Backyard Talk

Winning Doesn’t Happen Because You’re Right – You Need To Be Organized

How can you get protective action from regulatory agencies or corporation? The answer has always been through organized people. It is not new news that corporations and powerful rich people can and will control what is or is not done as it relates to public health and the environment. However, what most people fail to realize is that people united in action can influence decision and yes can even win. CHEJ has been working with communities for over thirty years and we’ve seen the power of people in communities.

It was Mississippi citizens, opposed to a hazardous waste incinerator that stopped the facility in its tracks. The groups lawyers had no legal avenues and the scientists were outnumbered by the corporate or “cigarette scientists” by four to one. Local leaders could have just thrown up their hands and walked away in frustration but they didn’t. In a small room people gathered to brainstorm what they could do to stop the proposal and came up with a brilliant idea. An idea by the way that might just work for your fight.

Since there was only one road for trucks to travel when dropping off waste and returning home they needed to think about that road. There is a school, childcare center, church, store and more along that roadway, which would place a large number of families especially children at risk. So the local road is the focus, what can they do?

Since it’s a locally controlled road they asked their local government to place restrictions on the road. The group came up with a list of restrictions that the local government fully supported. Here’s the restrictions that were passed into local law: no trucks could travel on the road during the hours children enter or leave school; all trucks will be inspected before entering the populated area by a skilled inspector; the trucking company will pay a fee for that inspection; a police escort will travel with all trucks arriving during normal working hours and when there are evening school activities; the trucking company will pay a fee to cover the costs of the additional police officers needed to escort; and more.

The result of this was the company decided not to build near that community because of the costs associated with the local requirements. A victory that came from the people and their local representatives and worked within the existing laws.

Another example where people took control, refused to work within the confines or rules of the federal agency is in a small African American community in Florida. The group was looking for a proper clean up of their toxic dump site ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come and hold an open meeting with local citizens to talk about the clean up. EPA said no to an open meeting and insisted on have a meeting where information would be shared through tables set up around the room where people can meet in small groups with the EPA representative discussing a part or segment of their efforts. This of course is a divide and concur technique that was developed to suppress community voices.

Local leaders opposed this staging of issue tables around the room by EPA because it doesn’t allow for community members to learn about issues and problems from other community members. In a large group setting everyone hears the same thing, people benefit from other community members questions and the associated responses from the agency. A large inclusive meeting also allow those who are shy to obtain information because they would never had asked.

So how did the community get what they wanted? Community leaders said yes to the small group tables in the basement of their church. Leaders also requested that the public availability be open in the morning and later in the evening. EPA agreed and set up their tables in the morning and spoke with some community members. When EPA left for lunch the local leader locked the church. When it was time for the evening session on the door of the church hung a sign that said the EPA informational meeting is being held a few doors down. Needless to say when EPA saw this they were angry they couldn’t get back in the church and sit at their little stations to talk with folks. With no slides, posters or other tools EPA walked down to the other meeting hall filled with over 100 people and took their place in front of the room. People we all able to hear and react with questions and comments about the plan to clean up their toxic site.

Community members were so glad that they all meet together. “I would have any idea about how to start the conversation with EPA about the toxic’s,” said one woman. “I am still learning. My neighbors and our community leaders really helped me with their comments and questions to understand the issues. I am so glad they did this even if it was a little radical.”

It is citizens across the country who have almost completely stopped the commercial land filling of hazardous wastes. Our laws and regulations still allow commercial land filling of hazardous chemicals, there are no laws prohibiting it, but the people refuse to allow such a facility to be built in their community, since 1982. When the people stand together we can accomplish more than what we can win in the regulatory arena.

So the track record is clear, more collective action and more thinking out of the box – not just asking ourselves what can we do within “their defined rules and systems,” will win a safe, clean environment for us all.