Backyard Talk

New Health Studies Guide for Community Groups

The Boston University Superfund Research Program (BU SRP)recently made available the first four chapters of a new health studies guide targeted to community groups. The new guidebook, called Is a Health Study the Answer for Your Community? A guide for making informed decisions is available at For many years, environmental health scientists at BU included Dr. David Ozonoff and Dr. Richard Clapp worked with community groups to address health problems in communities. This experience together with input from many experts and organizations including CHEJ was used to develop this Health Studies Guide. The intent is to assist community groups and individuals who think that some form of environmental health investigation or health study may be useful or necessary in their community.

The guide begins by helping readers consider factors that might influence their decision about whether to do a health study. Readers are encouraged to thoughtfully define their goals, to consider whether a health study will be useful in meeting these goals, and, if so, to choose the appropriate kind of study. The guide includes a wide menu of health study types and helps you think through which one might be best to address the questions you are trying to answer. It takes you through the process of choosing and designing a study, but it is not a complete how-to guide. It does not, for example, explain how to do your own epidemiologic study or risk assessment, nor does it describe how to conduct a health survey, though helpful resources are included in the Appendix. One chapter explains how to evaluate the strength of a study’s results and how to think about what the results mean. The guide closes with a glossary to help sort through various technical terms and jargon.

The authors readily acknowledge that a health study may not be the answer to the fundamental questions that you are asking about the health problems in your family or in your community. Instead they offer alternatives to traditional health studies that may help achieve community goals. This guide should be a useful tool not only for those who are contemplating a study, but also for those who are involved in a study or are the subjects of one. It will help you think about your expectations for the study’s findings, costs, and time frame. We couldn’t agree more with this advice “Above all, if you decide on a health study you will want to organize and work with your entire community so that it is meaningful to you.”

Two additional chapters are still being developed and are expected to be completed in the near future. The authors welcome your comments and input.


Backyard Talk

51,500 drums of hazardous waste buried above sole source aquifer.

People for Safe Water, a group in Springfield, Ohio, are working for the reinstatement by the US EPA of the original cleanup plan for the Tremont Barrel Fill Site. This plan will ensure the sole source aquifer’s continuing yield of high quality, pure water for Clark County residents.

The Barrel Fill site contains 51,500 drums of chemical waste, as well as over 300,000 gallons of bulk liquid waste in German Township, buried in the late 1970’s.

· Following legislative procedures and public processes, US EPA’s Region 5 Superfund Division issued a site clean-up plan known as Alternative 4a in June 2010. This plan was acceptable to all local and OH EPA officials.

· Subsequently, US EPA issued another plan, known as Alternative 9a, on June 22, 2011, as the final clean-up plan. This plan was unacceptable to all local and OH EPA officials.

· The OH EPA, Clark County Combined Health District, Clark County Commissioners, Springfield City Commissioners, German Township Trustees, and our citizens group, People for Safe Water, all vigorously oppose Plan 9a because, if implemented, it will so compromise the purity of the sole source aquifer for Clark County.

· The corporations responsible for clean-up costs, or Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs), sued Chemical Waste Management (CWM), who had challenged its status as one of the PRPs. The court ruled that CWM is a PRP and is responsible for 55% of the cleanup costs

Key points of opposition to Plan 9A:

· It lacks the level of protection provided by Alternative 4a.

· It leaves untreated hazardous waste at the Barrel Fill site.

· It redefines principal threat waste to be only liquid waste.

· It ignores key unique geological features with serious consequences for the Springfield well fields and Mad River Aquifer.

The barrel fill site, a Superfund Alternative Site, sets above the sole source aquifer for 85,000 people, primarily Clark County citizens. This sole source of drinking water is at risk of contamination by chemical poisons from the Site. Charles Patterson, Clark County Health Commissioner, reports that trace contaminants are already showing up in monitoring wells below the site. US EPA’s original plan (June 2010), acceptable to all pertinent parties, would have adequately addressed the site’s cleanup. US EPA’s adoption of a subsequent plan (June 2011) threatens the water supply upon which the people and economy of the entire region depend.



News Archive

Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs joins R.I. effort to keep law on school siting strong

PROVIDENCE — In 1978, Lois Gibbs took on the powers-that-be when she learned that her son’s school and Love Canal neighborhood in New York were built on a toxic waste dump. Her battle led to the evacuation of hundreds of houses, sparked a massive environmental cleanup, and inspired a made-for-TV movie and the creation of the federal Superfund program.

On Wednesday, 35 years later, Gibbs climbed the steps of the State House to congratulate Rhode Island for enacting what she called the nation’s strongest law against building schools on contaminated sites. She has taken the 2012 bill to Michigan, Massachusetts and New York to promote it as a model.

So why, she asked, would anyone want to “undo the best piece of legislation in this country? … It’s less than a year and already they are trying to tear up the law.

“Why,” she continued, “would people want to put Love Canal beneath a school?”

Gibbs, having learned of the attempt to weaken the law, traveled from Virginia to lend her experience and fame to support the year-old law prohibiting school construction where toxic vapors pose a risk. She joined the rally organized by the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action, and the Childhood Lead Action Project.

The groups lobbied for several years for the so-called “school siting law” after losing a fight to stop Alvarez High School from being built on the former Gorham Manufacturing property in Providence. They were not satisfied with the pollution control systems installed at Alvarez.

Under the law, a school cannot be built on land where vapors from contaminants could potentially infiltrate a new building through cracks and holes. The source of the vapors must be removed or a different site chosen.

But if the law is amended as proposed in House and Senate bills, it would permit the use of engineered solutions that the activists oppose as unreliable and costly to maintain for taxpayers — dollars that could otherwise be spent on education.

The understanding of toxic vapors is “a new science,” said Jamie Rhodes, director of Clean Water Action. “There’s no need to make kids guinea pigs.”

Gibbs, who in 1981 founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Virginia, said both of her children became ill from Love Canal.

“We got sick not from the dump itself,” she said. “We got sick from vapor intrusion.”

The bills were drafted after the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies raised concerns about the law. The organization’s efforts to turn the site of the former Red Farm Studios greeting card company in Pawtucket into another Blackstone Valley Prep Charter School were halted when the law was enacted last year.

Story by: Richard Salit
Original Link:
News Archive

Advocates Protest Legislation Allowing Schools on Toxic Sites

Environmental advocates gathered at the Statehouse Wednesday to protest legislation that would roll back restrictions that prevent schools from building on toxic sites.

The woman who helped lobby for the federal superfund program, Lois Gibbs, spoke to a small group of demonstrators on the capitol steps. Gibbs brought attention to the Love Canal toxic site in Upstate New York back in the 70s. She is lending her star power to fight legislation that would allow schools to be built on sites where toxic vapors could be present. She said the bill would gut a new state law that serves as a national model.

“The current legislation that you passed, that they are trying to gut or change, is extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary.”

Gibbs said that legislation established the most stringent school building codes in the nation. A main sponsor of the legislation allowing school construction on sites with possible toxic vapors, Representative John Edwards of Tiverton, did not return our phone calls. Rhode Island Mayoral Academies support Edwards’ legislation. It says it would allow them to convert the former Red Farm Studios in Pawtucket into another Blackstone Valley Prep Charter School. The environmental advocacy group, Clean Water Action, says work was put on hold due to toxic substances found at the site.

Story by: Bradley Campbell

Original Link:

Backyard Talk

New Bill Circulating in New Jersey General Assembly Could Offer Much Need Relief for Communities Battling Polluters

A new bill circulating in New Jersey’s General Assembly is drawing controversy for its tough stance against industrial pollution in low-income neighborhoods.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D) introduced  Assembly Bill 3836 in February. The bill would bar industrial plants from being built in any neighborhood deemed to be a “burdened community.”  If passed, it could offer a much-needed reprieve for low-income residents of neighborhoods such as Ironbound in Newark. Ironbound has long struggled with pollution from local chemical plants, incinerators and Newark Liberty International Airport.  In this year’s State of the Air report card by the American Lung Association gave Essex County – where Newark is located — an “F” for poor air quality.

Ironbound is under constant siege of industrial expansion. This year its residents face a proposal calling for the construction of the Bayonne Bridge, which would carry legions of commercial trucks that pass through Newark’s East Ward. “Parents, community leaders and medical researchers say asthma is a particularly serious problem in the Ironbound, a hot spot for the chronic respiratory disease within a city whose asthma-related hospitalization rate is already more than double Essex County’s,” wrote reporter Steve Strunsky in the Star-Ledger.

In addition, construction has begun on a 655-megawatt natural gas plant, operated by Hess Corp, approved last year by the Newark Planning Board. Despite claims by Hess engineers of the plant’s low impact, many community activists remain outraged over the plant’s use of natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The use of such gas warrants concern for Ironbound residents, as it contains considerable amounts of methane (CH4), found in a study by the Air and Waste Management Association to “include organic compounds that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog), as well as hazardous air pollutants like benzene.”

Long-stressed Ironbound is just one of the many communities in New Jersey locked in a perpetual battle with industrial polluters. If passed, Assembly Bill 3836 would mark a major turning point in the struggle against industrial polluters and hopefully serve as a model for other similar struggles being waged across the nation.

Backyard Talk

Superfund Under Attack

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), held a hearing this week on three legislative proposals that pose a serious danger to the Federal Superfund toxic waste site cleanup program.  Earthjustice, Sierra Club, CHEJ and others are sending a letter to the policymakers this week to express strong opposition to the “Federal and State Partnership for Environmental Protection Act of 2013,” which weakens the nation’s Superfund law  and places American communities at risk of increased toxic exposure. The bill will increase litigation that will cause delays in cleanups and establish roadblocks to listing new toxic waste sites. The amendments contained in the bill will place our communities and their environment in danger and increase the cost of hazardous waste cleanup for U.S. taxpayers. 

While the Republicans are attacking Superfund, they are also continuing to oppose refinancing the financially ailing program, which means hundreds of leaking toxic waste sites are not being cleaned up.  This is a travesty and a public health crisis. 

Backyard Talk

Trouble at Marathon: Detroit Residents Tormented by Tar Sands Refinery

A black plume of noxious gas enveloped adjacent neighborhoods after a fire broke out at the Marathon Detroit Refinery on April 27th. Residents of nearby Melvindale were evacuated by town officials after the fire was designated a Level 3 Hazard. However, residents of Detroit received no immediate warning nor a call for evacuation by the city of Detroit, sparking outrage by the affected, predominantly African American community.  Residents complained of a lingering “foul egg smell” as well as general irritation in breathing, a local Fox station reported.

“The Marathon oil refinery fire was ultimately not a Level 3 Hazardous Materials incident, although that was the initial declaration based on preliminary information,” Detroit Fire Commissioner Donald Austin told the Detroit News. Officials are still testing air quality post-explosion. An environmental justice organizer at the Michigan Sierra Club Chapter, Rhonda Anderson, worries about a potential misreading of the samples taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The EPA did not arrive until after the fires had already been contained.” Anderson said by telephone, “This is the data the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality chose to go on”.

Since 2001, Marathon has racked up 13 air pollution violations by the MDEQ, including a nuisance violation for a continuing overpowering odor reported by community leaders. “We found terrible things. Carcinogens, carbon monoxide, benzene and toluene, which harm the nervous system, methyl ethyl ketone, which can cause blindness. A lot of really bad stuff,” local activist and cancer survivor Theresa Landrum reported.

In a 2011 study, Professor Paul Mohai from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment investigated air pollution around Michigan schools and its potential impact on academic performance in children. The study concluded that schools located near areas of heavy industry faced an increased chance of children developing neurological damage — in turn affecting academic performance– after exposure to high levels of air pollutants common to the burning of fossil fuels.

Marathon specializes in processing a type of heavy crude from Canada known as tar sands, which a study by Forest Ethics found releases heavy quantities of sulfur dioxide, a chemical associated with respiratory illness. The study referenced a 2010 EPA investigation of the local sewer system adjacent to the refinery, “finding cancer-causing chemicals benzene, toluene, and hydrogen sulfide,” known byproducts of tar sands refining and the  source of complaints of respiratory problems by nearby residents.

In 2012, Marathon completed its Detroit Heavy Oil Upgrade Project, a $2.2 billion expansion of its refining capacity; raising its input of Canadian heavy crude to an additional four hundred barrels a day. Marathon has also taken it upon itself to buy out local homeowners to build “green spaces,” an effort some suspect was designed to placate locals furious over the expansion. The Detroit Free Press noted many residents have sharply criticized the program, claiming the “purchasing agreement would bar them from suing Marathon for any future health problems.”

Marathon’s torment of the community is not an issue unique to Detroit. Rather, it is part of a larger problem of poor regulation of refineries that continues to make the lives of low-income families a low priority. The looming decision on whether the Keystone XL pipeline will win approval by the President will decide the fate of many communities near refineries, because the pipeline would bring heavy crude from Canada through the Midwest to Texas.

Residents of Port Arthur, Texas, have long battled the Valero Refinery, which like Marathon processes heavy crude. Hilton Kelley, head of Community In-power and Development Association (CIDA) and a life-long resident, said more tar sands crude would lead to “a serious increase of sulfur dioxide in our community.”

“This is what happens when you roll back regulations on safety,” Kelley said by phone. “These people don’t really care about the welfare of our communities”.

Backyard Talk

A Circle of Poison and Poverty

Imagine for a moment that you live in a community that is poor. You work every day in the service industry but just can’t make enough money to move to a better neighborhood. Now imagine that you have a young child who is gifted with high level of intelligence. You want to send your child to a school that can challenge her to help reach her potential. But, you can’t because of your limited income.

This is how one mother described her situation to me recently in Detroit, Michigan. She went on to say that the area around her home and school had lead levels, left over from former lead smelter activities, which were three times the legal standard. Her child and her neighbor’s children began their lives with so much potential. Today, the children are lead poisoned and are having difficulty passing the state school standardize tests. In fact, so many children are failing the standardized tests that their school is about to be closed, their teachers fired and their community further impacted by another empty building and no neighborhood school.

When people hear about the struggles in environmental justice communities they often only think about the immediate pollution and health impacts in a low wealth community. But to understand it one level deeper you need to understand that families living in these communities are really trapped. If you were only to look at their children’s ability to get out of poverty and reach the birth potential, it speaks volumes about the real world situation.

Their children cannot reach their potential because they are impacted by the chemicals like lead in their environments. Often young people, because they are frustrated in trying to achieve in school while faced with asthma, learning disabilities, and the inability to maintain attention students end up dropping out of school. Students weren’t born with the inability to achieve; it was due to their exposures to lead and other toxic environmental chemicals that they developed problems. Once students drop out of school they have little ability to improve their economic status and thus continue the family’s legacy of poverty.

Those who have the power to change this cycle of poison and poverty choose not to. Instead they cover their intentional neglect by blaming the victims, the parents, teachers, and community leaders. Not only do those in power blame the innocent, they exasperate the problem by ignoring the existing pollution while placing more polluting faculties in the area. I think it was Mayor Bloomberg who said, “Do you really want me to put that smokestack in downtown Manhattan?” when community leaders near NYC navy yard objected to an incinerator being added to their burdens.

I’m not sure how to change this situation. It is a larger societal crisis that will take the majority of people to demand change. Today it is only the voices of the desperate parents, frustrated teachers that sound the alarm and cry for justice. This must change.

Backyard Talk

Flame Retardants Linked to Lower Intelligence and Hyperactivity in Early Childhood

Researcher at the University of Cincinnati presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics earlier this month showing that prenatal exposure t o chemicals called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) is associated with lower intelligence and hyperactivity in early childhood. PBDEs have been used for decades as flame retardants to reduce the impact of fires in everyday products such as furniture, carpeting and electronics.

The authors collected blood samples from 309 pregnant women enrolled in a study at the university to measure PBDE levels. After the children were born, the authors conducted intelligence and behavioral tests annually until the children were 5 years old. PBDE levels in blood were found to be associated with deficits in child cognition at age 5 and with hyperactivity at ages 2 to 5 years. A ten fold increase in PBDE blood levels was associated with about a 4 point IQ deficit in 5-year old children.

Although PBDEs except deca-PBDE are no longer used in the U.S. as flame retardants, they are found in many consumer products bought years ago. In addition, these chemicals are highly persistent in the environment because they do not easily biodegrade, so they remain in human tissue for years and are transferred to the developing fetus from the mother. Dr. Aimin Chen, the lead author of the study, commented that the “study raises further concerns about [PBDE] sic toxicity in developing children.“ To view the abstract of the paper, “Cognitive Deficits and Behavior Problems in Children with Prenatal PBDE Exposure,” go to

In related news, officials in Europe in charge of three key international treaties reported that delegates agreed by consensus to a gradual phase out the flame retardant hexabromocyclododecane, or HBCD, which is used in building insulation, furniture, vehicles and electronics. HBCD is the third most commonly used brominated flame retardant world-wide following tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA) and decabromodiphenyl ether (deca-BDE). The phase out would begin a little more than a year from now, but there also would be specific exemptions for five years on some construction uses in buildings. HBCD will be added to the Stockholm Convention, which now regulates 22 toxic substances internationally including DDT and PCBs. The treaty takes aim at chemicals that can travel long distances in the environment and don’t break down easily. Delegates also agreed to tougher controls on disclosure of information about exports for two flame retardants, PentaBDE and OctaBDE. For more information, see <>.


Backyard Talk

New Coal “Report Card” Exposes Worst Offenders in Coal Financing

By Andrew Morris

The Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and BankTrack last month released a list of the 10 worst offenders in coal financing.  It is no surprise that banks such as J.P. Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America are on the list, given their copious lending to companies that operate coal-fired power plants and practice mountaintop-removal mining.

The 10 banks highlighted in the report loaned a combined $20 billion to coal companies. While this is a daunting figure, overall usage of coal-fired power has declined by 11 percent since 2011, potentially signaling a slow demise of the practice. Until then, coal-fired power plants continue to be among the more environmentally devastating forms of energy production, with proven links to groundwater and surface water contamination; climate change; and human health problems triggered by toxic levels of mercury and coal dust.

Coal production generates a half trillion dollars in externalized environmental and health costs each year, as noted in a 2011 Harvard School of Public Health study. The costs range from hospitalization for residents of coal communities – who have higher-than-average mortality rates and suffer disproportionately from cancer and other illnesses– to water pollution and toxic waste spills.

The “report card” released by the three groups this week gave the lowest grades to BNY Mellon for its financing of both mountaintop removal and coal-burning power plants; the bank was given “F’s” in both categories. Close behind was Goldman Sachs, which got two “D’s.”

“As the costs of climate disruption for our communities and future generations mount, U.S. banks continue to finance tens of billion dollars for companies that are mining and burning coal we can no longer afford to burn,” Ben Collins, research and policy campaigner for Rainforest Action Network’s Energy and Finance Program, said in a press release.