Backyard Talk

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

It has been almost 40 years since the residents at Love Canal felt frustrated and angry that the newest scientific study found families had abnormal chromosome breakage, “a very rare observation in any population,” according to scientists. Not only does abnormal chromosome breakage indicate a higher risk of cancer, but also genetic damage in adults and children. However, the White House didn’t feel as though these anomalies were significant enough to warrant resident relocation.
That’s when residents decided to really step out of their comfort zone. They invited two EPA officials into their office building and closed the door. “You cannot leave until the White House evacuates us,” they told the officials.
Hundreds of people encircled the building (an abandoned home) and sat down: a non-violent action that received massive media attention. The media defined the action as the first domestic hostage taking, but the residents considered it to be detaining the EPA representatives to protect them from the angry crowd outside. Residents of Love Canal detained the EPA representatives for five hours before letting them go. An ultimatum was sent to the White House – “relocate residents by noon Wednesday or what we did here today will look like a Sesame Street picnic.
Precisely at noon on Wednesday the White House announced that everyone who wished to be moved could leave with federal government funding. Later the polluter Occidental Chemical reimbursed the government. No criminal charges were filed. One of the “hostages” sent a telegram saying, “I miss your oatmeal cookies, best wishes from your friendly hostage, Frank Napal.”
I am sharing this story to say sometimes you must do things outside of your comfort zone. No, I am not suggesting anyone ever detain federal officials. What I am saying is that all too often, leaders are not willing to do things that raise the bar and are risky. Even carrying signs in front of city hall or an EPA hearing is considered to be too risky for them. However, if you play by the rules, you are almost guaranteed to lose.
Why? Because the rules are defined by those in power to control everyday people. There is nothing, for example in a state or our country’s constitution, that says citizens can only speak for three minutes at a public hearing while their opponents generally get plenty of time, loosely disguised as explaining the project/plan.
Today, there is a big push by corporate power to make it a felony to protest even in a nonviolent, peaceful manner. In Texas, some legislature members are trying to push a measure that would subject those who trespass, damage or destroy a facility, or impair or interrupt operations to a third-degree felony including two to ten years in prison. Organizations found guilty of breaking the law would face a fine of up to $500,000 under another provision in the bill.
Finding creative ways around the “rules” is often the only way to make your voice heard, along with applying pressure to those you need to move to resolve the problem. But most of the time, that involves stepping out of your comfort zone. Here are some examples.

  • One strategy you can implement is to hold a news conference ½ hour before a public hearing at the same place (or sidewalk nearby). Explain to reporters your objections to the format, the solution/problem the hearing is about and provide the reporters with questions they can ask of elected representatives, the corporation that benefits and offer community people to provide the “human impact” side of the story. Reporters are better prepared when interviewing people with real, targeted questions.
  • In Georgia, in the black belt region, the community wanted to speak out against a proposed facility that threatened their air, water and land. However, every time someone did speak out in opposition, their car tires or personal property were vandalized. The message was clear: if you speak up, there will be retaliation. The solution to this problem is to stop speaking out as individuals; instead, speak as a group. At the next public hearing, 250 African American residents filled the auditorium. That alone frightened the corporation because they had never had so many local residents attend. Then, when the first speaker from the residents group went to the podium to speak, he broke into a church hymn. All 250 residents stood up and sang along with him. When the second person went to the podium, she sang a church hymn as well and everyone stood up and sang with her. The tables were turned as the local people began to take back their power and started feeling strong.

There are many ways to take back our democracy and have our voices heard, but simply writing letters, signing petitions, and playing by the rules is not enough. To make real, tangible change, you need to step out of your comfort zone and do something creative, together, and always non-violent.
Captura de pantalla 2019-06-06 a las 3.33.34 PM

Backyard Talk

Water Pollution – What’s it All About?

Wetland Water Sample USDA
Our water in the US is supplied by lots of sources. Groundwater makes up about 25% of water used, while surface sources like rivers, lakes, or reservoirs make up the remaining 75%. Most of our water is used for thermoelectric purposes, irrigation and public supplies (2005). But water is also important for industry and farming, since it can be used for almost every step of producing everyday goods like food, paper, chemicals, petroleum, or metals. The water cycle doesn’t end there, though. The water used in production needs to flow somewhere, and a lot of times it goes back into rivers.
In a 2004 fact sheet by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), US water sources were declared too impaired by pollution to support their use: ‘In 2004, states reported that about 44% of assessed stream miles, 64% of assessed lake acres, and 30% of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were not clean enough to support uses such as fishing and swimming. Less than 30% of U.S. waters were assessed by the states for this report. Leading causes of impairment included pathogens, mercury, nutrients, and organic enrichment/low dissolved oxygen. Top sources of impairment included atmospheric deposition, agriculture, hydrologic modifications, and unknown or unspecified sources.’
Knowing the numbers is one thing, but knowing what that means for the general public is another. What does it mean to live near a contaminated river or reservoir? If the pollution exceeds a certain level of concentration, it means that your community’s main water source is not fit to drink. More than 100,000 miles of rivers and streams in the US have poor water quality due to factory farming. One single agricultural company, Tyson Foods, causes 104 million pounds of pollution in our surface sources of water within four years. One can only imagine the impact that the whole of US agriculture must have on our water supplies – not to mention other industries and big oil.
With public awareness growing and environmental movements on the rise, how can industrial and agricultural pollution still happen at this large scale? A big portion of water pollution is backed by outdated policies or lack of those that control the amount of pollution. Policies that do exist are enforced poorly and inconsistently which lets industries bypass or ignore laws. Unplanned industrial growth and a number of small scale industries with lack of funding for better technologies influence water quality as well. Often times, it is lower income and marginalized communities suffering the most.
The main issue that stems from water pollution is the impact on health. Polluted water can contain chemicals like fertilizers and pesticides, industrial wastewater, heavy metals, and even radioactive waste. The impacts on communities can be dreadful, and ecosystems are being harmed beyond repair. Failing ecosystems put a strain on many parts of our modern day lives. Fish living in contaminated waters can easily ingest pollutants and carry them into the natural food chain. Habitats are being lost and species are on the brink of extinction, major disasters like oil spills damage public and private properties. The list of consequences seems endless. We all know that coming in contact with these pollutants can cause diseases like cancer, painful rashes, issues with liver and kidney, and disturbance of the nervous system. Children are especially vulnerable: In the Flint water crisis, officials found lead levels in the water causing low IQ, shortened attention span, and increases in violence and antisocial
behavior. It can adversely affect major organs of the body and the effects are irreversible.
All these facts might feel almost insurmountable. But let’s focus on what we can do to change the way people look at our water, and to reduce pollution and the effect it has on our lives. There are many approaches to help keep our water sources clean.
Look at your own water footprint and the footprint of the food you’re eating and the goods you’re using. See what you can change about your lifestyle that would reduce it. See how we impact our water sources.
Look for companies that use environmentally friendly methods and sell biodegradable products instead of chemical cleaners and harming industrial practices. Buy local.
Advocate for your cause. If you change opinions of your friends and family, and if you educate them about water and all the issues revolving around it, they might do the same. It only needs a small number of people to start a movement. Spread the word.
Join an organization, donate or volunteer.  See what you can do in your community. Join CHEJ and help communities affected by pollution
Learn about our water sources and how they are used, who influences them and who uses how much.
Check out these links to learn more: