Stories of Local Leaders

I Will Fight Until I Melt: Living Room Leadership with Pamela Miller and Vi Waghiyi of ACAT

By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern
In an interview on Wednesday, September 30, 2020 for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series, Pamela Miller and Vi Waghiyi of Alaska Community Actions on Toxins (ACAT) shared their experience tackling toxics, protecting health and achieving justice for Alaska’s wildlife and people. 
The U.S. Air Force established a base at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island in 1952. When the military vacated the base in the early 1970s, they left at least thirty-four contaminated sites in a nine-square-mile area. Contamination includes at least 220,000 gallons of spilt fuel, as well as heavy metals, asbestos, solvents, and PCBs which are known to cause cancer.
Vi Waghiyi is a Yupik grandmother who was born in Savoonga, a native village on St. Lawrence Island. Her ancestors’ connection to the land and her people’s disproportionate exposure to harmful toxins motivates her environmental activism with ACAT. Vi’s community has been struggling to hold the military accountable for their reckless abandonment of the formerly used defense sites in the area. Pollutants from these sites contaminate Alaska’s soil and groundwater and disproportionately affect the Yupik community given their reliance on traditional subsistence agriculture. Vi used the term “environmental violence” when referring to the military’s negligence in the area. 
“My people feel that our basic human rights have been violated”, said Vi. 
Pamela Miller founded Alaska Community Action on Toxics in 1997 after repeated requests from Alaskans for technical assistance. ACAT ensures that Alaskan natives are partners in the fight for justice, and believes in the power of community-based participatory research: combining local knowledge with science to better understand the long term effects of toxic exposure in these areas. Pam has been working with the Savoonga community for decades, transforming knowledge into policies that are protective of Alaskan natives’ health. She worked closely with Yupik leader, Annie Alowa, who had been trying for decades to get the military to clean up its toxic legacy at St. Lawrence. Annie, who served a health aide in Savoonga, began to notice serious health problems among island residents – including members of her own family – who lived, worked, and harvested greens, berries, fish, and wildlife from the Northeast Cape area. Health problems included cancer, low birth weights, and miscarriages among her people.
Annie’s motto was “I will fight until I melt.”
Her perseverance continues to inspire Pam and Vi’s work to protect environmental health and ensure justice. Over the years, ACAT has had many successes, including eliminating global pollution in the arctic, reducing pesticide use in Alaska, advancing state and national chemical policy reform, and achieving justice for Exxon Valdez Oil Spill workers. For a more in depth look at ACAT’s work, please visit
Click here to watch “I Will Fight Until I Melt,” a short film documenting Yupik elder Annie Alowa’s decades long struggle to get the military to clean up toxic waste on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

Backyard Talk

Reforming Our Response to Toxics

By: Benjamin Silver, Science and Technology Intern
The government’s inefficient response to toxic chemical exposure in American communities can be the difference between life and death.
Once a dump for mill waste, the San Jacinto Waste Pits release toxic quantities of dioxin into the San Jacinto River. When these chemical carcinogens interact with the water, they are released into the air, endangering the local residents in Harris County, Texas. In 2017, the EPA approved a 2 year, $115 million cleanup plan. However, the project is still in the design phase, and the EPA has extended its timeline by five years. While the cleanup remains mired by bureaucracy, the San Jacinto waste pits continue to endanger local residents every day. In 2015, the Texas Department of Health found that 17 of 38 census tracts in Harris County have suffered statistically significant increases across multiple cancers. 
The development of these cancer clusters has left many residents wondering if they’ll ever get justice for their hardship. While the polluters, the International Paper Company and McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corporation, have agreed to finance the cleanup, residents have been forced to cover their own cancer treatment.
Obtaining medical compensation for health impacts caused by chemical contamination inflicts a significant burden on communities across the United States. They must undergo years of suffering attempting to prove that chemical contamination is responsible for their adverse health effects. Communities then spend more years in court battling to secure health care from the responsible parties, often having little or no success.
Such a burden is amplified in communities that don’t have the resources to hire doctors and lawyers. Low income, minority communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution and are inadequately equipped to seek health care. Since impacted residents in these communities often do not have health insurance, many die or suffer permanent damage while seeking medical and other compensation.
The government must simplify the process of seeking health care and enable local residents to attain  justice more quickly. Proponents of the current extensive testing process argue that its complexity ensures that alleged corporate polluters are not mistakenly held accountable. But what if we could simplify testing while also ensuring medical compensation is provided?
If receiving health care only required proof of an association between chemicals and adverse health impacts, communities would not need to directly link contamination with specific health conditions in residents. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs already outlines a list of cancers, neurological disorders, and developmental problems associated with exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange. Exposed soldiers must only prove that they were stationed in places where Agent Orange was used, stored, or handled. They do not need to prove that their health problem was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Similarly, communities exposed to toxic chemicals should not have to prove that their health problems were caused by these chemicals to receive medical care. They would merely need to prove that toxic chemicals are present. If an individual with an associated health condition interacted in an exposed region, as shown by testing, they could automatically qualify for health care coverage. 
But the significance of a reformed response to chemical contamination extends beyond any single community. For decades, corporate polluters have weaponized a broken system for responding to chemical contamination. They have fiscally and emotionally drained communities by denying responsibility for contamination, lobbying, and dragging out legal fights. Thus, polluters can often completely avoid being held accountable for their lethal actions.
Developing a new mode of responding to chemical contamination is about saying “enough is enough” to perpetrators of pollution. We cannot allow corporations to victimize innocent communities and compromise their health. While the government can medically compensate for chemical contamination, we must proactively dissuade corporations from endangering Americans. Responding effectively to chemical contamination is as much about standing up to polluters as it is standing up for human rights.
Photo Credit: Houston Chronicle

Homepage News Archive

Her Town Depended on the Mill. Was It Also Making the Residents Sick?

In 1981, a doctor in a small mill town in Maine read a study suggesting that prostate and colon cancers in his community were nearly double the national average. Spooked, he brought the research to the board of directors at the local hospital; they ignored it. A few years later, a survey conducted by the Maine Department of Health suggested that the town, Rumford, had an especially high incidence of cancer, aplastic anemia and lung disease. The state epidemiologist insisted that the data were inconclusive. In 1991, a TV news series christened the area “Cancer Valley” because of the number of people there who had been diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. Doc Martin, as the local doctor was known, got a call from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Why, the institute wanted to know, were “all these kids with cancer” coming from Rumford?
Read more…
Photo credit: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times