Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Building Bridges to Common Ground

by Marie Dolcini

When it rains in Pensacola, Fla., arsenic- and dioxin- tainted mud pours down the streets of Margaret Williams' neighborhood.

In 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that a now-defunct wood treatment plant that went unregulated for 15 years in Williams' low-income African-American community had left 250,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil in her backyard. Williams says that failed containment efforts have resulted in high cancer rates and other health p roblems. She formed Citizens Against Toxic Exposure in response and has since been working to get the EPA to move her community to safer ground.

"I had heard of the Sierra Club before, but I didn't know a lot about it or about environmental work when I started," she said. "But when we explained our issue, everyone seemed willing to support us and we were just glad to be working with interested groups." Among those interested were Florida Chapter volunteer Wendy Stephenson and John McCown, Gulf Coast Environmental Justice Organizing Project coordinator. Both have helped CATE sponsor community workshops and conduct media trainings.

So far, the collaboration has helped get Williams' community selected for relocation by the EPA - the only problem is the plan doesn't include everyone. Williams and others say the obstacle demonstrates the kind of discrimination people of color suffer when it comes to prioritizing cleanup. At the same time, polluting industries continue to impose their most toxic burdens on communities like Pensacola. It's not only cost-effective for the companies in question, but the neighborhoods most frequently targetted haven't traditionally had the political power to do anything about it. Some of these poorer communities are so desperate for jobs that they actually invite polluters in. Many more have never been given the choice. Activists like Williams are linking arms with the Sierra Club's "environmental justice" volunteers to buck the trend.

Environmental justice advocacy allows the Club to extend and strengthen its grassroots organizing tradition by reaching out to the targets of the War on the Environment," said McCown. "We ally ourselves with a neglected and natural constituency and their support will help make the Club relevant into the next century."

In the Southeast that means helping citizens take on big polluters and working to relocate communities from leaking Superfund sites. In the Midwest it means forming an alliance with low-income residents to stop the proliferation of incinerators. In the West, it includes reversing radioactive contamination and waste disposal on cash-poor Indian reservations and providing technical and financial support to former mining communities left with the lethal legacies of abandoned mines.

"Research shows that economically disadvantaged communities of color are more likely to have contaminated facilities than their low-income white counterparts," added Jim Price, Southeast office staff director and long-time supporter of the Gulf Coast Regional Conservation Committee environmental justice project. "And longer cleanups and smaller fines reveal they aren't given priority by virtue of who lives there. Supporting their efforts will ultimately help us be the people's grassroots environmental organization we have long sought to be."

Setting the Pace in the Southeast

"The problem is that too many of us see this work as somehow separate from environmentalism," said McCown. "But how can we address clean air problems without talking to people who live next to polluting plants?"

From the beginning, environmental justice activists readily acknowledged the main challenge to outreach was the Club's makeup as a predominantly white, middle-class organization. "We had to ask ourselves, 'Why would a person of color trust, much less join, the Club?'" said McCown. "Our job is to establish trust by addressing health issues that are important to these communities. When we do, they will see the Club as an instrument for improving the quality of life for all Americans and they will have a reason to join us." In 1993, the Gulf Coast Environmental Justice Organizing Project hired McCown to spearhead its goal: reaching out to environmentally at-risk poor and minority communities by providing access to Club resources and advanced skills training.

While some community residents have joined the Club as a result, building membership isn't the project's primary motivation - at least not in the short term. "We go into communities at their invitation and we don't tell them what to do - we put them in touch with Club chapters and groups and help them acquire the resources they need," said McCown. Now there is a network of communities lending assistance based on similar problems. That aid has ranged from linking those fighting the same polluting corporations, to providing financial support for residents seeking relocation, compensation, health care and the attention of congressional representatives.

And as Margaret Williams attests, these partnerships have created new opportunities to spread the Club's conservation message.

"Grassroots people power is the answer to corporate power," said McCown. "Together we have to find local solutions beyond legislative tactics. The Club has a wealth of resources and skills that don't cost a lot, and offering them in these campaigns will do a lot to build alliances - and come back in the form of continued support." Providing organizing assistance in Pensacola is just one example. In Columbia, Mississippi, project volunteer and former Gulf Coast RCC Chair Nick Aumen assisted the Jesus People Against Pollution find a fax machine and a computer. Former Florida Chapter Conservation Chair Roni Monteith and Delta Chapter activist Darryl Malek-Wiley then helped JPAP leaders complete a funding proposal to fight a notorious local chemical manufacturer. In southern Louisiana, the project sponsored a canoe trip for teens led by Delta Chapter Chair Bob Hastings to build environmental awareness among JPAP's youth.

So far, McCown has worked with 10 community groups from Titusville, Ga. to Fort Payne, Ala., and consulted with over 50 by phone. Today, the Gulf Coast project facilitates Club environmental justice activity throughout the region and has become a model for national expansion. "If we can help polluters' biggest victims win, then we all win," said McCown.

Digging In In Detroit

or Ed McArdle that message rings just as true in the industrial Midwest. In 1980, he received a letter from the EPA warning residents in suburban Detroit that a proposed incinerator could be an imminent and substantial danger to public health.

"I was alarmed, because I know that incinerators are the largest source of dioxin," said McArdle, an organic gardener and nut-and-bolt-shop worker and a 15-year Club veteran. And although he fell short of realizing a complete ban of the Detroit incinerator, McArdle is using knowledge gained from that battle to help his neighbors in Inkster stop a proposed expansion of its burn plant. He's helping to form a coalition of church groups, an African-American men's association and the Club's Southeast Michigan Group, to walk Inkster's streets with petitions advocating recycling over incineration.

An older suburb built by Henry Ford to house black auto workers, Inkster suffers many of the same problems of inner- city Detroit: lack of resources, decaying infrastructure and neglect. Most residents are low-income and more than half are African-American. By no coincidence, they also live within a mile of the Inkster incinerator and bear the brunt of its pollution compared to those in the outlying, more affluent communities that supply it with its main source of waste.

"Some people look at you like you're from Mars, others want to help," remarked McArdle. "There's a lot of apathy, but on the whole, residents have been very receptive to our work in the community - especially when we emphasize the money that could be saved by recycling."

Still, McArdle acknowledges that if he encounters skepticism and resistance to Club efforts in poor and minority communities "it's because people don't know us well enough." He's just one of many activists making the Club new allies, one door at a time.

Stopping Assaults on Indian Country

thousand miles to the west, Boulder, Colo., attorney Julie Kreutzer advocates a similar approach. "You can't go in with a specific agenda," said the 10-year Club activist and Environmental Justice Task Force member. "That doesn't work in Indian country with its long history of outsiders causing trouble. It's their land and their problem, and I work for them so I have to listen. Once invited in, I respect the direction they are going."

Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is in the poorest county in the United States. The Lakota people there have a long history of fighting off attempts aimed at destroying their traditional land-based culture. Today the assault continues as abandoned uranium mines have left inhabitants with a contaminated water supply and high cancer rates associated with exposure to radioactivity.

Kreutzer, who works at the invitation of tribes across the country, collaborated with Pine Ridge residents to help conceive a coalition name - the Lakota Elders for the Environment - and helped design its letterhead. Soon after, the coalition was being invited to meetings. She also found a computer to track cancer rates on the reservation and is negotiating with a trucking company to bring clean water to Pine Ridge schools. "It took 10 years to get the EPA to take us seriously," she said. "But we're finally being heard." "Those who want to dispose of radioactive waste have looked to reservations because their status is similar to that of a Third World country," said Kreutzer of the threats to Native Americans beyond Pine Ridge.

"Thankfully, the Club's achieved a good enough reputation that a native woman I had never even met stood up at a meeting where a chemical company accused the Club of causing trouble, and said we were the only environmental group to offer support," she added. "Such alliances are what it takes in this kind of work."

Supporting Survivors of Northern Rockies Horror

Staff and volunteers pursue a support role in these struggles, recognizing that the Club isn't the best equipped to end environmental injustice - affected residents are. But our support is making a difference. Barbara Miller's story is a case in point.

A catechism teacher and mother of four, Miller says it's been easy for polluters to get away with environmental crimes in Idaho's isolated northern panhandle, known as the "Appalachia of the West," with its economic reality comparable to poor mining towns to the East. Today, although most mines have ceased operation, Kellogg sits atop the second-largest Superfund site in the country and has recorded the nation's highest rates of lead contamination among children for over a decade.

While some have moved to safer ground, a greater number have stayed to fight it out in this economically depressed community. Nearly every remaining family has been affected by a range of physical and psychological disorders associated with constant exposure to a century-old toxic soup encompassing 21 square miles and 75 million tons of lead and heavy metal contamination.

Ironically, Miller notes that continuing studies are squandering valuable cleanup funds - like one completed by the EPA five years ago that said lead contamination in children was more likely to occur among uneducated families who made under $10,000 a year. Miller said that announcement was interpreted in Kellogg as a problem of income and education and not locale, and was used by mining companies to delay cleanup even further. Today, she and the People's Action Coalition, an alliance of local church, union and community groups, are working to stop such studies and ensure funds for cleanup. And the Club is offering critical assistance. Miller credits community toxics specialist Marion Trieste in the Northeast office with keeping her group informed of the legislative dan gers posed by a weakened Superfund reauthorization in Congress, and Washington state volunteer Doris Cellarius with linking their efforts with local Club entities. Trieste also secured critical financial backing to allow Miller to testify before EPA chief Carol Browner at a Superfund reauthorization hearing in March.

"Without the Club's support, we wouldn't be able to keep this alive," said Miller, "and I wouldn't have been able to tell our story in Washington."

By reaching out neighborhood by neighborhood, Club environmental justice advocates aren't just changing lives for the better, they're bridging the gap between public health and environmental issues. And what does the Sierra Club get in return? Formidable advocates, a broader support base and, as McCown asserts, more respect when we lobby on Capitol Hill and increased chances for success.

"We are a more forceful voice when we build coalitions and coordinate our struggles with other like-minded visionaries and activists," added outgoing President Robbie Cox. "There is much we need to learn about doing environmental justice work, and it must be a perspective we bring to all of our work, not ghetto-ized as another 'committee.'" "As John Muir used to say, 'The heart of the people is always right,'" added McArdle. "Working with grassroots groups is hard given all the conflicting personalities, but I get a certain satisfaction from it because it's a way of building community. Inkster is a beaten and fractured community, but even if we lose this campaign, it also means we'll be there for the next issue - which is usually right around the corner."


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