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Lois Gibbs: Inaugural Prize winner still on the frontlines, fighting for cleaner, safer communities

January 7, 2020

By Jackie Krentzman

In 1978, Lois Gibbs was a young mother with two young children living in Niagara Falls, New York, in a neighborhood called Love Canal. She began hearing reports of chemical waste being dumped nearby and discovered that her son’s elementary school was built on a toxic waste dump that was leaching chemicals.

Gibbs organized neighbors and they petitioned the local, state, and federal government, leading to the entire community of more than 800 families being evacuated and relocated, and to the cleanup of the landfill. Her activism and shining a light on the issue led the federal government to create the “Superfund” program, which identified and cleaned up chemical waste sites throughout the country. Her role was so seminal and inspiring that a movie was made in 1982, Lois Gibbs and Love Canal. In 1990, in the inaugural year of the Goldman Environmental Prize, she became a Prize recipient.

Since then, Gibbs has devoted her life to environmental activism. In 1980, she formed the nonprofit Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, which was later renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ).

Today, Gibbs lives in Northern Virginia and serves as the director of CHEJ’s Leadership Training Academy, a skills building program for environmental activists who want to acquire the skills to lead a campaign, build capacity, and strengthen their organization. She is also actively involved with organizations that have identified environmental hazards in their communities, helping them advocate for Superfund oversight and pressuring companies to foot the bill for cleanup.

Lois Gibbs at a community forum with CHEJ in 2016 (photo credit: CHEJ)

Gibbs gives a great deal of credit to the Goldman Prize for her ability to turn what was initially a small movement—the Love Canal Homeowners Association—into a broad-based national movement.

“When we were establishing CHEJ, people were probably thinking, ‘How can this little girl from Niagara Falls, with only a high school diploma, run a national organization?’” says Gibbs, who notes that she has attended every Prize award ceremony. “The Goldman Prize gave me credibility and an extra edge to raise more money and get more media coverage. After winning it, I was no longer “Gidget Goes to Washington!’”

Today, given the current administration’s gutting of EPA regulations and environmental protections, one might imagine that CHEJ’s road has become rockier. However, says Gibbs, at least with regard to Superfund sites, the exact opposite is the case. President Donald Trump has been using Superfund as a way to build good will and political capital by taking action at 54 sites—more than any other president—while at the same time diverting attention from his administration’s loosening of environmental regulations.

“During the 2016 campaign, Trump said that he would cut the EPA budget by 30%—but that he wouldn’t cut Superfund,” says Gibbs. “He is using Superfund as a way of getting good press and demonstrating that he cares about the environment. He will go to these Superfund sites and say, ‘I took the EPA away from those scientists working on esoteric things and the “fraudulent” issue of climate change, and instead put money into real work, on the ground, getting things done.’”

“What he is doing is very clever,” she continues. “Superfund takes on a single company, at a single site—so, while important, it is not hurting the chemical, gas, or oil industry as a whole.”

Gibbs explains that CHEJ is, in general, concentrating on local and state government actions, as changes to the law at these levels are more achievable and can be more encompassing and durable.

“Generally, those who have the power are the companies that are polluting and the government entity with oversight of that area,” Gibbs says. “The companies don’t want to change unless they are forced to by the government; and since the federal government won’t step in, the community has learned to go to their state and local elected officials to get things done.”

She cites the example of North Carolina, where community pressure has compelled the state to pass ordinances limiting coal ash ponds that leach dangerous chemicals into the groundwater and contaminate the drinking water supply. The EPA estimates that 140 million tons of coal ash are produced annually. “When a regulation comes from the state, it is always stronger, because, as we have seen with issues such as climate change and pipelines through Native American lands, a presidential pen stroke can take protections away. But it is harder to do that with a state law.”

In recent years, Gibbs has helped CHEJ and its partners launch several new initiatives. In 1996, CHEJ was the leading nonprofit in the launch and implementation of the global campaign Healthcare Without Harm, which works to rid hospitals and other health service provider locations of toxic chemicals. Gibbs says the program has virtually eliminated incinerators—which spew chemicals, often in low-income areas—behind hospitals.

Next up for Gibbs and CHEJ is work on “Sacrifice Zones”—zones within a community (almost always low-income neighborhoods) that has inordinately high levels of pollutants adversely affecting the health of residents. In 2020, CHEJ will launch a Sacrifice Zone campaign focused on clean air. The goal is to force the passage of federal legislation to establish zones within a four-mile radius of communities at risk. In these zones, residents would be notified of emission levels, wellness vans and an increased level of medical personnel will be deployed there, and, most importantly, the campaign will demand a mandatory reduction of air emissions by companies operating in the zone.

Gibbs notes that, despite the general adversarial tenor of the Trump administration toward environmental regulations and the ever-present specter of climate change, she is optimistic because, paradoxically, the fight against climate change has given rise to a generation of environmental activists.

“I see an upsurge in young people taking on local issues and I think that can be attributed to the climate justice movement—people began by thinking and acting nationally, then they see a problem in their own backyard,” Gibbs says. “So they look to see who is organizing around a specific problem and get involved.”

One reason Gibbs has taken the helm of the Leadership Training Academy is to ensure that these dedicated young activists have all the tools they need to carry on the work of the baby boomer generation. “We are old farts who have been doing this for a long time! We need young people involved and ready to take over our organizations.”

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