The drainage ditch that carried pesticide-laden water and sludge from a nearby chemical
plant through the section of Fort Valley, Ga., where Marvin Crafter grew up, was a
playground for him and other children.
In the 1950s and '60s, Crafter and his playmates in this low-income, African- American
neighborhood built hideouts in the blackberry bushes along the banks of the ditch. They
hopped over the fetid water on a shortcut to school to avoid the white neighborhoods where
trouble sometimes brewed, and they knelt in toxic dust to shoot marbles.
"We knew the ditch well enough to sniff the air and guess what color the water was
that day -- yellow, green, milky-gray, white," says Crafter.
Half a continent away in Nova Scotia on the southeastern coast of Canada, Clothilde
Yakimchuk, a black Canadian, remembers days from her own childhood when the breeze blowing
in from the Sydney Steel factory was so filthy that her mother would take clothes off the
line to re-wash them.
Clothilde's husband, Dan, a third-generation steelworker of Ukrainian descent, says
that before he retired from Sydney Steel, he'd sometimes heat fish for lunch by slapping
it on a shovel and poking it in an oven where coal was processed into a caustic fuel
called "coke." Before he'd sip his tea, he'd blow the contaminated dust on its
surface to the far side of the mug.
Both Crafter and Dan Yakimchuk began asking questions about the dangers posed by their
respective plants when, later, they served on town councils and found they could make a
difference. Now, through an innovative project called the Toxic Exchange -- initiated by
Sierra Club of Canada Executive Director Elizabeth May -- these geographically distant
activists are working together.
In 1997, May received a North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation grant
to link two economically disadvantaged communities adjacent to toxic-waste sites.
"People in such communities are victims of the phenomenon of being far from wealth
and far from power, so their suffering is ignored," says May.
The Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Campaign focuses on pollution and health
problems that all too often are concentrated in low-income communities. The Club mainly
provides community groups with technical skills or expertise.
But May wanted to go beyond that. "When you're fighting an environmental cause in
an isolated area, you feel like a lone wolf," she says. "I wanted the people in
this exchange to get a boost from each other -- even if just from the simple knowledge
that people in another country care about their plight. In this way they encourage and
empower each other."
Sydney, Nova Scotia, was a natural choice, she says. "It's the worst toxic-waste
site in Canada, and possibly in North America. The residue of a century of steel-making is
a large, heavily contaminated area extending from a tidal estuary to the abandoned coke
ovens and municipal dumps miles upstream. In the estuary alone are 700,000 tons of toxic
The site is surrounded by a community of 25,000 that has high unemployment, low income
and a population of black Canadians, indigenous people, Scottish, Irish, Hungarian,
Italian and Ukrainian residents.
"It's a melting pot on toxic sludge," says May.
May worked with John McCown, a grassroots organizer in the Club's Southeast Office, to
select the other community for the exchange: Fort Valley, Ga., home to 9,000 residents and
a Canadyne-Georgia Corp. plant that once produced pesticides and the components of
chemical warfare, including Agent Orange. The plant, which still makes pesticides, was
designated a Superfund site in 1990.
In December, May accompanied a group of eight Sydney residents -- including the
Yakimchuks -- to Fort Valley. Others included a Roman Catholic nun, a marine biologist, an
unemployed steelworker, a student and a Miq'mak elder/poet.
McCown has worked for three years with Crafter, who was part of a group that had
already organized a class-action lawsuit against the plant. "They know the problem
better than anyone else," says McCown. "What the Sierra Club does is help them
to crystallize the issue and give them the tools to move forward."
McCown, Crafter and others in Fort Valley told the Canadians how the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry only agreed to
conduct tests on arsenic levels -- though 47 other substances are present in the area,
eight of which are carcinogenic. Of 200 homes tested, 80 percent showed high levels of
"The agencies advised people to stay out of their attics, where arsenic dust
settles, or else clean them up real good," says Crafter. "They came in to clean
our houses with water, soap and vacuum cleaners. Basically what they did here was destroy
He says that as long as the agencies confine their tests to arsenic, they can ignore
the other contaminants.
The Rev. Morris Hillsman, who lost two sons to conditions he blames on contamination,
shared his story with the visitors. One son was 5 months old when he died of convulsions
and tremors, Hillsman said. The other died at age 4 after visits to the hospital for high
fevers and swelling of his tiny body.
"By the end of the story, several members of our party were in tears. One had to
leave the room," says Mark Biagi, a Sydney marine biologist.
As a result of the visit from the Canadians, the Fort Valley group got a new, sorely
needed round of media attention, including television coverage.
The Canadians got practical information on strategies. They learned, for instance, that
the Fort Valley leaders sound the alarm only when they truly need a crowd to show up for a
meeting, such as when the EPA comes to town; the rest of the time they don't strain their
local residents. They also learned that regulatory agencies aren't always on your side and
need to be challenged. And they saw an example of a strong group that has learned to work
together for a common goal. Crafter says part of their strategy has been to embrace the
nearby white community in their demand for a cleanup, pointing out "that the wind
doesn't stop blowing arsenic dust at the railroad tracks."
"We've learned how important it is not to let the other side divide and
conquer," says May. "Fort Valley has 600 people in a class-action suit filed in
1993 and maintains a solid front -- this from a town of 9,000. We have 25,000 people in
Sydney and have trouble getting 100 of them to a community meeting. Now we have some new
In April, a group from Georgia, including McCown and Crafter, will travel to Sydney to
continue the exchange.