What your vote means becomes real when looking across the table at the current administration’s pick to head the only federal agency with PROTECTION as a middle name. Political appointees to important agencies have power. And with power comes responsibility, And for the head of the EPA and his pick for the program that manages the most toxic sites in our country, the responsibility for the protection of the environment gets broader, since those sites are ranked by the dangers they pose to human health. And that means your health. And that is why voting gets personal.
The Washington, DC meeting was arranged by Lois Gibbs, who with her 2 children lived in a neighborhood that had been built on a toxic waste dump and people were getting sick from it. She organized her neighbors. Her efforts to get EPA to buyout 800 families at Love Canal earned her the unofficial title in the environmental movement as the “mother of superfund.”
Lois had reached out and asked interested groups to send representatives to this meeting and ten of us had come to speak not for the trees as the Lorax did, but we went to speak for you and every other person at our sites and quite honestly for every single American who one day wakes up to find they too are living near a superfund site.
As we filled the room and were finding our seats, Albert Kelly walked around the table to greet each one of us before we began to tell our stories of the places we come from and the state our superfund sites are in.
Lois asked me to begin since Albert Kelly overseeing EPA’s Superfund Program is from Oklahoma as is the new administrator, Scott Pruitt. A big gulp, and 5 minutes later we move on to Minden, West Virginia; Columbus, Mississippi; Hoosick Falls, New York; Houston, Texas; Arden, North Carolina.
There are not a lot of happy stories when talking toxics, the subjects our heavy: metals, PCB’s, chemicals re-entering the environment with Hurricane Harvey and yet, when Lee Ann Smith from Arden, North Carolina asked as the last speaker if she would be allowed to stand as she spoke about the doctor who told her that her 11 year old son had cancer and how she had to figure out why that happened. And she did, just as Lois Gibbs had decades earlier. Chemicals dumped years before had done it. She brought his picture and left it lying across the table. After the meeting, the official asked if he could have Gabe’s picture. He had remembered her son’s name.
If you have a chance to experience something as powerful as power to the people to the powers that be, take time afterwards to reflect with each other about your experiences. As we went around the circle, standing outside the EPA building and not yet noticing that the entrance to the Trump Hotel was facing us, each of us spoke up, but Lee Ann Smith’s comment is the one I will share with you. She didn’t know if anything any of us said would make a difference, but what if it did?
We never really know what works to change the future. But we can try and maybe years from now a conversation comes back to us, an image we cannot get out of our minds. In my mind, I was thinking of the picture of her son Gabe she left on the table, and how his cancer might have made superfund more real to that EPA official and that may be what saves the lives of countless children in a current or future toxic site that gets the cleanup that works.
Back in the early 1980’s after Tar Creek had turned orange and everybody here thought the new EPA would do something and do it fast, Lois Gibbs went on morning TV shows with her 2 children and they held up a poster that had hearts all over it with words like “Clean up my Home – Love Canal.” After those shared reflections, I got to verify that memory with Lois, since I had watched one of those random mornings all those years ago.
Memories can stay with you, they did for me. And understanding how media impacts us does too. The country’s major newspapers were posting Tar Creek headlines, covering our story, but they left us suddenly and just as quickly “Love Canal” was making the news, and almost as suddenly EPA disappeared in a big way and left us. We didn’t have a single mom talking about her children to the press, because back then we still didn’t know our children were being lead poisoned. We just had orange water and dead fish. Back then those chat piles were not recognized as dangerous. They just were the way locally we put the FUN into Superfun-d because they were everyone’s playground.
While I had the opportunity, I gave copies of our book, Making a Difference at Tar Creek to those officials. In that book the people who helped lower the lead levels in our children get to tell their stories. Packed and woven into the 5 minutes I had to speak were the messages many had offered as suggestions. Thanks to Jill Micka, JoAnn Walkup, our new intern Bhavana, Martin Lively, Dr’s Rosaline Wright, Robert Wright and Edward Gustvason, Ami Zota, Jim Shine, Eric Ferrell and surely others from our past since John Mott, George Mayer, John Micka who were speaking out so loudly in the beginning.
The moments that connect us to the past may not be ones we can be proud of and on this trip I was reminded of a time I made a person cry by correcting a young woman who had come as a researcher to our site. She was bright but it had been reported to me that she needed a “talking to” as the Navajo call it, and boy did I give it to her.
She is now a professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC and invited me to dinner in her home after our meetings had been completed. I rode the METRO and walked to her home. After dinner she walked me part way back to my hotel and on the way we talked about the people she remembered at Tar Creek and then she remembered me and the first time I met her and chewed her out. I made her cry and we almost lost one of the best researchers environmental justice communities could ever hope to have because of it she told me, she tried to quit the project but carried on with us and has proven to be the shining star we all hope to know.
All this to say, in my life I can think of only 2 times I spoke to anyone like that. So be watchful of your words, think them through because they may be remembered years later and you may be given the opportunity to make them right.
Make a sign, say something, someone may be moved by it and our lives be made better. We never know what makes a difference.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim