Backyard Talk News Archive

The Meaning of Environmentalism Has Expanded

The year 2021 marks the 40thth anniversary of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.  The Love Canal community’s efforts in 1978 successfully won the relocation of 900 working class families away from a leaking toxic waste dump and awoke a nation to the hazards of toxic chemicals in our environment.  Overcoming powerful resistance from government and a multi-billion dollar company, Occidental Petroleum, this grassroots effort demonstrated how ordinary people can gain power through joining together to win their struggle.  Love Canal sparked a new nationwide social justice movement concerned with links between health problems and the environment.  Hand-in-hand with these concerns are questions about the rights of corporations to increase their profits through decisions that sacrifice the health of innocent families and the environment.
The Meaning of Environmentalism Has Expanded—A New Grassroots Environmental Health Movement
Traditional environmentalism in America has centered, in general, around protecting the natural environment through laws and regulations.  Newer grassroots efforts, however, are as much about protecting public health as the environment.  These efforts value the basic human right to have clean air, water, food and soil along with preserving our nation’s natural resources.  The grassroots leadership believes systemic change comes from the bottom up—people plus organization equals strength—the strength to influence policy and win protection of these basic rights, and the strength to counteract the money and pressure corporations bring to bear on elected representatives to oppose or weaken protective laws.  As a result, the grassroots strategy is to build a stronghold at the local and state levels that can trickle up to influence federal-level representatives and national policies.
Another distinction between the two movements is their contrasting approaches on achieving the same overarching goals of protecting the environment and public health:
Traditional environmentalism is focused on regulations and regulatory controls.  It therefore inevitably winds up debating how many parts per million of chemical X can be in wastewater that is released into a river without killing off downstream fish populations?
Today’s grassroots efforts are focused on prevention.  Grassroots leaders are asking “Why do we allow chemical X in wastewater to be discharged into our rivers when non-toxic alternatives exist?”
Neither approach is right or wrong, or is superior to the other.  The overarching goal of protecting the environment and all living things is the same for both segments of the environmental movement.  When operating on a parallel path, the two approaches together can make significant progress in protecting the environment and public health.
Who Represents the Grassroots Environmental Health Movement Today?
The grassroots environmental movement has a long history of success.  One of its most important achievements has been building a broad and diversified base of support that includes:  Workers, people of color, faith-based organizations, rural and urban families, and indigenous peoples living in today’s society whose lives have been affected by environmental issues.  Parent-teacher organizations, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals working to transform the health care industry’s disposal of potentially harmful substances; people who make their living fishing or depend upon fish as a primary food in their diets and other people from all walks of life.

Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

The Day My Life Changed Forever

It was 43 years ago when I travelled to Albany, New York from Love Canal to meet with the NYS Health Department. My goal was to deliver the petition from the Love Canal Parents Movement asking for the state to close the 99th Street Elementary School.  August 2, 1978 was the day my whole world shifted in an unimaginable way.
While knocking on doors in the neighborhood to obtain signatures on the petition, I learned that my neighbors were sick, some had multicolored gunk coming up in the basement and seeping through the cement walls.  Many neighbors shared stories with me about black oil looking substance coming up in the fields located north and south of the 99th Street School and “hot rocks” yellow looking rocks that exploded like firecrackers when the children threw them against hard surfaces.  Women I spoke with were the most impacting, they told stories of innocent children they lost, pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or birth defected infants.
Our goal at the time, was to close the elementary school.  The playground sat on top of the toxic site with the school building located on the perimeter of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. I also felt the need to educate the New York State Health Department (NYSHD) about all the other health problems that were occurring in the neighborhood. Three of us travel to Albany, NY to deliver the petitions.  As we walked into the auditorium where the meeting was held, we were shocked to see so many journalists. The room had dozens of cameras and microphones on tripods.
Naively, we thought there would be a private meeting in a small office to talk about what we wanted, why it was important to close the school and take the opportunity to share the health information we uncovered while visiting our neighbors.
It didn’t take long to understand that we were being set up. There were three of us, dozens of media related people and later the health department officials and staff took the elevated stage in front of us.
Heath Commissioner Robert Whalen took the microphone and said:   “. . . the Love Canal Chemical Waste Landfill constitutes an extremely serious threat and danger to health, safety and welfare of those living near it or exposed to the conditions emanating from it.”   He ordered that pregnant women or families with children under the age of two living at 99th and 97th streets (that encircle the landfill) move from their homes as soon as possible.  Stunned and terrified Debbie my neighbor and I stood up and began to yell at Whalen. “What are you saying? My daughter is 2 ½ years of age has she been harmed?” The journalist then began to shout questions.  The chaos, noise, and shock from the news made me feel faint.
When I walked out of that building, my life was changed forever.  The rest of the story is history.

Backyard Talk News Archive

No We Still Aren’t Done. Honestly, I can’t wait for 2020 to be done.

This year has been one of the most challenging since I fought along side my neighbors in Love Canal. For those not familiar, Love Canal is a dumpsite full of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, located in Niagara Falls, NY.

I bought a puppy. I needed something to help cope that wouldn’t destroy my health.

Like fighting to obtain relief from the Love Canal leaking dumpsite this year has been one crisis after another. One friend, ally, family member after another feeling sick, worried about COVID or passing away – – alone. Our work at CHEJ had to be totally transformed from face-to-face to virtual. Our leaders who are primarily living in polluted and low income communities told us no one is enforcing the laws and regulations and people are dying. We were powerless to do anything about it.

The election has not yet been declared but it looks like Biden’s going to win and Trump loose. Time will tell because every vote needs to be counted. I’m patiently waiting . . . maybe not so patiently . . . but willing to wait as long as it takes because that is how our democracy must work – count every single voice.

So like many of you – I just wish this year would end. 2021 has got to be better. But at least I now have my happy, oblivious and active puppy to distract me for a little while each day from this crazy world that continues to spin out of control.

It’s time to take my little Buddy for a walk.

Backyard Talk

Please Stop Screaming – Let’s Listen To One Another

Recently, I’ve been discussing presidential politics, as all of us have. Even if you try to avoid the conversations and the different opinions, they are everywhere on the news, in the paper, among your colleagues and friends. Such conversations are important, and often even helpful, to educate people on issues.  Hands down educated voters are best.
Lately, I’ve really been listening to what is being said about various candidates.  Listening to how the message, words are conveyed. Clearly, our country is more polarized than I’ve ever seen in my decades of voting. Unfortunately, most of these conversations have become rude, insulting, and/or dismissive. We are screaming at each other, criticizing or dismissing entire segments of society, and not hearing one another’s views.
I was in a meeting and someone said out loud, with no hesitation, that the Christian Coalition is a huge problem and working against us. A visibly angry young mother from Texas explained that she belonged to the Christian Coalition and doesn’t believe the Coalition supports poisoning school children with toxic chemicals. “People like you are the problem, not people like me.”
In another meeting, someone accused the workers of being the barrier to moving an issue forward, saying therefore, we needed to organize around the workers instead including them in our fight.
I’ve heard people use the words stupid, ignorant or other nasty descriptions of a candidate or a person who supports a different candidate. This is not limited to a single political party and it’s turning off people on all sides.
It’s time to stop the fever pitched screams and begin talking and listening to each other. When we listen and we share, it is amazing what can happen. Let me share a story.
CHEJ was invited to help an organization stop an incinerator in New York. The group we were working with expressed disappointment about how apathetic people in their community are. One member of the core leadership told me, “In this community people are self-focused, lazy and not too bright. I can not understand why they want to allow all this pollution.” I suggested that everyone may not care about health and inquired if she had asked people what they care about? She answered, “No, because this is the most important and frightening thing that’s happen now.”
Yikes, another scream, and narrow focus to the problems of winning real, deep seeded justice. What if you stopped yelling and trying to prove your point, and listened instead?
We were in a bar and I decided that instead of explaining the importance of listening and having a conversation to connect with people, I’d demonstrate the importance.  I got up and moved to sit next to a worker who was having a beer. He was watching the football game on TV and when I caught his attention, I asked what he thought about the plan for the new incinerator.
He replied, “I don’t care.” Showing him the flyer the group published, I followed up with, “What about cancer and other diseases that this flyer says may increase because of pollution?”
“Lady I don’t care . . . I’m watching the game” he replied a bit annoyed.
Waiting for a commercial break, I ask, “What do you care about? What bothers you?” He thought for a moment and said, “potholes.” He explained, he’s an independent trucker and the potholes cause all sorts of damage to his truck which he must pay out-of-his own pocket to repair. Secondly, he added, that traffic signal from hell on the corner. “There is no left turn light and so it takes forever, sometimes two cycles, for me to turn that corner.”
When the next commercial came around I suggested that what he cares about and what the group cares about are the same – – disruption of a beautiful rural community. There will be over 200 trucks driving down that same road making more potholes and a longer line of vehicles that need to turn left at that corner. You may not care about the pollution but there will be plenty of other disruption to the community if this incinerator is built. He agreed and we had a much longer conversation about community power and corporate greed.
My message to the group, then and to us all now, is to stop screaming about how right you are and how wrong others are. Instead, try listening and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see that you aren’t that far apart, and together you can create a better tomorrow.

Backyard Talk News Archive

Trump must do three simple things NOW!

Racial and class division has long been one of the tactics used by the rich and powerful to keep working people from organizing. Today it’s so blatant; as we move tragically through the devastating impacts of COVID-19 there’s not even an attempt to hide or disguise the behavior. I’m frustrated, angry and ready to figure out how to move forward, stand together and speak with one voice. We need to demand immediately that the federal government takes the following first three steps.

  • Immediately reduce air pollution by 50% until the pandemic is over. 

EPA announced in March that they will no longer monitor air or enforce environmental regulations. Families who live around polluting facility are forced to shelter in place — with their “place” so polluted that they cannot go outdoors and cannot open windows. The chemicals are respiratory irritants.

  • First test people in the vulnerable areas which are low income, black and brown communities and senior centers.

Black and brown people make up the majority of “essential front-line workers.”  These essential workers drive trucks, process food, run public transportation, clean hospitals and so much more. Today if you have money not you are an essential worker you can get tested.

  • Expand health care access through mobile clinic or other means to vulnerable communities (usually health care deserts).

You just need to listen to the news to see that athletes, famous TV people, rich families have no problems getting a test if they want one. Patrick Ewing tested positive, went to the hospital and is now healing at home. Patrick’s a great basketball coach/player we wish him well. But Mr. Hernandez and Thomas were unable to receive a test. After driving a long distances to seek help, there is no medical facilities in their communities, they were turned away (even with COVID symptoms) told to go home and quarantine themselves. This is just not right.

Homepage News Archive

Staying Home Isn’t Safe When Surrounded by Pollution

I look out my window every day and see that plant putting out black smoke, dark clouds of smoke. And now we’ve got this virus going on. I joke we’ve got a double whammy going on, but this is serious. We were in battle over here. We’ve got a war going on. Keisha Bowns interview with Katherine Webb-Hehn a freelance multimedia journalist in the South.

Backyard Talk News Archive

Stand Up Fight Back! Protect the most Vulnerable Communities

Do you have friends or family members who live in a vulnerability zone? Check out the map below.

The first map looks at high risk facilities across the U.S. These high risk communities are especially important now that Trump’s EPA is no longer requiring monitoring and will not take enforcement actions.

dangerous facilities near residential neighborhoods.Across the United States, almost 12,500 high-risk chemical facilities place 39% of the U.S. population, 124 million people, who live within three miles of these facilities at constant risk of chemical disaster. The full vulnerability zones for these industrial and commercial sites can extend up to twenty five miles in radius.  You can click on the link below to see if your community is at risk.
Whether you live in these areas or not CHEJ could use your help signing and circulating this petition.  The petition is demanding that President Trump revokes EPA’s decision to not enforce environmental laws and regulations and allow dangerous industries to operate without monitoring what they are putting into the air. Allowing polluters to spew more toxins will exacerbate the suffering and death toll from pollution and COVID19. This is a cruel, cynical, and unneeded attempt to put polluter profits before public health. We have to fight back.
Those dots on the first map and the dark purple areas on the second represent the type of communities CHEJ works with. Our No More Sacrifice Zones Campaign is about reducing the toxic pollution in air of vulnerable communities. We need your support to gain the people power we need to create the policy changes we need to protect innocent families. Join our No More Sacrifice Zones campaign to create a solution from the bottom up.

Homepage News Archive

Earth Day Live Join Us @ 7pm EST Wed. 22nd

Earth Day Live is a national livestream with programming for 3 consecutive days of content. From teach-ins to musical performances, actions and more, The US Climate Strike Coalition and Stop the Money Pipeline Coalition are teaming up to launch a massive livestream where millions of people can tune in with activists, celebrities, musicians, and more in an epic celebration of our planet.      Click here and join.

Honoring Healthcare Heroes: Lisa Edelstein Interview with Frontline Healthcare Workers (Carol Lightle, Pat Sheran Diaz)
Reimagining US: The Fight for a Green New Deal During COVID-19 (Varshini Prakash, Emma Lockridge, Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Lenore Friedlaender, Naomi Klein)

Homepage News Archive

‘Cancer Alley’ Has Some of the Highest Coronavirus Death Rates in the Country

As predominately Black communities in the polluted areas along the Mississippi from New Orleans to Baton Rouge face heightened risks from COVID-19, the EPA has suspended enforcement of the environmental rules designed to protect them.  Read more.

Motherboard, by Sophie Kasakove

Homepage News Archive

The EPA gave polluters a license to kill

There are tens of thousands more communities where the pollution continues unabated. These are known as “sacrifice zones” — places where the health of residents is permanently sacrificed to industrial contamination. Our government just told polluters they are free to pump deadly chemicals into our air and water. That’s because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suspended all enforcement indefinitely, until the COVID-19 crisis is over.  Read more.