Citizen Action Groups Can Make a Difference

Around the nation, citizen action groups have organized to protect natural resources that are vital to local communities.

| May/June 1983

  • citizen action groups - cartoon of angry peasants armed with torches and pitchforks approaching Frankenstein
    Citizen action groups care deeply about the issues they've chosen to confront, but passions don't always run this high.
    Illustration by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • citizen action groups - cartoon of angry peasants armed with torches and pitchforks approaching Frankenstein

As these words are being written, newspaper front pages around the country are reporting shocking news about neglected toxic chemical dumps, high dioxin levels in the soil of Times Beach, Missouri, and other environmental threats. Equally important is the discovery (which wasn't exactly a surprise to many people) that the Environmental Protection Agency has been doing, at best, a less than satisfactory job of dealing with such problems.

However frightening (and, at times, downright maddening) these stories may be, there is a lesson in them: If we don't watch out for our environment on the local level, no government agency is going to do the job for us. Indeed, it was only at the urging of citizens (with the help of independent, concerned scientists) that any action was taken concerning the disasters at Love Canal and Times Beach.

Public participation is, of course, one of the cornerstones of democracy, and even though many of us may not be able to understand fully the complicated chemistry of pollution, there's much that we can still do. To illustrate some of the approaches that have been taken to counter different environmental threats, we'd like to profile a few successful citizen action groups.

Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens

There's probably no other coalition of laypersons that has received as much publicity as a result of working against its own community's pollution as has Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens. Since its formation in July 1980, YCCC has brought Middlesboro, Tennessee's plight to public attention through media as diverse and powerful as the New York Times, US. News and World Report, and network television. And though this publicity has no doubt been important to the group's success, the calm persistence of its members has been the key to all of the progress made thus far in cleaning up Yellow Creek.

Until 1970 the stream was polluted directly by the Middlesboro Tanning Company, a major employer in the area. In that year, the firm signed a contract with the city to have the company's waste treated at the municipal plant. Since then Middlesboro has spent $500,000 attempting to improve the ability of its sewage-treatment facility to handle the tannery's effluents, but the effort has been only marginally successful to date.

Consequently, Yellow Creek has been inappropriately named for some years; it regularly flows black as a result of improperly treated or (all too often) bypassed tannery waste. Along a 14-mile course below the sewage plant, only suckers and carp are able to survive — and you'd have to travel at least 8 of those 14 miles to find the first flowering plant along Yellow Creek's banks!

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