By: Leia Ku Cheng Yee, Communications Intern
Phyllis Glazer is an activist featured in People Magazine, the Houston Chronicle, CNN/Time News Magazine’s Earth Day 2000 Special, NBC Dateline, and more. She was the founder of Mothers Organized to Stop Environmental Sins (MOSES), and has been fighting against toxic pollution since the 1990s.
Phyllis was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. After her father passed away, she decided to fulfill her father’s dream and live in a ranch in Winona, Texas. One day, as she was driving her son to school in Winona, they passed a commercial hazardous waste injection well facility that was surrounded by dark reddish clouds and intense fumes caused by an explosion. “I couldn’t breathe,” she said. In just three days, Glazer had developed multiple health issues — her toenails came off, her nasal septum disappeared, and she felt like the top of her mouth had melted. As long as she lived there, she had throat ulcers and developed asthma, and later found out the whole community had symptoms as well. Glazer and her now-deceased husband also developed brain tumors due to the toxic exposure.
As she advocated for the community, Glazer realized that many regulatory agencies sided with the company instead of the people because the agencies were sending their own waste there. She knew that the regulatory agencies would have no motivation to close it down, so she needed to go bigger.
As a writer and a mother, she reached out to the press, and had corporate attorneys help her to fight the corporation that owned the injection well. With her background in business, her idea was to use the press to drive the facility out of business. “If you don’t have business, you are not in business.” She began to write press releases, and went on a war with the company. Many even referred to it as the “Phyllis Blitz”.
In 1994, Glazer and 30 residents from Winona were sent to Washington, DC by Don Henley to file a Title VI Complaint against the Texas State environmental agency. Henley sat her down with Phil Gramm, the former Congressman from Texas, and Gramm agreed to take the community to the House Armed Services. Two years later, the military contract was torn up.
To help mothers to share their stories in all the hearings, MOSES decided to create “Wasted Babies” to represent the voice of the mothers that have lost their children due to environmental harm. “Wasted Babies” are dolls, made with stockings, button eyes, caps that signify cancer, and booklets attached to each doll that tell the stories of the children. These dolls were given to every Congressman and Senator that Glazer has encountered, including Nancy Pelosi. Frank Lautenberg, former Senator from New Jersey, was particularly helpful when the facility was operating, and aided the community in fighting for the attention of Congress and regulatory agencies.
Glazer learned from chemists and other scientists about the dangers of the injection well. The company had constructed the well improperly, without making adjustments for the Austin chalk the well went through. “An injection well is supposed to be done in one pour, and if it’s done in more than one pour, the cement is going out somewhere” she said. In fact, there was 800 feet of cement casing missing, allowing toxic waste to pour out of the well. The company, Gibraltar Chemical Resources, was then sold to the American Ecology Corporation.
“I was in it to win it”.
Despite the challenges of facing such a large corporation, Glazer and her community prevailed. The toxic waste dump in Winona closed in March of 1997 and sued Glazer, her family’s business, and MOSES under the Civil RICO Statute. Ralph Nader and Oprah Winfrey’s attorney in the Mad Cow case, Chip Babcock, represented her and the other defendants. After two and a half years, Glazer has successfully won the lawsuit.
It was a moment of realization for Glazer when people brought their children with deformities to her ranch. She had never been an activist before, but she knew she couldn’t abandon her community in the struggle. Though she managed to close down the facility in 6 and a half years, she continued fighting the toxic waste for sixteen years total. Her story shows that no matter what powerful interests you’re up against, you can win if you are dedicated to the fight.