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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LOE Profile #1: Lois Gibbs, fighting Spirit Behind the Love Canal Evacuation

Air Date: Week of

In 1980, Lois Gibbs was an unsuspecting mother living in a blue collar community in upstate New York when her children became seriously ill. Reporter Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU-FM in Seattle explores the work of this housewife turned outspoken activist and her fight against toxic waste.


CURWOOD: In honor of the 25th anniversary of Earth Day this year, Living on Earth is beginning a series profiling 25 particularly intriguing people who have made a difference in the environmental movement. We begin our report this week with a look at Lois Gibbs. She's not quite a household name, but Lois Gibbs achieved something extraordinary as a homeowner turned activist. She organized her community to fight the Love Canal toxic dump site, sparking a nationwide movement against toxic waste. Terry Fitzpatrick of member station KPLU in Seattle has our story.

(Busy office: phones ringing, voices talking. A man answers the phone: "Good afternoon, Toxics Coalition...")

FITZPATRICK: The office of the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle is thousands of miles from the Love Canal dump site in Niagara Falls, New York. But what happened at Love Canal 15 years ago, when a community rose up to fight an industrial dump, has shaped what's happening here today. This group is one of thousands fighting to keep toxic contamination out of neighborhoods. At this meeting, staffers are planning an educational campaign for Earth Day.

(Woman: "Reduced sperm, increased cancer, increased asthma..." Another woman: "Birth defects." First woman: "Birth defects. There's a whole laundry list of, like, 6 really scary and alarming statistics about health effects on the increase." Third woman: "I'd like to have something more focused, too, on inner-city health problems. Our message is really more...")

FITZPATRICK: This focus on human health and blue collar neighborhoods is inspired by the experiences of Lois Gibbs.

SMITH: Lois actually brought the toxics issues into people's living room.

FITZPATRICK: Cha Smith of the Washington Toxics Coalition.

SMITH: The environmental movement, until that time, had been much more the Sierra Club calendar kind of thing of we're going to protect wildlife and we're going to protect these wilderness places that are somewhere else.

FITZPATRICK: But for Lois Gibbs, that "somewhere else" was her back yard. She lived 3 blocks away from an unmonitored industrial dump site. Her children were developing blood diseases and immune disorders. Nobody seemed able to help.

GIBBS: When we first found out about Love Canal, we called a lot of the traditional environmental groups: Sierra Club, NRDC, and we asked them how do we - how do we go about fixing this problem? Our kids are sick. And they had no clue. They knew about passing regulations, they knew about lawsuits to enforce regulations. But they had no clue what you should do if your community group and you are faced with an immediate problem. And as a result, we had to learn how to fight back, how to get relocation and clean up of the site, from the seat of our pants essentially.

FITZPATRICK: Researchers found widespread chromosomal damage among Love Canal residents. But Federal officials were reluctant to take action. So, Gibbs organized her neighbors and turned up the heat on President Jimmy Carter. They dogged his reelection rallies with picket signs.

GIBBS: Government doesn't respond to the fact that people are dying. that's almost irrelevant. It's predicted; that's what risk assessments are about. What government responds to is political clout.

FITZPATRICK: To gain clout, Gibbs employed theatrical tactics designed to win media attention, even holding 2 EPA staffers hostage for a day. Finally, President Carter gave in, ordering an evacuation of the neighborhood. Toxics had risen to the forefront of environmental awareness. The Superfund was created to clean up contamination nationwide. Today, Gibbs teaches her tactics to community groups through her organization, the Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes.

GIBBS: Most of the communities that are faced with environmental threats today are low-income, rural, or communities of color. And so what we do is we don't organize people about how toxic is toxic, how many people are going to die, but rather we talk to them about how do you gain political clout? Our strategy is put names and faces on people who have the power to make change, and then do whatever you need to do to make that person do it.

FITZPATRICK: Gibbs is a hero to many, but she has not won universal praise. Business interests dismiss her as chemo-phobic, and even some environmentalists view her tenacity as counterproductive in a political culture built on compromise. But Gibbs is undaunted, saying her focus on local action is vital now that the environmental movement has lost some of its national influence on Capitol Hill.

GIBBS: People get bought into the idea that you have to be one voice in DC to make change, and that's just not true. If a group has a constituency that's active, they are powerful, and people's collective power is working locally to effect change nationally.

FITZPATRICK: Lois Gibbs of the Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Wastes. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick reporting.



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