Backyard Talk

CHEJ’s Green Flag Schools Program for Environmental Leadership


For years, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice has been mentoring a movement, empowering people and preventing harm   to  human health caused by exposure to environmental threats.

Included in this work is CHEJ’s Green Flag Schools Program for Environmental Leadership. Started in 2002, this program targets  students in schools and provides a framework for students to become environmental leaders and contribute to positive change in their  school community.

The Green Flag program gives students from kindergarten to twelfth grade the opportunity to learn environmental concepts, investigate environmental practices in their school and identify solutions to make their school safer and healthier. Working as a team, students begin by conducting an environmental audit using a comprehensive form provided by CHEJ to assess their school’s environmental practices. The team then selects an area they want to focus on that will make an impact at their school. The four target areas are non-toxic pest management, indoor air quality, least toxic cleaning products, and reuse, reduce, recycling. Students learn practical life skills such as problem solving, teamwork and public speaking. With each positive step, students are presented with an award culminating in the Green Flag Award for Environmental Leadership.
Earlier this year the Green Flag Team at the Saklan School in Moraga, CA satisfactorily completed Level 3 of the Green Flag School Program for Indoor Air and was awarded an Indoor Air Quality patch for their Green Flag. These middle school students were quite excited about achieving their award which is their second Green Flag award. They are planning to move on to acquire a third patch this fall. The Roots & Shoots Club at the Tom McCall Upper Elementary School in Forest Grove, OR also participated in the Green Flag Schools program this past year. Their Green Flag team satisfactorily completed Level One and was awarded a Green Flag this past spring. They plan to select one of the four project issue areas this fall so that they can acquire a patch to place on their flag.
The Green Flag start-up kit provides all the information you need to get started on earning environmental awards including facts sheets on school environmental issues and an environmental survey tool. More information can be found at
We hope you will consider adopting this program at your school.

Homepage News Archive

RIT professor’s new book revisits Love Canal

James Goodman, Democrat & Chronicle. Professor Richard Newman chronicles the history of health & environmental activism of Lois Gibbs during her time in Love Canal. This is the foundation of the movement behind the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice.
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Remediation work being done near abandoned houses in the Love Canal neighborhood in the late 1970s. (Photo: NY Department of Health Love Canal collection at SUNY Buffalo)
Remediation work being done near abandoned houses in the Love Canal neighborhood in the late 1970s. (Photo: NY Department of Health Love Canal collection at SUNY Buffalo)

A chain-link fence around 70 acres of land in the southern part of Niagara Falls is the most readily apparent sign that this was ground zero for the Love Canal environmental disaster.

Underneath are about 22,000 tons of hazardous chemical waste, dumped there — much of it in 55-gallon drums — between 1942 and 1953 by the nearby Hooker Chemical Co.

Rochester Institute of Technology history professor Richard Newman details this disaster — and the citizen movement it spawned — in his new book, Love Canal:  A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present, published by Oxford University Press.

The dangers of the dump came to a head in August 1978, when New York state Health Commissioner Robert Whalen declared Love Canal “a great and imminent peril to health,” followed by President Jimmy Carter issuing a declaration of national emergency.

Testing by the Health Department revealed the presence of 82 chemicals — including such carcinogens as TCE (trichloroethylene) and benzene — in locations beyond the dump, in air samples, basements and monitoring wells.

But that was not the last word.

Love Canal residents in the area continued to voice their concerns  — leading to an evacuation of about 1,000 families and the enactment of such laws as the 1980 Superfund legislation for cleanup of hazardous sites and its 1986 amendment providing the public with the right to know what chemicals are being dumped.

“This is the first time that a human-made disaster made national and international headlines and the first time a citizen’s movement impacted national environmental policy,” Newman said in a recent interview.

Most visible among the homegrown activists was Lois Gibbs, who moved to Love Canal in 1974 with her family. She soon found that her young son, Michael, began suffering seizures and immune system problems.

Her daughter, Melissa, who was born in 1975, suffered problems with her platelets, which cause the blood to clot. Bruises began appearing on her body.

“I had thousands of people call after Love Canal. They had questions like, ‘How did you do that?’” Gibbs said in a recent interview.

Newman’s book also tells about what he calls the “underside of the chemical century.”

And there is a Rochester connection. Hooker Electrochemical Co., as the company was formally called, was founded by Elon Huntington Hooker, an engineer and entrepreneur. He came from a prominent Rochester family and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees  from the University of Rochester.

Hooker Chemical, like other emerging chemical companies, gave short shrift to the dangers posed by its pollutants.

“As he aged, Elon Huntington Hooker continued to celebrate the power, not the pitfalls, of chemical innovation,” writes Newman.

Grass-roots organizing

It was a group of residents-turned-activists who, after they and their children experienced the ill effects of Love Canal, made the pollution of this dump a national issue.

In 1978, Gibbs founded the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which sounded the alarm.

The evacuations began in 1978 and reached about 1,000 by 1980, with the federal and state governments, according to Newman, putting up $27 million for families to evacuate.

Gibbs, who was among those evacuated, moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where she established the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Luella Kenny, who lived in one of the hot spots near Love Canal, was among the 1,322 former residents who filed a lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum Corp., which in 1968 bought Hooker Chemical, and various governmental entities in Niagara County for damages to health and property.

Kenny, who was a cancer researcher at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, said the death of her 7-year-old son, Jon, from kidney disease was linked to the exposure of chemicals and his suppressed immune system.

In the settlement of the lawsuit, the judge ruled that her son had suffered a “wrongful death,” and ordered an undisclosed award, said Kenny.

The settlement also provided $1 million for the establishment of the Love Canal Medical Fund to help pay for medical expenses related to Love Canal. Kenny was the first president and is now vice president of the fund

“Love Canal was a man-made disaster. People should realize that they are responsible for the planet,”  Kenny said.

Newman tells how state officials, in their study of Love Canal, documented increases in birth defects, miscarriages and various illnesses.

But officials were caught off balance, having to deal with so many health and environmental concerns at one time.

“Indeed, the very definition of ‘disaster’ still revolved around natural events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. But leaking chemical waste into nearby homes? This was simply not on the political radar,” writes Newman.

While other books have been written about Love Canal, Newman provides a comprehensive, start-to-finish history, with an emphasis on how the residents of Love Canal  — people who had no background in political organizing — forced the issues.

They confronted public officials, questioned the halfway measures that government proposed and showed that the pollution was not an act of God, but rather the result of inadequate controls on industry.

In June 1978, Gibbs began going door-to-door with a petition to have children removed from the elementary school built on the dump.

Roots of pollution

Newman traces the history of Love Canal, which is in a region that in the 1720s served as a trading center for the French.

With companies taking advantage of its hydropower, the Niagara Frontier — most noted for Niagara Falls — became fertile ground for industrial development.

In 1894, entrepreneur William Love broke ground for what he envisioned as a power canal — diverting water for industrial development.

But within three years, Love ran out of money and left a big hole — about a mile long — in the ground.

That hole became the main dump for Hooker Chemical.

Elon Hooker was the patriarch of the company.

“He helped launch the American Chemical Century,” writes Newman. “Hooker backed an economic sector ready to take off and take over.”

A friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, Hooker aligned himself with the Progressive Party, and when Roosevelt made a bid for re-election in 1912, Hooker served as the party’s national treasurer.

Hooker Chemical took hold in the 1940s, producing not only bleaching powder and caustic soda but also explosives, rubber materials, disinfectants and defoliants used during World War II.

This was long before the full effects of hazardous chemicals were understood.

By 1953, the dump — Love Canal — was full.

Making a dangerous situation all the more so, the Niagara Falls School Board purchased Love Canal from Hooker Chemical that April for $1.

“Not since the Dutch gained Manhattan for a few guilders would a New York land transaction inspire so much subsequent scrutiny,” writes Newman.

Even though Hooker’s executive vice president told of the potentially hazardous “nature of the property,” the transfer of ownership went through and the construction of a new school ran into problems.

The foundation sank but, undeterred, the building was moved a short distance away.

Agents of change

Newman describes himself as an historian of American reform movements.

He is author, co-author or editor of six books on abolitionists and environmental history.

Newman returned to RIT for this school year after spending two years as director of The Library Co. of Philadelphia, established by Ben Franklin in 1731.

His first book, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic, found that religion “was a cornerstone of abolitionism throughout the Revolutionary and early national periods.”

In Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, Newman focused on a former slave who “helped define the meaning of liberation theology, the notion that God sided with oppressed people.”

Newman, 49, who grew up in Buffalo and earned his bachelor’s and doctorate in history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, grew up seeing TV news reports about Love Canal.

“It was always a curiosity, but I never visited it until I became a professor teaching environmental history at RIT,” he said.

Newman, who joined the RIT faculty in 1998, first visited Love Canal a year later.

“My first impression of Love Canal was that it wasn’t marked and people tried to erase it from the landscape,” Newman said. “I wanted to uncover the important nature of Love Canal and the way activists changed American environmentalism.”

To read the original version of this article, click here


Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

We hosted a Candidate Forum in St. Louis that empowered constituents and held politicians accountable this election season.

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Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.
Just Moms Co-Founder Karen Nickel happily maintains control of the microphone while Sam Page, democrat running to maintain his seat for County Councilmen of District 2 responds to questions about West Lake.

This past Thursday, August 18th, members of the St. Louis community came together to hold their candidates running for public office accountable for working towards a safe and permanent solution for the West Lake Landfill. I am one of the St. Louis team members of CHEJ. We have worked tirelessly all summer to help the grassroots organization Just Moms STL organize powerful, community-driven actions in order to move public officials who are responsible for the West Lake Landfill. The irony has not been lost on us that Dawn and Karen, founders of Just Moms, named simply because that’s their preferred career title description, have had to interact with the EPA and many government officials as if they were as stubborn and incoherent as young children.
We held a candidate forum. We invited every politician running for a position of power that has the potential to affect change for West Lake. A lot of politicians chose not to come, many citing that the Missouri State Fair’s Governor’s Ham Breakfast was on the same day, across the state. We had 11 candidates attend, running for local seats as city representatives, state legislation representatives, and two running for congress. We provided them with two pointed questions and three minutes to respond however they saw fit. We never handed them the microphone –– everyone in attendance of the meeting came to hear only about a West Lake solution, and keeping the mic gave us that control.
On Thursday we heard a lot of bipartisan support for a bill currently sitting in the house, HR-4100, that would transfer the EPA’s responsibility (or lack thereof) of West Lake to the Army Corps of Engineers, who across the country effectively clean up nuclear waste sites such as ours. This bill has experienced resistance in the house from politicians in the pockets of Republic Services (the company who currently owns the landfill), and from representatives who fear their own nuclear waste-sites high priority status will be jeopardized once a site as bad as West Lake comes on to the Army Corps plate. It’s been a mess at the federal level, so perhaps a state-level solution is the best– and only– way.
This event took a lot of coordination between CHEJ, Just Moms, and Missouri Coalition for the Environment. All three organizations worked together to come up with the questions, produce and edit literature, and fact-checked one another on all the information we presented at the event. We handed all this out in a booklet to everyone in attendance. One of the major successes of this handout was a candidate scorecard, which allowed the audience to write down and reflect on how the candidates responded to our questions. We used #WestLakeForum on twitter and facebook to document and share with those not at the meeting the various promises and ideas the politicians came up with. If nothing else, the community affected by the landfill now has a record of accountability for these candidates and can use this to decide how they’ll vote on November 8th.
Overall, this forum was a demonstration of the enormity with which the Bridgeton community cares for a resolution to the West Lake Landfill, and a powerful tool of documentation for the candidates vying for their support. It has been made abundantly clear that to win over the votes of their constituents, these politicians need to work together to come up with a safe and permanent solution for the residents around the West Lake Landfill.
We’ll be holding another West Lake Candidate Forum this month on August 31st. We have candidates running for seats like the U.S. Senate, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. House of Representatives to the event. Check out the event page if you’d like more info.
Check out photos of the event here[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Photo Albums

West Lake Candidate Forum

On August 18th, CHEJ worked with Just Moms STL and Missouri Coalition for the Environment to orchestrate the West Lake Candidate Forum, where state and local election hopefuls came out to respond to our questions about the steps they will take in office to resolve the issues from West Lake Landfill. The candidates can be seen in the following order:
Mary Nichols – State Rep District 72, Democrat
Keith English – State Rep District 68, Independent
Mark Matthiesen – State Rep District 70, Republican
Vicki Englund – State Rep District 94, Democrat
Kenny Biermann – State Rep District 65, Democrat
Dan Hyatt – State Rep District 72, Republican
Richard Orr – State Senator District 23, Democrat
Byron DeLear – State Rep District 70, Democrat
Steven Bailey – U.S. House of Representatives District 1, Republican
Bill Otto – U.S. House of Representatives District 2, Democrat
Sam Page – County Council District 2, Democrat
Mary Poelker – County Council District 2, Republican
with testimonies from two community members, Meagan and Izzy. The mic was constantly in the hands of Just Moms co-founder Karen Nickel and the ceremony was MC’d by STLCC Professor LaRhonda. For more info about the event, read our blog post about it’s strengths and successes.
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Photo Albums

Just Moms STL

Check out this album from Just Moms community meeting in June 2016. Lois Gibbs came out to St. Louis to visit with Dawn and Karen, the leaders of Just Moms, and discuss the next action steps for the community affected by West Lake Landfill. We took some pictures at the formal meeting!
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Backyard Talk Homepage

Grassroots Green Hero: Susie Quinn

We have not lost, until we quit.
Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 2.44.33 PM
Susie Quinn from Torch Can Do, at a group rally last November. The group assembled in summer 2015 to respond to an injection well and frack-waste-handling operation in Torch, Ohio. In the first three quarters of 2015, injection wells in Torch and surrounding Athens County took more fracking wastewater than wells in any other county in Ohio, nearly 3.2 million barrels of fracking waste, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Interview by Erin Allegro
Q: When did you first notice that the community’s homes, water and air were at risk due to toxics from horizontal hydraulic fracking?
A: On Christmas Eve 2013 I noticed trucks up at the K&H site unloading, and I thought, ‘who works on Christmas Eve? Something strange is going on.’
When the Athens County Fracking Action Network & Appalachia Resist blockaded the entrance to K&H the following February, they brought attention to the fact that there was something there and it was not good.
Last July, (2015), we attended an informational meeting at the library about the toxic frackwaste that K&H Partners LLC was storing and injecting into the ground.  I was just shocked.  You wouldn’t think that anyone would sneak something toxic and possibly radioactive into your rural neighborhood, but they did.  Good neighbors in Torch told us about these meetings.
We had heard before we moved here, that everyone on this end of Torch minds their own business, but if you need help they are the first to come lend a hand.  That has proven to be true over the last 20 years. But because of the threat to our air, water and homes, we have gotten to know many good people throughout Torch and beyond.   
Q: What were some physical symptoms or events experienced by community members?
A: We’ve had a couple incidents. One foggy Friday morning, about 10:30, I walked outside and smelled an odor like chlorine bleach, very strong. I called Ohio EPA that morning and got an answering machine, so instead of leaving my home with the chlorine odor I stayed home and waited on their call. I turned off the air-conditioner and kept the dog inside.  Then we called the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division. When the inspector came out, he smelled something as soon as he got out of his truck.  He didn’t give a straight answer about what the odor was or from where it was coming. The Ohio EPA didn’t get back to me until about 5 p.m. Even though I had remained inside, the ends of my hair smelled like chlorine by that time and we had been breathing it all day. OEPA said that they would send someone on Monday to reach out to K&H. The odor was gone the next morning.
On another evening my son came in and said, “Mom! It smells like a chemical factory out there.” Sure enough the fumes were in the air so I called a neighbor and she said she smelled it too. It was almost like a cloud that moved through Torch.
I called Phyllis who lives on the opposite side of town to see if she noticed a chemical-like odor. She said that she wasn’t smelling anything or seeing anything. She said she would come over and see what I was talking about.  By the time she got here the cloud had moved and there was nothing to see nor smell. On her drive home via the four lane, she started to smell something odd. When she got home the cloud had made it to her house.  In the meantime, my husband was driving home from work. He notice a strong odor even with all the windows closed and saw a low-lying cloud that looked like fog, or maybe someone burning something. The wind shifted and the odor was strong in our yard again. I decided to move inside and stop breathing in the fumes. My husband and a few other neighbors have COPD. They have to be careful what they breathe regularly and we would really like to have clean air. We don’t have any way to identify what chemicals are in the air and we’d really like to know for our safety.
Q: What did the city do to notify people of the problems with the chemicals from fracking? What solutions or precautions were advised?
A: They did not advise any solutions. We called the EPA and the health department, but when we met with Chief [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”][Rick] Simmers from Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Division, he told us to call the local fire chief. Chief Simmers wants us to call our fire chief every time we smell a chemical-like odor? Our volunteer fire department does not have the equipment to tell what is causing the odor.
Q: Did you grow up in Appalachia?
A: This area is home for us. I grew up on the river and it was a great place to grow up. We played in the river because we believed it was safe. Our home was down the river from a large factory. My parents had told me at various times to stay out of the water. I remember seeing dead fish on the banks and I thought, ‘OK I don’t think I’m going to go wading in that.’ Other times it was not as obvious why my parents said not to go in the water. My father had times when he couldn’t fish because there was too much mercury in the water and then there was the fishkill.  Maple trees in our yard kept us cool and the sand pile beneath it kept us busy. The woods were fun to explore. As adults, we love and appreciate the lush green foliage in summer.
Q: How has this particular issue affected you or your family?
A: There’s differences in how we view fracking and the injected waste. My husband sees it as a job creator and I see it differently. What good is it once there is no clean water to drink? My husband has been very supportive of my involvement, but there’s always going to be interesting debates that raise the blood pressure. Some of the retired people are very concerned because the water has been compromised before by a factory that said it wouldn’t lead to anything harmful. We found out then that big companies do lie.
Q: How has media coverage and help of outside organizations changed the response to the issue?
A: The Athens News, WTAP, Athens Messenger, and The Parkersburg News & Sentinel  have been very good to us. They have covered the different protests, community meetings, and have kept up with the topic.
      The response has grown thanks to the news keeping up with us and great mentors like ACFAN and the CHEJ.  They have helped us learn and raised our awareness that there is a problem. We hope that folks check out what an injection well is and what goes in it. I believe that if we can raise people’s awareness and get that information to them then they will see why we are concerned and hopefully get involved.
Q: What do you want other citizens to know as they move forward in their communities with similar issues with their local environment?
A: They are not alone and if someone offers to help, take them up on their offer. We would like to connect with other injection well groups. There is strength in numbers!
Learn more about this and other work by the grassroots heroes on the front lines of the Green Movement who work with CHEJ by reading our blog and other content on our website. [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Photo Albums

First Photo Album

Hey guys! Check out a photo album that encapsulates CHEJ’s history
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Backyard Talk

With Federal State of Emergency Over, What’s Next for Flint?

flint waterJust yesterday, the federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan over lead-contaminated water expired. What comes next for a community continuing to deal with a public health crisis?
Residents in Flint have been understandably concerned about the August 14th deadline, as Michigan Radio reports. President Obama declared a Federal State of Emergency over Flint’s poisoned water on January 15th of this year, making 5 million dollars of federal money available to help with the crisis. With the state of emergency in place, the federal government has covered 75% of costs necessary for providing bottled water, filters, filter cartridges, and home testing kits to Flint residents. This aid isn’t going away, according to state officials; instead, the state will be picking up the tab for the necessary supplies –estimated to cost 3.5 million dollars a month, based on current water needs (approximately 10,000 cases of water a week.)
Will those needs remain steady, or have they reached their peak? Current testing suggests conditions in Flint are improving. NPR reports that Virginia Tech researchers, who first exposed the lead contamination, found no detectable levels in half of the homes they tested last month. One expert described Flint as “entering a range that’s considered normal for other U.S. cities.” Unfortunately, water contamination is not unique to Flint, and what’s considered ‘normal’ around the U.S. may simply not be safe enough.
Lead is not the only threat to water supplies across the United States. In addition to known and regulated contaminants, emerging contaminants that have yet to be evaluated may be impacting our water supplies. According to the EPA, many streams that supply water nationwide are not covered by clean-water laws. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a public health expert at Tufts University and former chairperson of the EPA’s Drinking Water Committee, noted that we have “lots of really good professionals in the water industry…but it doesn’t take much for our aging infrastructure or an unprofessional actor to allow that protection to fall apart.”
Given the financial aftermath of the Flint crisis, it’s unsurprising that some ‘unprofessional actors’ were hesitant to disclose the unsafe drinking water conditions. The cost of supplying water to Flint residents is just the beginning; Governor Snyder’s original application for federal aid estimated that as much as 55 million dollars would be needed to repair damaged lead service lines in Flint. The consequences are steep for a city whose crisis originated with a water supply switch intended to cut costs.
Most critically, the crisis in Flint has called into question the trust that we place in our federal, state and local officials to disclose threats to our safety presented by unsafe water. In Flint, the lead contamination persisted for years before it was discovered, and even longer before it was disclosed to the public. Even if water treatments and infrastructure repairs are ultimately successful and lead is undetectable in every Flint household, residents may never again trust their water supply, or the reports they are given about it by their local and state officials. Water can be treated and pipes can be replaced, but trust is much more difficult to repair. In the meantime, at least Flint residents will continue to have access to clean, bottled water. Whether they will trust their faucets again in the future is another matter entirely.

Homepage News Archive

Testimony: McCrory called toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office to discuss do-not-drink letters for well owners near coal ash pits

Gov. Pat McCrory summoned state toxicologist Ken Rudo to his office in early 2015 for a meeting during which a McCrory staff member challenged the advisory Rudo had helped draft telling well owners near coal ash pits owned by Duke Energy not to drink their water, according to recent testimony given in a deposition by Rudo.
The do-not-drink advisory, issued in spring 2015, has received a lot of attention, particularly after state health and environmental administrators overrode the advisory in March by telling well owners that their water is fine to drink.

It isn’t fine, according to Rudo.
Requested in early 2016 by Dr. Randall Williams, health director of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and backed by Tom Reeder, the assistant secretary for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the reversal of the do-not-drink advisory was “highly unethical” and “possibly illegal,” Rudo said in the deposition, excerpts of which were available to the public Tuesday.
Until now, the extent of McCrory’s involvement has been unclear.
Excerpts from Rudo’s deposition, part of coal ash litigation brought by clean-water watchdog organizations against Duke Energy, show that McCrory, a former Duke Energy employee for decades, was deeply involved with his administration’s attempts to challenge the scientifically backed advisory that Rudo and other state health experts had drafted.
Rudo had left his office when he received a call from state epidemiologist Megan Davies “telling me to turn around — I was almost at Chapel Hill — to go back, that the Governor wanted to discuss this. … So I went down to that big old building in downtown Raleigh, and the Governor wasn’t there.
“He participated for a couple of minutes by phone.
“So I met with — was it Josh Ellis? Is that his name? I am not sure. I think it is him. And he had an assistant,” Rudo said in the deposition, referring to McCrory’s communications director. The other person at the meeting was Kendra Gerlach, the director of communications at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, he said.
“And they wanted to talk about what we were putting on these forms. And the Governor called for about, I guess, five minutes or so to sort of — he was in the middle of some other issues. And I am not exactly sure, even from my notes, because it was — the guidance — whether he had given Mr. Ellis the guidance what to talk to us about before we arrived. But he essentially, you know, was saying, ‘Okay. We need to discuss the language on the forms.’ And then he left it to Mr. Ellis to do that,” Rudo said.
Later in the deposition, Rudo said Ellis had concerns about the do-not-drink advisory.
“Once again, I don’t know whether this was from Mr. Ellis or from the Governor, because the Governor never actually specifically said what, you know, his concerns were.
“But he had a concern about what we were telling these folks on the forms.
“Thier (sic) concern was initially telling people not to drink the water.
“He felt that was a pretty strong thing to do,” Rudo said.
Late Tuesday, Thomas Stith, McCrory’s chief of staff, denied Rudo’s allegations.
“We don’t know why Ken Rudo lied under oath, but the governor absolutely did not take part in or request this call or meeting as he suggests,” Stith said. “The fact is that the state sent homeowners near coal ash ponds all facts and safety information about their drinking water and thanks to the McCrory administration’s efforts, well owners are being hooked up to municipal water supplies at Duke Energy’s expense.”
Gerlach disputed some of Rudo’s statements.
“I was at that meeting,” Gerlach said in an email.
“The Governor did not participate in that meeting,” she said,”nor did he summon Ken Rudo.”
“I was the one calling our public health officials, including Rudo. During my call with Rudo, he volunteered to come by and I said yes. He then joined Josh Ellis and me in person to answer some of the questions being discussed,” Gerlach said.

High stakes

At stake during that conversation at the governor’s office was the health of hundreds of well owners and their families, particularly those whose wells contained hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen associated with coal ash pits. Until last year, there had been no screening level for hexavalent chromium, no threshold by which to gauge its potential cancer-causing effect.
Rudo and other health experts in the DHHS and the DEQ helped calculate the threshold. They based it on peer-reviewed studies and the calculations were confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
They calculated the health-screening threshold because it was one of the requirements under the state Coal Ash Management Act, a bill passed in 2014 as state legislators responded to the dangers of coal ash, after a pipe under a Duke Energy coal ash pond near Eden collapsed and spewed coal ash into the Dan River.
As a result, state regulators were required to check for a host of contaminants, including hexavalent chromium.
In setting the threshold for hexavalent chromium, state health experts such as Rudo also stuck to a state groundwater rule that requires a threshold that would put North Carolinians at a lifetime cancer risk of no more than 1 in 1 million.
For hexavalent chromium, that threshold is 0.07 parts per billion, or ppb.
The threshold the McCrory administration sought to promote was one connected with a federal standard that regulates public water systems but which the state health experts said was “unacceptable,” as the Winston-Salem Journal has reported.
Hexavalent chromium is not a regulated contaminant.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been collecting data on hexavalent chromium for years from public water systems in an effort to figure out how to regulate it. Meanwhile, there is a decades-old threshold for total chromium — one that assumes that it could be made up entirely of hexavalent chromium.
That federal threshold for total chromium, set at 100 ppb under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, is the one that state health experts say is unacceptable.
The federal threshold comes with a lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 700, according to state health experts such as Rudo. In North Carolina, a large majority of public water systems show concentrations of hexavalent chromium below the threshold of 0.07 ppb, according to a Journal review of EPA data.

Safety questions

To a certain extent, the issue of safe drinking water for well owners near coal ash pits has been displaced by actions taken by the General Assembly. State legislators passed a bill — signed by McCrory — requiring Duke Energy to provide either permanent water supplies or a filtration system to eligible well owners within a half-mile of coal ash pits by October 2018.
Plans must be submitted by Dec. 15, according to the bill.
Still, Rudo’s testimony makes clear that the McCrory administration had pushed for the federal threshold — making decisions on public health that ran counter to those backed by its own state health experts. The testimony is also supported by emails obtained through public-records requests by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and provided to the Journal.
Before Rudo was summoned to McCrory’s office, Donald van Der Vaart, one of McCrory’s Cabinet members, was pushing for the federal standard as secretary of the state DEQ. In an email written in early 2015 by state epidemiologist Megan Davies to colleagues, including Rudo, she said that Tom Reeder, the DEQ’s assistant secretary, would provide the message.
“Secretary Van der Vaart requested of (former Health) Secretary Wos that DHHS DPH (Division of Public Health) include additional explanation in our letter to local health directors about the plans for private well testing within 1000 feet of coal ash ponds.
“As you will see below, I spoke with Tom Reeder, and he will send me some suggested language for us to work on.
“The additional language will explain that the IMAC (threshold set by state health experts) for hexavalent chromium being used in these well evaluations does not apply to public water supplies, where the MCL (threshold) of 100 micrograms per liter of total chromium applies.
DEQ spokesman Mike Rusher on Tuesday tried to back the department’s continued support for the federal standard.
“The Safe Drinking Water Act is the only regulatory standard for drinking water in North Carolina,” Rusher said in an email. “The state environmental department had concerns about treating residents near coal ash ponds differently than the millions of North Carolinians who get their drinking water from municipal water supplies.”
In 2015, a statement about well water being fine under the federal standard found its way into the do-not-drink advisory as it was being sent to well owners, after the meeting at the governor’s office and against Rudo’s recommendations.
“There isn’t a standard for — there is no criteria specifically for — in the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act for hexavalent chromium. So it is a true statement, because there isn’t one. But it is also misleading and sort of — it is not cool to do that. It is just not a — this is not the kind of information we should be giving people, because it is misleading,” Rudo said in the deposition.
Later, he continued: “And we still objected, you know, from within our group.
“We have e-mails with our very, you know, strong objections. But, I mean, you know, when we are told to do something, we are told to do something. You know, there are lines that we can’t cross, both morally and ethically, which is why I removed my name from this at this point. But, you know, orders are orders.”

Protective order

Duke Energy had tried to seal Rudo’s testimony, saying in its request for a protective order that the testimony was not finished and that some of it is based on hearsay.
Portions of the deposition became available to the public Tuesday because it was part of the response filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Gerlach, the health department communications director, said the department “stands by its decision to allow residents near coal ash ponds to return to drinking their well water, in keeping with safe drinking water practices across the country.” And she said that the release of Rudo’s excerpted deposition is “clearly a politically motivated attempt to manipulate and mislead the public by trial lawyers from an extreme left-wing environmental group.”
In the same email, Gerlach said Rudo “wanted the state to use a standard in the health risk evaluations (HREs) that was 143 times more stringent than California’s regulatory standard considered safe for drinking.”
However, the 0.07 ppb standard Rudo and other North Carolina health experts helped calculate — in accordance with the state groundwater rule allowing no more than a 1 in 1 million lifetime risk of cancer — was actually less stringent than the one that California state health experts had proposed in 2011 as their public health goal — 0.02 ppb. That threshold was ultimately increased to 10 ppb after state officials took into account non-health factors, such as the technical feasibility of enforcing the threshold and the associated costs.
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SUPERFUND: A Philadelphia suburb’s asbestos nightmare

By George Cahlink, an E&E reporter, of E&E Publishing LLC. Here’s a look at the history, successes, and ultimate failure to clean up and maintain one Superfund site, located in Ambler, PA. Because of Ambler’s history of being the asbestos capital of the world, the recent passage of the Toxic Substance Control Act raises some hopes that this long battle for clean up may be over soon.
AMBLER, Pa. — U.S. EPA’s Greg Voigt opens a chain-link gate, pushes aside waist-high weeds and scrambles to the highest point in this Philadelphia suburb: a 100-foot pile of industrial waste.
“Check out the million-dollar view,” Voigt jokes as he looks out from a gravel plateau covering asbestos mounds he monitors for EPA’s Superfund program.
Welcome to the “White Mountains of Ambler.” Less than 20 miles from this week’s Democratic National Convention, the tree-shrouded toxic landmark is a reminder of this town’s past as the asbestos manufacturing capital of the world.
Asbestos — building insulation material largely banned by EPA since the 1970s because of its link to mesothelioma, a lung cancer — made Ambler a thriving blue-collar hamlet for three-quarters of a century EPA has spent the past 30 years cleaning up and monitoring its two Superfund sites, which take up more than 50 acres here.
EPA’s 35-year-old Superfund program has just over 1,300 contaminated properties. The agency spends a little over $1 billion annually on Superfund work.
Once closed in the mid 1980s, the playground has reopened adjacent to the asbestos piles, which lie on the other side of the fence. EPA has said there is no longer a risk at the playground of ingesting airborne asbestos. Photo courtesy of George Cahlink.
Dozens of dumps are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which rank first and third, respectively, in Superfund projects. New Jersey has 116 sites, Pennsylvania 95. The region holds the lethal leftovers from chemical, pharmaceutical and other industrial manufacturers from the later part of the 19th century through much of the 20th century before modern environmental regulations were established.
But Superfund talk is unlikely at the Democratic convention, where environmental protection is likely to focus on slowing climate change. Toxic waste cleanup no longer seems a priority for green activists who held a massive rally here Sunday focused on banning hydraulic fracturing.
Lenny Siegel, the executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, who’s attending the convention as a delegate for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), said one of the reasons is Superfund activists are aging and younger environmentalists are more focused on climate change.
“They aren’t wrong,” Siegel said. “It’s a huge issue.”
Siegel, whose group focuses on fostering public participation in environmental cleanups, added, “They assume they have had [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”][the Superfund] sites for so long that they must have been taken care of.”
Lois Gibbs, who founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, said shifting interests are part of the problem and so is a lack of money for Superfund. “Without money, we have no hammers,” Gibbs said. Too few dollars, she added, make it harder not only to carry out cleanups but also to try to force polluters to take responsibility for them.
Indeed, congressional Republicans, who eliminated an energy tax that provided dedicated funding for Superfund projects in the mid-1990s, are pushing for even deeper cuts in EPA spending. The GOP favors the agency’s brownfields program, which provides grants to states, local communities and other stakeholders willing to make their own investments to help clean up and then redevelop less-contaminated properties.
But Ambler shows that even long after Superfund cleanups and remediation plans are first drawn up, there’s a role for EPA in ongoing monitoring efforts, and new sites can always emerge.
Ambler’s rise, fall and rebirth offer lessons for other communities, EPA and lawmakers as they continue to come to grips with asbestos and other detritus of America’s industrial heritage.

Danger for hunters, teenagers — and groundhogs

Every three months, EPA’s Voigt walks the White Mountain site.
“The overall purpose is to ensure that the cleanup remedies we selected for the site are fully operational and functioning,” he said.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the mounds with their steep sides and thick with trees and vegetation are hiding 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos — enough to fill 150,000 dumpsters. They are the product of a still-controversial calculation made by EPA in the mid-1980s.
When EPA added the Ambler site to its Superfund list in 1986, it decided removing the asbestos was unrealistic. It would require years of round-the-clock truck runs through Ambler and would poise health risks by kicking up asbestos dust as the debris was removed.
Instead, EPA capped the piles with at least 6 inches of soil and seeded them with native trees and vegetation. A few lagoons within the piles were filled and erosion controls and drainage systems installed. The entire site was fenced, and warnings were posted about the danger of inhaling asbestos.
“We’ll always see one or two areas when we go out for our inspections where the fence was cut,” Voigt said. Among the trespassers are deer hunters, bird-watchers and curious teenagers.
Burrowing animals are one of the bigger challenges. In only a few minutes, a groundhog can dig through the site’s vegetation and soil layers and be into the asbestos waste. When inspections find holes, they are filled in and the material is tested to determine whether the animal made it into the asbestos layer.
“There have been areas where we have put the dirt in and when we go back the next week and the dirt is right back out again,” Voigt said. “They are pretty insistent when they want to be.”
Voigt estimates about $6 million has been spent to date on the site, including both the initial capping and continued monitoring.
EPA tries to fine parties that contaminated the site to pay for its cleanup. In this case, two asbestos manufacturers, CertainTeed and Federal-Mogul, are footing the bill.
The agency officially removed Ambler from its Superfund list in 1996, and subsequent reviews every five years have found no worrisome levels of airborne asbestos, which when inhaled causes mesothelioma. The latest review will be finished by the end of the year.
Critics, however, have questioned whether the soil cover is deep enough, noting an uprooted tree or a burrowing animal can easily kick up asbestos.
They also worry some of the piles are only a few hundred yards from the Wissahickon Creek, which feeds the Schuylkill River, which flows through Center City Philadelphia. They note EPA doesn’t test the site for groundwater contamination.
“I don’t think they have been as good as they should be,” said Arthur Frank, an environmental health expert at Drexel University who has studied the Ambler waste sites for community groups. He said snow and ice can expose the piles.
But Voigt said the string of successful five-year reviews since the site cleanup was finished in 1996 is “validation” that EPA’s efforts are working.
“There’s always going to be a certain contingent [that does not like EPA’s approach], and we’ll have to agree to disagree on certain issues,” said Voigt, noting the agency holds community meetings every two months in Ambler about the asbestos sites.
Ideas have been floated for turning the piles into a solar farm or even a paintball facility. But, Voigt said, it will be tough to do anything on the steep grade without disturbing the waste, and he expects EPA will be monitoring the piles for many years to come.
“It’s job security for me,” he said with a chuckle.

Second asbestos dump

Ambler resident Sharon McCormick was surprised and concerned when a petitioner knocked on her door more than a decade ago to ask for help in fighting a proposed 17-story high-rise.
She was even more surprised when she learned the development site was a former asbestos dumping ground.
The BoRit site, named for one of its more recent owners, Bob Rittenhouse, is about a half-mile from the larger Ambler piles.
The 33-acre parcel had its own 25-foot asbestos pile covered in vegetation and a 10-acre reservoir fortified by asbestos debris. The land had been largely dormant since a park on part of the parcel closed in the mid-1980s amid heightened concerns about asbestos.
“We went kicking and screaming over it,” said McCormick, who formed Citizens for a Better Ambler to oppose the high-rise. Their opposition forced the developer to drop the plans and led EPA to take a fresh look at the site.
EPA investigators didn’t find unhealthy levels of airborne asbestos, but they did discover enough old asbestos pipes, shingles and other materials scattered around the site that they worried it could kick up dust. They also were concerned about what waste might be at the bottom of the reservoir and the debris in three streams running across the site and into the Wissahickon.
By 2009, BoRit became Ambler’s second asbestos-related Superfund site.
“Each of the spaces [on BoRit] has different challenges,” said Eduardo Rovira, who has been EPA’s on-site manager for BoRit since the cleanup began seven years ago.
Indeed, hundreds of trees were removed to make it easier to lay a geo-textile fabric cap down that was then covered with dirt and seeded with native plant species on large portions of the site. Thirty-seven million gallons of potentially contaminated water was drained from the reservoir and treated before disposal. The streams were cleaned up, some banks were reinforced and flood controls were put in place.
EPA has spent about $25 million at the site, using federal money because the agency has yet to determine who is responsible for the dumping.
Later this year, the agency will release its long-term plan for the site.
“It all depends on feedback from the community,” said Jill Lowe, EPA’s site remediation manager, who is working on the options for the site once the cleanup is finished. She said the state of Pennsylvania would oversee the long-term monitoring at BoRit in collaboration with EPA.
Already it’s expected that the reservoir, owned by the nonprofit Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve, will continue as a bird sanctuary.
“We are hoping it will again be attractive to waterfowl,” said David Froehlich, who said the reservoir still needs to be restocked with fish. But, he said, he’s already seen some of the 73 species spotted at the site before the cleanup back again, including bald eagles, herons, and various ducks and geese.
But McCormick, who rode her success in fighting the BoRit development to a seat on the Town Council, still leads a local band of critics who say EPA can only remediate the site by hauling away all the material.
“I think this is a huge EPA screw-up,” McCormick said. “If they are not thinking of removing the asbestos, then why are they even thinking about reusing it?”

Research and questions

Ambler is also attracting the attention of researchers.
The University of Pennsylvania is in the middle of a four-year, $10 million federal grant, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, to study medical issues raised by the manufacturing and disposal of asbestos in Ambler.
Ian Blair, a Penn pharmacology professor who oversees the work, said project researchers will try to map the entire population of the town in 1930 using old censuses, tax records and historical documents to find out what every resident eventually died of, including those who moved away.
With the latency period for mesothelioma lasting up to 40 years, there’s a belief that asbestos-related deaths in Ambler have been undercounted.
Research has shown already that Ambler had a mesothelioma rate from 1992 to 2008 more than three times what is typical for a town its size. A 2008 state study suggested asbestos was the likely cause of those high rates.
Other emerging data suggest a mesothelioma cluster for females in Ambler. Not many women worked inside the factories, but researchers are exploring whether they may have breathed in deadly asbestos fibers when washing the clothes of their husbands who worked in them.
Other Penn efforts will focus on developing a blood test for determining whether someone has been exposed to asbestos and researching whether asbestos can move through soil.
“If it can, is this something we should be concerned about in terms of ingesting asbestos through the drinking water rather than how everyone thinks of it as entirely coming from the air?” said Blair, who said initial work shows asbestos can move through soil.
Linda Reinstein, who founded the advocacy group the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization after her husband was diagnosed with mesothelioma that he likely contracted from working in shipyards, believes Ambler has overlooked other asbestos.
During a visit last fall, Reinstein said, she was amazed that old, crumbling asbestos factories remained in the town and were not part of either EPA site. Reuse plans for those sites, which would include some private-sector cleanup of asbestos, remain in legal limbo.
Asbestos will draw more scrutiny as EPA begins implementing the recently passed update of the Toxic Substances Control Act. That law — the first substantial change to chemical safety regulation in 40 years — will allow EPA to fully ban as many as 10 of the most unsafe chemicals. Asbestos, already restricted, is widely expected to be on the list (Greenwire, July 25).
Reinstein is pleased that TSCA is expected to permanently ban asbestos, but she also remains concerned about the estimated 31 million tons of asbestos used domestically since 1900, a large portion of it made in Ambler.
She wonders, “If Ambler was the asbestos capital of the world, where did all the products go?”
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