Lois Gibbs, fresh from a 35-year commemoration of the Love Canal toxic tragedy in Niagara, N.Y., told 300 people attending the Pittsburgh Environment & Health Conference Friday how to wage and win those fights.
Richard Louv, author of the books "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle," told the audience why it's important to win them.
Ms. Gibbs, a warrior-princess in one of the nation's first epic environmental health wars and now executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, said in-your-face, grass-roots activism that applied strong political pressure was the only thing that worked to get state and federal officials to move 800 families and a school out of the Love Canal area and clean up the 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals improperly dumped there.
She said a study of Love Canal residents found 56 percent of children born to residents there had birth defects, but that was dismissed by the state as "useless housewife data collected by people with a vested interest." A subsequent state study confirmed the 56 percent number but didn't blame Love Canal. Instead, she said, it blamed "a random clustering of genetically defective people."
"The company that dumped the chemicals, the city of Niagara, N.Y., and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all knew we were being exposed to toxic chemicals and knew we were getting sick," said Ms. Gibbs, then a 26-year-old mother who couldn't understand why her two young children were always sick. "But the decision had been made that we could be sacrificed, sacrificed for money or power or jobs, which is essentially money.
"How dare they say that we were not worthy of a healthy environment."
Ms. Gibbs, who paced the stage as she spoke passionately, made repeated comparisons among the local, state and federal governments' early inaction on the health impacts of Love Canal toxics and what's happened in many rural communities where Marcellus Shale gas development has occurred.
"What we see in Pennsylvania is that rural communities have been fractured by shale gas development. They're isolated and poor and don't have a lot of voices to stand up to companies," she said, adding that opposition is also hampered by a lack of historical data about health impacts, no systematic collection of new data and no right to know the chemicals being used in the fracking process.
She said she favors a moratorium on shale gas development until it can be shown it isn't harming public health and the environment.
"We learned at Love Canal and since then across the country that the only way to win the battle is through political action. The governor of your state, whose poor polling numbers are at least partially due to his embracing of the gas industry, needs to hear from thousands of people," she said. "You can change things, but you can't do it sitting at home."
Mr. Louv said sitting at home won't win those battles or preserve what he termed "a human right to have a positive connection with the rest of the natural world."
He lamented study findings that show today's youth spend 53 hours a week "plugged in to screens," but their time spent outside in natural settings has declined by 50 percent in the last 20 years; and their most popular literary genre is "dystopian fiction that depicts a post-apocalyptic world where not even the vampires are having a good time."
Changing those views and trends and reconnecting with nature is important, both to human health and the future of the environmental movement, he said.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.