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

Active Listeners

Air Date: Week of

A listener and teacher called the Living on Earth listener line and told us about her class and their recent environmental clean-up success. Steve Curwood called her back and asked her more about it.


CURWOOD: Environmental progress doesn't always come down in edicts from a protection agency in Washington, DC, or in the results of a study published in some prestigious journal. It often takes place right under our very noses. That's why we ask you to let us know about what might be called small acts of environmental heroism or invention taking place in your community, or your own back yard. This week's offering comes from Dana Opland. She's a teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who tells us that a recent social studies assignment at the Custer High School blossomed into a lesson about toxic waste and civil action.

OPLAND: Students were given a map of our city, of Milwaukee, that had all of the toxic sites here from Superfunds to smaller noted toxic sites, and they were to go look at one, and they had a questionnaire that their social studies teacher, Larry Miller, had created, that they were supposed to answer after they looked at it. And all of them had a site within 8 blocks of their home.

CURWOOD: Okay, and what did they come up with?

OPLAND: Well, 2 of the students took a shortcut that they always taken to and from school, and they had happened to look at their map and noticed that this big, muddy spot that they've always walked by was really a toxic site. They were surprised to see that it looked so normal and wasn't a green, bubbling mass of mess that they would have thought from TV and from, you know, from what you read. So think they were real shocked, and they came to us the day after they noticed it, and they were like, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you have to come see this." It had seeped into the adjacent playground. There was like a softball field, and like some swing sets and stuff and a tennis court, that it had seeped onto. And so the students were like well, if this is on our school property, we should be able to get it cleaned up. And they initiated going to the School Board and getting it cleaned up.

CURWOOD: How contaminated was it?

OPLAND: I don't think it was a major, major contamination problem. But it was there for quite some time, and because of a lot of bureaucracy and red tape, the company that was there had gone through a lot of trouble to try to get it cleaned up. But they were having trouble getting through the DNR and through MPS, Milwaukee Public Schools, and getting it all cleaned up. And so I think the kids were kind of angry and really wanted to do something about it, at least that's what I saw, because the kids stayed after school on their own time many nights. They put together these videos and they showed the videos at conferences and parents went in. And they made flyers and handed them out to parents and really wanted to get this out to the community that this is a problem that needs to be fixed.

CURWOOD: Is the site clean today?

OPLAND: Yes; it was cleaned up. We went back a few times after they initiated the cleanup, and we looked at it and it's pretty well clean, yeah. So we were real happy. It was nice to see some closure to it.

CURWOOD: And the kids made the difference.

OPLAND: Yeah, they really did. I don't think it would have been cleaned up as fast had they not been the driving force behind it all.

CURWOOD: Well, Ms. Opland, thanks so much for talking with us.

OPLAND: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Dana Opland is an English teacher at the John Muir Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.



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