking stock. On the downside: The fracking moratorium legislation for Maryland fell one vote short of getting out of its Senate committee during this General Assembly session.

On the plus side: The Senate committee at least voted. And the vote was sooo close.

And, we are not going away. Or giving up.

That was the message from more than 100 concerned Marylanders at yesterday’s rally in front of the State House in Annapolis. In the pointed words of Mike Tidwell, Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s director, we told legislators: You had better “get to work” to protect communities, the environment and the climate from fracking.

The rally, organized by CCAN, included parents and grandparents, college and high school students and teachers (including a group from Glenelg Country School in Howard County), a couple of babies in backpacks and strollers, nurses and other activists, and Western Maryland residents who live in areas that would be drilled or where natural gas compressor stations are planned.

One of the biggest lessons of the day, though, came from Lois Gibbs, who organized her Love Canal neighbors in the late 1970s when toxic waste buried under their homes and schools started making people sick.

To the crowd at the rally, Gibbs said: “We did not win because we were right. Although we were right. We did not win because we were sick. Although we were sick. We did not win because we had legal rights. Although we had some rights. . . . We won because of people like you.” Science alone is not enough, she said. These will be political battles.

Toxic waste buried in the soil under Love Canal wasn’t supposed to move. But it did, and so will the fracking fluid, she said. “Do not go down this road with blinders on,” Gibbs said.

In Love Canal, 56 percent of children were born with birth defects, Gibbs said. They had extra fingers and toes, for example, or mental retardation, she said.

All the assurances from the natural gas industry that the fracking fluid will never cross into the water table are “hogwash,” she said. As executive director of the Center for Health, Environment &Justice, Gibbs said she has traveled to communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming where drilling is happening. She has seen mothers who can’t bathe their children in the tap water and neighbors who have to raise money to bring public water lines to houses. While the industry makes millions.

“Fracking will kill the environment,” she said. More studies are needed, she said, “so that you don’t end up like the families at Love Canal.”

Also urging the crowd to press on was Garrett County resident Eric Robison, the owner of Eagle Rock Construction and a co-founder of CitizenShale. He said he was heartened by the size of the crowd because three years ago he and just a few others were sitting around a table trying to figure out what to do about the fracking wave headed for their community.

Image Eric Robison of CitizenShale says the governor’s temporary executive order and funding are insufficient. He said the state needs a legislative moratorium to have time to finish the studies called for in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2011 executive order. Although O’Malley has included $1.5 million in the next budget for the studies, he said, Environment Secretary Robert Summers has said neither the time nor the money is likely to be sufficient to complete the studies by the time the governor’s executive order expires in 2014.

After the rally, Robison, who is a contractor, said part of the reason he entered this fray is because he works with concrete daily. And concrete fails. Sometimes right away, sometimes years down the road. But it always fails. In fracking, a concrete casing forms the protective barrier between water aquifers and the steel casing that carries the hazardous fracking fluid.

Matia Vanderbilt, also a co-founder of CitizenShale, spoke at the rally a little more than a week after returning from the Frack Attack National Summit in Texas. “We are a piece of the puzzle,” she said, and must demand that legislators “put Marylanders first.”

The legislature “dropped the ball” this year, she said, but the defeat is a “small setback” and we can’t give up. Once the executive order expires, “we are completely vulnerable.”

Vanderbilt, who has lived in Western Maryland for 30 years, said she and others from Garrett County are fighting to protect water, children, farms and businesses. She talked about kayaking, swimming and hiking in the region and encouraged everyone to visit.

“When you come [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][to Garrett County], you will see why we fight,” she said. Next up: Environment Maryland, Food & Water Watch, CCAN and other groups are co-sponsoring a panel in Annapolis of landowners, farmers and others living with fracking in Pennsylvania. The event is Monday, March 18, at the House of Delegates building, Room 318, starting at 6 p.m. Speakers include: Rep. Jesse White (D), Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 46th District, (invited); Ralph Kisberg, president of Responsible Drilling Alliance, Williamsport, Pa., Margaret Henry, pig farmer from Lawrence County, Pa., and David Headley, landowner with drilling wells on his property in Smithfield, Pa. [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk

Celebrating 35 years of Success

What a night it was! Long-time and new friends joined Lois Gibbs in New York City to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Love Canal. The event also honored and celebrated Lois for her legacy and leadership as the founder of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ).
It was a truly celebratory evening. You could feel real energy in the room as everyone enjoyed the warm company and delicious food. It was a night to recognize how far we’ve come since the days of Love Canal and to reflect on the elements that have powered change in the past three decades.
In line with the celebratory theme, there were no lectures or speeches; a brief clip of the Love Canal segment in the documentary A Fierce Green Fire, The Battle for A Living Planet was shown. There was giggling at some scenes; boos at those that showed anti-environmental attacks, like when Ronald Reagan alleged that “the environmentalist won’t be happy until they turn the Whitehouse into a bird’s nest.” And of course, there was a lot of applause when Lois challenged President Carter and the U.S. government by taking the EPA representatives hostage. It was a fun fifteen minutes of viewing.
CHEJ and Lois certainly felt proud to be recognized and introduced by our special guests Chevy and Jayni Chase. The evening was also a successful fundraiser for CHEJ, bringing new critical resources to support the work of CHEJ’s Leadership Training Academy. The event is the first in a series that will be held this year across the country, commemorating the Love Canal anniversary and raising funds to train and mentor the next generation of grassroots leaders through the Academy.
A big thanks goes out to our host committee for their planning and support, especially to our co-chairs Sarah Stranahan and Cara McCaffrey. Their hard work has set a very high bar. Thank you to all who came and to our sponsors. Your support and involvement will have a lasting positive impact in the communities in which we serve.