The story of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice started with Lois Gibbs in Niagara Falls, N.Y. in 1978. Lois was struggling to raise a family that included two children suffering from a variety of rare illnesses. As she soon realized, they weren’t the only ones. Nearly every family in the now-infamous Love Canal neighborhood was facing its own medical nightmare. Something was very wrong.
Lois soon discovered that her home and those of her neighbors sat beside 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. This shocking finding spurred Lois to lead her community in a struggle to protect their families from the hazardous waste in their own backyards. Through this experience, Lois realized that no local, state or national organization existed to provide communities with the strategic advice, guidance, and technical assistance necessary to win such a battle.
To ensure that no other community would have to face a toxic health threat alone, Lois founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in 1981 (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste). The core of CHEJ’s mission has always been to prevent harm to human health by providing technical and organizing support to individuals and communities facing a toxic hazard.
Since 1981, CHEJ has helped more than 15,000 groups—comprising roughly 2.25 million people—successfully fight environmental health threats across the country. Recently, for instance, groups in Maryland, North Carolina, and Ohio have put a stop to fracking in their backyards thanks in part to work with CHEJ. In the fight against fracking in New York State, CHEJ conducted trainings, spoke at rallies and conferences, and provided testimony and technical assistance to activists throughout the state—and when Governor Cuomo announced a statewide ban on gas hydraulic fracturing, he used message points from our initiative.
CHEJ has a long history of being at the forefront of national environmental initiatives. Known to many as the Mother of the Superfund, Lois’ experience at Love Canal woke up the nation to the seriousness of chemical pollution and led to the passage of federal legislation to fund the cleanup of similarly contaminated communities.
CHEJ was the key grassroots organizing institution in the fight for the iconic federal “Right to Know” policy, which ensures that workers and communities are informed and educated about possible chemical exposures in their daily lives. Leaders from CHEJ spearheaded the far-reaching McDonald’s Styrofoam boycott, leading to the company’s phasing-out of polystyrene products.
In 2016, CHEJ became a project of People’s Action Institute (PAI), adding power, programs and resources to a movement of millions that captures the rising demand for change in our society. PAI was formed from the merger of four other powerful national organizations. We have our sights set on the future and the world we’re aiming to build.
Since becoming a part of PAI, CHEJ has been able to expand its network and work more efficiently on environmental issues. While we continue to do business as CHEJ, our organization is governed by PAI, who reviews our performance, action and programs. Becoming a project of PAI has enhanced our ability to help communities fight for a healthy environment.
Today, CHEJ continues to serve as a lifeline to local organizations to confront immediate threats to their families and improve the public’s awareness of slipshod and dangerous industry practices. We are working as well to build clean, green and healthy communities—centers of opportunity with good schools, affordable medical care, accessible public transportation, and plenty of livable wage jobs. This comprehensive vision is the culmination of our decades of work—continuing to fight against local environmental dangers while also building healthy, flourishing communities.