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The Planet

March 1998, Volume 5, Number 2

Nova Scotia, Georgia Allies in Toxics Fight  

by Jenny Coyle

      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 sludge."

      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 arsenic.

      "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 the evidence."

      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 ideas."

      In April, a group from Georgia, including McCown and Crafter, will travel to Sydney to continue the exchange.

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