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Eco lessons from the Love Canal saga

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTINA WILLIAMS  - Activist Lois Gibbs shares her experiences at the Love Canal toxic waste site in a Q&A with former Mayor Sam Adams at Portland State University. Portland environmentalists aren’t lacking in campaigns or causes, or nonprofits to carry those issues into the streets or halls of power.

But eco-activists here might learn a thing or two listening to Lois Gibbs, who helped expose contamination in her Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., inspiring the national Superfund toxic cleanup program.

Gibbs was in town recently to speak at Portland State University after a showing of “A Fierce Green Fire.” The 2012 film documents the beginning of the modern American environmental movement in the early 1970s, including Gibbs’ experiences at the Love Canal toxic waste site.

After the screening, Gibbs fielded a Q&A session with former Portland Mayor Sam Adams and her PSU audience about how to improve the quality of Portland’s environment. Later she sat for an interview with Sustainable Life, joined by Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Environmental Health and Justice, which she founded and directs.

Gibbs says her greatest challenge at Love Canal was organizing people — with no prior experience — to move politics and make changes in industry.

“People have the trump card, but don’t understand they have it,” says Gibbs, who was 27 during the Love Canal crisis. “Young people don’t understand how much power they have to move an agenda.”

She founded the Center for Environmental Health and Justice in 1981, after receiving more than 3,000 letters from soon-to-be environmentalists all over the country asking about what she did at Love Canal.

Life’s detours

Gibbs, known as the mother of the Superfund and recipient of the 1990 Goldman Environmental Prize, calls herself an “accidental environmentalist.” She wanted to be a mom and a nurse for seniors, but when her kids got sick, Gibbs got serious.

Upon finding that her son’s elementary school was built over a toxic waste canal in the 1970s, Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, advocating for paid relocation of families living there.

Toxic waste dumping began at the site in the 1890s and continued through the 1950s, she says, contaminating the land with dioxin and other hazardous chemicals.

The Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp., now a part of OxyChem, covered the chemicals and sold the land to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1, with a disclaimer and warning about the 20,000 tons of buried chemicals.

A school was built on the land and a neighborhood was developed, but none of the homebuyers or parents were told about the previous use of the site.

After Niagara Falls city-funded investigations and studies conducted by the New York State Department of Health, nearly 900 families were relocated based on findings of increased chemical contaminants in the soil and reproductive problems in women living nearby.

With no prior experience in leadership, nonprofits or environmentalism, Gibbs organized her whole community to ensure that responsible parties were held accountable.

Lois Gibbs is an environmental activist and the executive director and founder of the Center for Environmental Health and Justice.Chair or coordinator?

“The key to being a good leader is to let people decide through conversation,” Gibbs advises fellow activists.

Empowering others to vote in a democratic setting distributed the weight of decision-making among the hundreds of affected families. The majority vote was always the path they took, even if Gibbs knew it would be the path of failure.

“The leader goes with them on failures,” Gibbs says. “Then we can have a conversation on why, and grow together.”

Leaders hear more voices and perspectives than participants and have more information, she says.

Gibbs assigned “street captains” to distribute fliers about agendas, and those captains received recognition at meetings if their entire street came out to attend.

“I did it because I was scared, not because I was smart, but it was the smartest thing I ever did,” she says. “I wasn’t this mouthy lady; I was scared to make the wrong decision.”

She didn’t want to bear sole responsibility for making a mistake that would affect the health of hundreds of families.

Gibbs now sees nonprofits and community organizations get caught up in what she views as a dictatorship-like corporate structure. “Do we really need a chair, or do we need a coordinator?” she asks.

Participants often are willing to bake cookies or volunteer, but rarely want to lead. But the people who bake cookies are still vital to the operation as a whole; they just need someone to coordinate and plan, Lester says.

Rally the People

Inspiring people to participate is the first barrier to creating an effective environmental organization, Gibbs says. Not everyone in her community wanted to participate in the radical burning of political effigies, but most liked the idea of a walk of concern. “Enter at a place where you feel comfortable,” she says.

In Love Canal, nearly 90 percent of community members worked for the industry that was refusing to change to improve the community’s health. It scares some people to publicly join a cause when they may lose their jobs, Gibbs says, but organizers must win over people who are reluctant to take a public stand and must ruffle feathers.

“Be in a picket line or suffer the consequences of climate change,” she says.

At Love Canal, the Environmental Protection Agency conducted studies to find that about a third of the residents had chromosomal damage. Only two of 15 babies born in 1979 and 1980 were healthy. 

The U.S. Justice Department and New York state sued Hooker Chemical for $11 billion, and the company eventually contributed $130 million to help state and federal agencies begin to clean up the pollution.

Move the Agenda

“You have to use pressure and know how to move facts,” Gibbs says. “Pressure is how change happens.”

Corporations aren’t evil, she says; they are constrained by the Wall Street system.

Build a case to present to legislators, she says. Present a solution: Give government grants to corporations so they can clean themselves up.

“I’ve never found a set of legislators hesitant to give industries money,” she says. This way, corporations won’t lobby against sustainability.

Taxpayers win, too — it’s much cheaper to fund clean production than to attempt to cleanse the results years later, such as medical treatment for asthma, which is on the rise now due to smog and other factors.

According to Gibbs, people feel beaten down, as if their vote doesn’t do much. But voters can confront their leaders and “make them behave,” she says.

“Nobody should take on everything,” says Lester, whether it be “recycling, air, children’s health or chemicals.”

“Figure out what you care about,” Gibbs says. “Collectively, all doing something, we can change the world.”