by Marie Dolcini
When it rains in Pensacola, Fla., arsenic- and dioxin-
tainted mud pours down the streets of Margaret Williams'
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
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
And as Margaret Williams attests, these partnerships have
created new opportunities to spread the Club's conservation
"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
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
"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
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
"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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