Backyard Talk

Grassroots Green Hero: Rev. Charles Utley

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Reverend Charles Utley in his Office, Augusta, Georgia (Photo by Rev. Utley).
Reverend Charles Utley in his Office, Augusta, Georgia (Photo by Rev. Utley).

Reverend Charles Utley, born in Waynesboro, GA, is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL (Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League). He spent all of his childhood and young adult life in the Hyde Park Community, set next to a toxic waste site in an industrial area of Augusta, GA. When he left for Vietnam in 1966, his parents started organizing their community to improve their neighborhood with The Hyde and Aragon Park Improvement Committee, the oldest organized community according to IRS records. They fought for public water and sewer systems, paved streets and streetlights, spearheaded by Mary L. Utley, Charles Utley‘s mother.

‘It would be years later after all of these necessary things were achieved and my parents were deceased, I succeeded my mother’s role as community president. It was in the mid-1970. We found out that there was contamination in our community from a wood treatment plant (Southern Wood Piedmont Company). From this point on we were faced with cleaning up our community’, Utley writes in our interview.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted many studies in the area that resulted in seeking ways to get the community relocated. After approximately 25 years of community organizing, the Hyde Park Community is now finally being relocated. Reverend Utley helped organizing his community around this very topic.
Any movement has to deal with setbacks from time to time. The Hyde Park Community around Rev. Utley had to fight with constant disagreements of the commissioner concerning the severity of the contamination – even though it had been proven to be contaminated by Brownfield Projects by the EPA. Officials refused to take action for over 30 years. The community had not been notified about any environmental issues in their homes, so they decided to do their own investigation.

‘The local officials did very little in our fight to provide assistance with our efforts; however, the community was able to receive two Brownfields Pilot projects without the assistance of the city of Augusta. Additional assistance came from EPA and ATSDR (Agency of Toxic Substance and Disease Registrar) who provided us with a health study that was conducted by our local health department.
The city engineering department needed a place for a retention pond for water runoff and to assist the residents by using Hyde Park for the project’.

Since the community did not receive any help from the city and has been exposed to contamination for decades, there are many community members who are sick, mainly with cancer related issues and respiratory problems. Even 40 years after Utley took over as community president, issues are found among Hyde Park residents.

‘Our fight is a continuous fight because we have not reached full fruition. There are many residents who have not been compensated for their property who are homeowners. Therefore, the community has not given up but has continued to fight until all of our rights as citizens are received, which also includes long term health care’.

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Charles Utley talks about what he says is the unfair treatment he has received from the city regarding the purchase of his Hyde Park properties during a news conference in September. Utley was a major player in a decades-long fight to clean up contamination from area industries at the site. (MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE)
Charles Utley talks about what he says is the unfair treatment he has received from the city regarding the purchase of his Hyde Park properties during a news conference in September. Utley was a major player in a decades-long fight to clean up contamination from area industries at the site. (MICHAEL HOLAHAN/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE, 09/13/16)

Media coverage was one of the primary ways the community was able to get their story out to the public. The response to the community has been one of the things that caused the relocation to take place. They have received help from local and regional organizations for their plight, which includes the book Polluted Promises by Dr. Melissa Checker, and two documentaries.
Charles Utley is the Associate Director and Environmental Justice Campaign Director at BREDL. He says that BREDL has been a supporter for his community from the beginning of their struggle. They provided assistance with their staff, community programs and workshops. They are involved until the whole community has received the justice it deserves.
For people who want to help their community, he recommends staying focused on the major issue(s) and to understand that if you do nothing, then nothing will be done for your cause. Therefore, each individual in the community must be committed to the cause. The Hyde Park Community needed assistance in getting the word out to other organizations, to tell them that the struggle is not over and that their assistance is still needed. They sent letters to The Richmond County Commissions and Mayor Harry Davis, urging that the issues still needed to be addressed. But the fight goes on as homeowners have yet to receive the just compensation that was promised by officials.

At the end of our interview, Rev. Utley said that the vision that his parents had for the Hyde Park Community was what formed his organizing ground. Community organizing has taught him that success may not come immediately but that being persistent in your work will pay off eventually.

‘Above all, you must put your trust in Jesus Christ’.

Look up BREDL at and see if there is a Chapter in your area. Get the help you and your community deserve with organizations like BREDL and CHEJ!


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:

Backyard Talk

Just Moms STL Continue to Fight for Their Community

By: Katie O’Brien

The community surrounding West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, MO has been fighting for their lives. CHEJ has been working with the grassroots group Just Moms STL for over a year to help train them to organize their neighbors to join them in their fight to regain their health.

An underground fire is burning approximately one thousand feet from 50,000 tons of illegally dumped radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project, which experts estimate can reach the waste in as little three to six months. The fire has been burning for five years, sending smoke and soot into the streets and homes of the surrounding areas. Residents believe this toxic smoke has been causing an upsurge in health problems such as lupus and cancer, and the state health department defined the area to have a much higher than expected childhood cancer rate.  Children cannot play in their yards because the air is so toxic it causes nosebleeds.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed West Lake Landfill as a Superfund site in 1990. Since then, the EPA has continuously mishandled clean up efforts and refuses to move families away from the hazardous site. Just Moms STL has been trying to meet with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy for over a year to discuss the health problems that are affecting their children and to establish a plan, but they are constantly denied a meeting.

The St. Louis County Government put together an Emergency Operation Plan in case of a potential nuclear threat; stating its purpose is to reduce or prevent the loss of lives within the county.  The plan states the catastrophic event will occur with little or no warning at all. Residents will be urged to shelter in place until the county can properly set up evacuation points. Just Moms STL continues to fight for their communities and the relocation of their families.

Sign the petition to help Just Moms STL get their families relocated!

Backyard Talk

Waste: Then and Now

By Michelle Atkin

“They just don’t make things the way they used to!” I’ve said it before, you’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, and it is true. Devastatingly, it was not an accident. Product quality started to diminish in the 1950s when the editor of Modern Packaging Inc. said, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Products were designed durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style), so opportunities for growth and profit were declining when society focused on preservation, reuse, and frugality. Prior to 1917, a communal tin cup was used for water in train stations and before the 1920s, women used cloth and reusable pads before disposable sanitary pads were available.

Now Dixie Cups and Solo Cups are everywhere. Instead of reusing glassware, the marketing companies of the industrialized world have capitalized on a society of convenience. The disposability of cheap, single-use items have led us to the landfill capacity problems we have today. North Americans use 130 billion disposable paper coffee cups alone, which come from the loss of millions of trees and lead to 253 million pounds of waste. If we were able to exist in a reusable way before, we should be able to again, but the culture has changed and now you have everyone trying to keep up with the Jonses with the latest iPhone even though their old one still works perfectly.

This concept contributes to our ever growing amount of trash and is called planned obsolescence. Instead of building high quality cars, appliances, televisions and toys, inferior materials are often used in critical areas to limit the amount of time a product will be operable. Manufacturers then make repair costs so similar to replacement costs that it often makes more sense from a consumer’s perspective to buy a new product, regardless of how much space the television or refrigerator will take up at the dump.

The fashion cycle is another way customers are driven to buy more despite their perfectly functioning current wardrobe. The decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable pieces can be a powerful marketing ploy.

There is hope for the future of the environment with the extended product responsibility approach. This holds producers responsible for the environmental effects over the entire product life cycle – the cost of compliance cannot be shifted to a third party and therefore may be incorporated into product prices. As far as our clothing goes, hopefully reuse can be promoted through donations, yard sales and hand-me-downs.

To learn more about the historical roots of modern waste or what you can do to improve the future outlook, visit:

Backyard Talk

Pioneering Green Carpeting Manufacturer Interface Ends its Defense of PVC

After years of defending PVC as an ecologically sustainable industrial material, Interface, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers and a pioneer in sustainable business, has announced that it will be eliminating virgin PVC from its entire product line by 2020.

The announcement comes as a welcome end to a long-standing conflict between the company and its core constituency of ecologically-minded consumers and businesses. In recent years, other major carpet manufacturers including Shaw and Milliken have phased PVC out of their product lines, but Interface had not followed suit. In a recent article in GreenBiz, the company’s sustainability team writes about the painful but productive process of incorporating vinyl’s full life-cycle impacts into its definition of sustainability.

Vinyl is the plastic environmentalists love to hate because of its life-cycle toxicity issues, which occur both upstream (emissions from plastic production) and downstream (if it gets burned under uncontrolled conditions). In addition, PVC always contains other chemical additives, some of which (e.g., heavy-metal stabilizers) may be quite toxic. While our Restricted Substances List adequately screens out toxic additives, it is not designed to account for these life-cycle toxicity issues.

As an early champion of lifecycle assessment (LCA), we were confident that we had a tool to account for the life-cycle of PVC. And while LCA has proven to be a reliable tool for more holistic decision-making, especially for considering carbon footprint or water impacts, it is notoriously weak at evaluating human health impacts like toxicity.

Even with robust life-cycle toxicity data (such as the chlorinated emissions from a PVC supplier), plotting it in a graph next to greenhouse gas emissions is scientifically meaningless and emotionally explosive, given that potential health impacts are far more personal and comprehensible.

Though it spent years defending PVC, in 2008 Interface began working more closely with its critics and adjusting its industrial criteria. The policy it has developed eliminates the use of virgin PVC by 2020, while reusing and diverting from the landfill millions of pounds of PVC carpet-backing currently in the waste-stream. It’s a major step forward for the carpeting industry, and we at CHEJ are glad to have Interface in our corner.

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image credit: iStockphoto

For me personally, first learning about Interface’s story was an “ah-ha” moment. I’d seen the movie “The Corporation,” in which Interface’s founder and long-time CEO, the late Ray Anderson, speaks dramatically of his conversion to an ecological approach to business. He realized that Interface’s extraction and production practices amounted to “the way of The Plunderer, plundering something that’s not mine, something that belongs to every creature on Earth.” I later read Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, and learned with great excitement about the ways in which ecological thinking had transformed not only the contents of Interface’s carpet, but their whole business model.

Anderson and his team realized that businesses don’t want to own carpet — they want the service of floor covering. They combined this insight with the fact that when standard broadloom carpet is replaced due to worn spots, traditionally once every ten years, huge amounts of perfectly good carpet gets torn out and landfilled. There is more carpeting in US landfills than almost any other product, much of it toxic.

In response to these two realities, the company fundamentally rethought their business approach. Interface created modular carpet tiles, allowing worn areas to be replaced individually; they then leased these tiles to businesses rather than selling them, taking the worn tiles back to the factory; and they developed a higher quality, less toxic, resilient carpet product called Solenium to cover the tiles, which could be completely remanufactured into itself, retaining the value of the materials and further reducing waste.

Reading about this type of holistic, innovative approach to industry was eye-opening. It was proof that businesses can make money by being smart and following their values, by protecting their customers’ health and the environment rather than endangering it. Interface is to be commended for finally incorporating PVC-elimination into its vision. I look forward to seeing where that vision it takes the company next.


Backyard Talk

Making Sense of Zero Waste

When most people think of zero waste, they think of a near impossible and impractical goal.

They think that zero waste means not generating any waste or that all the waste that is generated has to be recovered, reused or recycled. Zero waste is much more than these narrow views envision. A new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and  Lessons from Around the World, provides a realistic view of what zero waste is by providing examples of how it is being applied and offers great hope of what it can be.

The report makes clear that zero waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by ending waste disposal practices that use incinerators, dumps and landfills. The plan incorporates waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits and industrial redesign. The report also points out that zero waste is a “revolution” between waste and people. “It is a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard the health, and improve the lives of everyone who produces, handles, works with, or is affected by waste – in other words all of us.”

Nine success stories from across the globe are profiled in the report. Each of the communities profiled used different zero waste practices that were unique to its culture, economy and political realities, yet each led successfully to the same goal. Each shared several key ingredients – intensive prevention and source separation policies and flexible and decentralized, low-tech waste treatment systems. Each was more cost-effective and generated more employment than systems built around big incinerators and landfills.

The introduction to the report describes a common philosophy behind a comprehensive zero waste plan driven by four core strategies: 1) Setting a new direction away from waste disposal; 2) Supporting comprehensive reuse, recycling and organics treatment programs; 3) Engaging Communities; and 4) Designing for the future.

The new direction moves society away from waste disposal by setting goals and target dates to reduce waste going to landfills, abolishing waste incineration, establishing or raising landfill fees, shifting subsidies away from waste disposal and into discard recovery, and banning disposable products, among other interventions.

Zero waste systems separate waste at its source to ensure high recovery quality and efficiency.  Separate organics collection is critical to ensure a stream of clean, high quality material which in turn enables the creation of useful products (compost and biogas) from the largest fraction of municipal waste. It also improves the recycling rates because materials remain free of contamination.

A critical element of zero waste is involving the local community in determining the direction of the waste management program. The public needs to be involved in the very design of the plan for it to succeed. Residents must actively participate by consuming sustainably, minimizing waste, separating discards, and composting at home.

Once zero waste practices are in place, it becomes easier to identify materials or products that cannot be reused, composted or recycled. This creates opportunities to address industrial design mistakes or inefficiencies so that companies will produce cleaner and more sustainable products. If it cannot be reused, composted or recycled, it should not be produced in the first place.

Zero waste strategies can help societies produce and consume goods while respecting ecological limits and the rights of communities to self determination. It can also help ensure that all discarded materials are safely and sustainably returned to nature or manufacturing.

For a copy of the report, see <>.