Terri Swearingen, 45 Former nurse, now full-time activist Chester, W.Va.
The Last Straw: Watching the Construction of a toxic waste incinerator about 370 yards from a local school despite a law banning the practice.
How She Fought Back: Playful tactics, like shaking hot dogs at the governor, shamed him into outlawing future incinerators.
Diane Wilson, 52 Shrimp fisherman Seadrift, Texas
The Last Straw: Learning that her tiny county was home to more toxic waste than almost any other community in the nation.
How She Fought Back: Filed lawsuits against polluters and government agencies for taking too little action. When lawsuits seemed at a standstill, she went on hunger strikes.
MOST OF US STRIVE FOR GOOD health by making small, personal choices: We try to eat more fruits and vegetables or to exercise more often. Yet mounting evidence suggests that our health also depends on a bigger matter in which we have less control: environmental pollution. Researchers acknowledge that contaminants in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat put our health at risk. Government agencies should protect us from these contaminants, but some people, like the two women in this story, aren't willing to wait for the government to act.
Terri Swearingen and Diane Wilson used unorthodox tactics like waving hot dogs and staging hunger strikes to get polluting companies in their neighborhoods to clean up their toxic messes. If you worry that no one cares about how corporations threaten public health, take heart. The stories of these women prove that even one person can make a difference.
TERRI SWEARINGEN lost faith in government officials and their ability to look out for the health of her community in 1990. That year, construction began on a commercial hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, just across the river from her home in Chester, W.Va. The incinerator would be one of the largest of its kind in the world, equipped to burn America's dirtiest trash, from industrial solvents and acid to aerosol cans. And the site was surrounded by a poor, densely populated neighborhood, and only about 1,000 feet from the East Elementary School playground.
Swearingen had first heard about plans to build the incinerator in 1982. Back then, she was pregnant with her daughter, Jaime. "I thought, `How can I bring my child into this?'" she remembers. She took part in community protests against the incinerator; those protests may have helped bring about a 1984 Ohio law that forbids incinerators within 2,000 feet of schools or homes.
Unfortunately, the legislation came four months too late. Waste Technologies Industries (WTI) had already secured state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) building permits. Swearingen had assumed government officials would step in because of the possible health risk to people who would live next to the incinerator. But when she saw dump trucks lumbering toward the proposed site, she knew the government had let the community down.
TO GET OFFICIALS to listen, she realized, the protesters had to make more noise. In 1991, Swearingen stepped into a leadership role, co-founding the Tri-State Environmental Council, which united several anti-WTI groups. The organization had one goal: complete shutdown of the brand-new plant. The activists targeted the person they thought had the most power to make changes, then-governor of Ohio George Voinovich. And they chose humor as their weapon, figuring that it was the best way to attract community and media attention.
When Swearingen told a newspaper reporter that Voinovich was a weenie, the term stuck, and the group launched its "weenie campaign." They held a wiener roast on the governor's front lawn, for example, and Swearingen donned a hot dog suit and stood out in front of the governor's mansion, pranks that made the news. Protesters also smuggled foot-long hot dogs into a press conference during which Voinovich was scheduled to speak. When he stepped up to the podium, three of them pulled out their hot dogs and silently waved them in the air. All cameras turned to the protesters, and the governor walked out. Soon after, he announced a statewide moratorium on new commercial hazardous waste incinerators, which remains in effect today.
That same year, 1991, the EPA began a study of the incinerator's environmental impact, as it does with most hazardous waste projects. Swearingen's group held rallies that urged the agency to widen its study to investigate whether WTI might contaminate local food supplies. Once the study was underway, group members attended public meetings to keep tabs on it. The 4,000-page assessment, completed in 1994, led to tighter restrictions on the levels of heavy metals like mercury that WTI could emit. Officials at the EPA say they looked especially hard at the plant because of the involvement of Swearingen and others in the community. "They helped us do our job better," says Gary Victorine, the federal EPA incinerator expert who oversees WTI.
Since then, Swearingen has been effective nationwide. She joined with Greenpeace to help push Congress to overhaul federal combustion regulations, and thanks in part to them, no new commercial hazardous waste incinerators have been built in the United States since 1992.
DESPITE THESE VICTORIES, Swearingen isn't satisfied. WTI still stands in East Liverpool, burning up to 400,000 pounds of waste a day. In defense of the incinerator, Michelle Tarka, an Ohio EPA environmental specialist stationed at the plant, points out that it's still standing for a reason: "It is meeting a need that we've all created because of our desire for products," she says. "It's not creating this waste; it's treating it." Swearingen's group counters that there are other ways to dispose of waste. And they're angered by the incinerator's location, so close to residents, especially since government reports show the smokestack emits lead, mercury, and dioxin, toxins that in large doses are known to cause cancer and neural disorders. On-site regulators downplay the risk, saying WTI's emissions are below federal limits and produce negligible amounts of toxins.
But Swearingen doesn't buy the regulators' reassurances. She worries that "negligible" toxic emissions are still too high and potentially harmful for the kids who live and go to school near the incinerator. That's why, after 13 years of battle, Swearingen still works full time to shut the plant down. "I never want to look back with regret that there was something more I might have been able to do to protect the children," she says.
DIANE WILSON'S story, like Swearingen's, begins with a wake-up call. In the summer of 1989, a fellow shrimp fisherman handed Wilson a newspaper article reporting that Texas produced more air pollution than any other state in the nation, and Calhoun County, where Wilson lived with her husband and five children, was one of the main sources. Many of the pollutants, like vinyl chloride from plastics, are known to cause cancer and other diseases.
"[The news] floored me," Wilson remembers. Before she read that clipping, she'd hardly thought about the chemical plants near her home. They were little more than a string of lights illuminating the night sky. Now she knew that four local plants--run by Alcoa, British Petroleum, Formosa Plastics, and Union Carbide--were polluting her home and threatening her family.
She began to wonder if the pollution was to blame for the dramatic decline in the shrimp catch in recent years, or the cases of cancer in her neighborhood. No one appeared to be asking these questions. So Wilson decided she needed to ask them.
WILSON HAD NO idea where to start. So she called Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer in Houston who'd once represented her fellow fishermen. Blackburn had read the pollution report too and was so concerned that he offered to take on the case pro bono. With Blackburn's help, Wilson contacted the EPA for reports on the Calhoun County plants, Soon she was sorting through a box of documents that took her an entire year to read. She unearthed a string of violations, including a power failure at Formosa that allowed an estimated 74 tons of vinyl chloride to be released illegally into the air in a single day. In 1990, the same year Wilson was digging through those documents, Formosa announced a $1.3 billion expansion, the largest in Texas's history. This gave Wilson a goal: to reduce local pollution by slowing (or halting) Formosa's expansion.
When the EPA said that there was no need to conduct an environmental impact study on the Formosa expansion because it would cause "no significant impact," Wilson was outraged. She sent passionate, fact-filled requests stating otherwise. And, together with Blackburn, she sued Formosa for beginning construction and the EPA for allowing it.
As news of Wilson's suit spread, her community gave her flak, not support. Government officials called her hysterical, and most residents thought the tax revenue and jobs from chemical companies more than made up for any pollution. In fact, few people seemed to believe that the pollution might pose a health risk. Wilson's marriage disintegrated, in part because of the stress of her activism. And the EPA still hadn't started an environmental impact study. Frustrated, Wilson looked to her favorite Gandhi quote for inspiration: "Anyone could do what I have done, given the commitment and the dedication." That's when she decided to go on a hunger strike. The tactic appealed to her because she could do it by herself, it required no money, and it would demonstrate just how serious she was.
WILSON STOPPED EATING on Easter Sunday in 1991, and it made headlines. After 12 days, the EPA agreed to do the study. (The EPA says it made the decision based on Wilson's written complaints, but she believes her hunger strike forced the agency to act.) A few months later, based on ongoing investigations, the EPA fined Formosa approximately $3.4 million for problems at the plant. Although the EPA didn't halt the company's expansion, Wilson realized she'd hit on a technique that worked, and she used hunger strikes three more times. Each time, the protests forced company officials to sit down and negotiate changes to their practices.
In fact, in 1994, Formosa struck a deal with Wilson, agreeing to look into ways to eliminate all discharge from its plant and allowing Wilson to choose consultants to guide Formosa's policies. Spurred by that success, Wilson made similar demands on nearby Alcoa. This time, no hunger strike was needed. Alcoa was aware of Wilson's protests against Formosa, and it quickly agreed to a zero discharge plan in 1995. But for every step forward there was a step back, and in 1999 the Formosa deal broke down abruptly after a disagreement about how the deal would affect plant workers.
Undeterred, Wilson is now taking a different approach. In 2000 she
helped launch an ongoing health study with scientists at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston on the levels of phthalates in the urine of local fishermen and their families. Phthalates are chemicals discharged by plastics companies; researchers believe they disrupt the human endocrine system. The goal is to find out if Gulf fishermen (who may ingest phthalates by eating Gulf fish) have higher than normal, or acceptable, phthalate levels. Wilson hopes the study will provide the proof needed to revoke the polluting companies' wastewater permits.
Some in her community remain skeptical, but Wilson has discovered local allies and earned the respect of environmental and health activists around the country. Mark Smith, a former investigative reporter at the Houston Chronicle, who covered the chemical companies and Wilson's hunger strikes, says she's made a difference. "If somebody like Diane Wilson didn't exist, it would be a hell of a lot easier to pollute on the Gulf Coast."
How You Can Make a Difference
If a polluting company threatens your community, activist Terri Swearingen gives this advice for taking action.
1. Find Like-Minded People. It's easier to take a stand if you don't have to do it alone. Advertise a community meeting in your local paper and ask your neighbors to help. Or contact national and local activists fighting similar battles; visit www.rachel.org and www.bioneers .org (click on "Activism") for links to a variety of groups.
2. Gather Information. You can ask the government for details about a company's environmental record; learn how to make a written request by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website, www.epa.gov/foia, It also helps to read scientific studies about the pollutants in question (some studies are archived online at www.ncbi .nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi). Make copies of everything you read, You may need them later to support your claims.
3. Clarify Your Goal. For example, Swearingen aims to get the local incinerator shut down, and Diane Wilson wants Formosa Plastics's waste-water permit revoked so the company can't discharge pollutants into Lavaca Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. Don't shy away from lofty goals, or you'll never get close to what you want, Swearingen says.
4. Get Attention. It's helpful to target a public individual with the power to make a change, like your governor or an EPA official, Inform your community of your motives and methods so people will be supportive instead of confused or annoyed, For example, Swearingen and her co-activists hold a press conference the day before a protest, write Op-Ed pieces for local newspapers, and distribute pamphlets explaining the issue and their actions.
Maria Noel Mandile is Natural Health's research editor. When she first met Wilson and Swearingen at a conference last fall, she was inspired by their passion.
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