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Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Who are your unsung heroes of the environment?

Emelda West admits she's not an environmental scientist, but says she does know how to add. Dozens of companies have moved into Convent, Louisiana, promising jobs, but 60 percent of her community is unemployed and 40 percent lives in poverty.

Having witnessed Convent's industrial transformation, West helped found the St. James Citizens for Jobs and the Environment, a grassroots group fighting the Shintech polyvinyl chloride plant. The plant would annually add 600,000 pounds of air pollutants to a parish that ranks third in the state for toxic releases and transfers. This gentle churchgoer and 72-year-old great-grandmother fiercely champions nondiscriminatory environmental regulation. She's become a heroine to me and to thousands of environmental-justice activists across the country.

Robert D. Bullard, author of Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color and founder of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University

They are dedicated. Evangelical in approach. In the rain, snow, and the blazingly refreshing light of the African sun, they preach about nature and inspire our vision. Though their actions are visible, they are usually anonymous individually. But they constantly remind us of our obligation to Mother Earth and our children-the future. Canvassers for the Movement to Save the Ogoni People, and for all environmental organizations, are my unsung heroes.

Owens Wiwa, Nigerian environmental and human-rights activist

Most U.S. nuclear-devices testing was performed less than 120 miles directly upwind from Virginia Sanchez's community of Duckwater, Nevada. Needless to say, the Shoshones living there, mostly outdoors, weren't told about any possible problems. They hunted and ate rabbits, including their organs, which contained radioactive iodine. Sanchez's brother and many others were lost to cancer. Sanchez is trying to stop the federal government from moving waste from 108 nuclear reactors onto her land-Newe Sogobia. She and others from the Citizen Alert Native American Program are demanding answers, as well as saying simply, "Don't dump on us."

This past year both houses of Congress quietly passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, authorizing the transportation of up to 90,000 shipments of radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain, the heart of Shoshone territory. The shipments will expose Sanchez's reservation to contaminants again, but this time the waste will also pass within a half mile of 50 million Americans. It might be worth thinking about.

Winona LaDuke, founder of White Earth Recovery Project and author of Last Woman Standing

Dr. Paul Connett, professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, has a passion for grassroots activism. He's traveled to over 40 countries to help communities in trouble by translating complex scientific data into information people can use to fight environmental degradation. When Waste Technologies Industries wanted to install new incinerator equipment at their East Liverpool, Ohio, facility we talked to Dr. Connett, our secret weapon, and he told us the equipment would increase toxic air emissions. That information allowed us to take control of a public hearing on the issue and to take control of our health. Dr. Connett is not just an environmental hero, he's an angel.

Terry Swearingen, 1997 Goldman Environmental Prize Recipient

For nearly three consecutive months, a beautiful 24-year-old Earth First! activist, Julia "Butterfly" Hill, has lived by herself perched high atop a 200-foot, 1,000-year-old redwood in Northern California's Humboldt County. Her presence alone continues to save the tree from being logged by Pacific Lumber. She says what would bring her back down is Pacific Lumber President John Campbell agreeing to let the tree stand "to allow it to live and die by the law of nature."

If Julia Hill is any measure then, indeed, to quote Dostoyevsky, "The world will be saved by beauty."

Bravo, Julia!

Martin Sheen, actor/activist

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