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Toxics Action Center Conference Featured Powerful Maine Environmentalists

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On November 16, Colby College hosted the Toxics Action Center’s (TAC) 2002 conference, the 25th conference the organization has offered in New England in the past 15 years. Over 70 people, including private citizens, representatives of local, state and national environmental action groups, and students from the college’s Environmental Studies program, were present for the welcoming address from TAC’s director, Matthew Wilson.

Since 1987, TAC has served state and local groups throughout New England. In order to promote an environment free of toxic pollutants that can harm adults, children and ecosystems, it focuses on empowering smaller groups working on projects that relate to this larger goal by offering consultations to organizations, referrals to scientific and legal experts, information guides, and, of course, events like the Maine Toxics Action Conference 2002 at Colby. Since TAC’s inception, the organization has collaborated with over 400 action groups on issues ranging from the installation of nuclear waste facilities to the current debate over sludge spreading.

Because TAC is a sort of “umbrella” organization for so many smaller groups, it can consolidate and look beyond the individual problems it works to solve and can examine the fundamental malaises that spawn these problems. Matthew Wilson, director of the organization, took advantage of this in his welcome to the conference’s participants. He identified the two major sources of environmental malpractice: industrial special interests and a disconnected public. “Our democracy is starting to wilt,” he said; he especially lamented low voter participation rates, noting that “when 50% participation is considered excellent, we’re in trouble.” When the public does not participate in a republic, Wilson claimed, it is much more difficult to counteract industrial special interest groups – such as energy producers and the sludge industry – who lobby heavily in the legislatures. As he expressed it, “If you want to change things, you’ve got to have power – money power or people power”; the industries have the money power, and to counteract the pattern of pollution-for-profit, environmental organizations must be able to wield people power, i.e. the power of public demonstrations, public hearings and public opinion.

The primary focus of the conference was to help train the many activists present to lobby successfully against environmental malpractice. Participants could choose from workshops on grant-writing, using the Internet for local campaigns, using the media to increase public awareness, gaining control of a public hearing, and getting a message to the Maine government. Other workshops covered specific issues, such as groundwater purity, aerial spraying and sludge. Workshops were led by members of the TAC board, as well as by leaders in such other groups as the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a new organization that aims to create statewide partnerships between organizations concerned with environmental and public health issues.

Maine State Senator Sharon Treat (D-Gardiner) gave the first keynote address of the day. Senator Treat is a powerhouse of environmental action in the state. In the legislature, she has an excellent record of voting pro-environment and helps to give Maine its reputation for “willingness to go beyond federal requirements” in environmental matters, according to Justin Smith, a founding member of Concerned Pittston Citizens, who introduced Treat to the audience. As an environmental lawyer, she was instrumental in preventing the installation of a nuclear waste facility (“we all know that means nuclear dump,” she noted in her speech) in Pittston. She is also the coordinator of the Environmental Studies program at Colby, where she finds speakers for department colloquia, arranges internships for students in the environmental field, and teaches U.S. Environmental Law. In her address to conference participants, she lauded Maine for its strict laws on mercury pollution and visual pollution in the form of billboards, for the Clean Election Act, and for the Citizens’ “Right to Know” law. She recounted the story of the anti-nuclear actions in Pittston to illustrate the advantages and drawbacks of what she identified as the three “weapons” environmentalists have: legislation, prosecution and demonstration. In Pittston’s case, for example, although Treat and the citizens of Pittston lost a court case against the nuclear company, the case made them “such a collective pain in the neck that it helped take Pittston off the list for waste sites.”

Barry Dana, Chief of the Penobscot tribe, spoke for the second keynote. Chief Dana opened by admitting that he had come with no prepared speech or format, and proceeded to deliver an eloquent and coherent speech detailing his tribe’s negotiations with the state of Maine over the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. The Penobscots seek tribal sovereignty over the NPDES so that they can set meaningful standards for water cleanliness in the reservation: standards that can guarantee to their descendants a plenitude of flagroot (a wild medicinal herb), edible fish, and muskrat to trap, and a river that can be used safely for religious ceremonies. Currently, 4.5 miles of the river in the Penobscot reservation is dubbed a “mixing zone” where industrial effluent is diluted, making the river unsuitable for human use. According to Dana, state and federal standards will never get strict enough; the stricter the laws become, the less the government will enforce them. To support this, he pointed out that in the past 10 years, mills in Maine have committed over 380 environmental violations, but the government has assessed a mere $3,000 in fines from the transgressors.

Dana’s fight over NPDES began before he was a tribal authority and when he knew little about governmental negotiation: “Back then I thought ‘we’ll take that into consideration’ was a serious phrase,” he said with a wry face. By now he has very clear ideas about the proper way to conduct environmental negotiations, which he communicated from the podium to the TAC directors. “Is there anyone here from the DEP?” he asked. “Is there anyone here from the Attorney General’s office? Is there anyone from the governor’s office? You’ve got to make sure those people are here … The next time we meet it has to be with the people who sit in the seats of decision makers.”

The conference was also the venue for the presentation of TAC’s 2002 Citizen’s Awards, presented to individuals or organizations with important achievements in environmental activism. The first award went to Daisy Goodman, in honor of her work with the Forest Ecology Network in analyzing scientific data on aerial spraying so that consumers and activists without extensive scientific education can understand the information, spread it at the grassroots level, and use it in their campaigns. Whitefield Concerned Citizens, a vocal anti-sludge group, received the second award. Richard Richardson, a farmer who fought sludge in his own town of Clinton, presented the award to the seven members of the organization who were present, and congratulated them on their “unprecedented success” at forcing New England Organics to bring trucks to remove hundreds of tons of sludge from Whitefield. The final award went to Portland Pesticide Watch, a group that successfully protested the careless and unsafe methods of pesticide application in Portland. One of its strategies was to nominate the city for TAC’s “Toxic Ten” award.

A light note was added to the day when Amanda Sears, a founding member of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, presented the opening segment of the movie Blue Vinyl, a comedic documentary of the life cycle of PVC plastic. The film won the cinematography award in the documentary competition at the 2002 Sundance film festival. Although the intent of Blue Vinyl is to expose the toxicity of a common building material, it does so with an intact sense of humor, which reflected the general mood of the day. Although environmentalist organizations are often condemned as “doomsayers,” the activists and consumers at the TAC conference were fighting precisely because they hoped to escape doom. That hope was best expressed by Chief Dana, who told his friend and presenter Molly Saunders that “one day, these rivers will run clean again.”

The Maine Field Director for the Toxics Action Center (formerly Maggie Drummond), may be reached through www.toxicsaction.org; the Environmental Health Strategy Center may be contacted through www.preventharm.org.

– Alice Torbert
MOF&G Cover Spring 2003