Citizen Action Groups Can Make a Difference

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Illustration by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff
Citizen action groups care deeply about the issues they've chosen to confront, but passions don't always run this high.

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!

When members of YCCC noted what seemed to be a higher than normal incidence of illness among people who lived along the stream, they asked the EPA to test for contaminants in the river, along its banks, and in local wells. After that agency reported finding no heavy-metal concentrations high enough to threaten human health, the citizen group asked Vanderbilt University to repeat the tests. The students and faculty of that institution found concentrations of cadmium, chromium, and lead in the streambed that exceeded EPA maximums by 3,000, 4,000, and 1,500 times, respectively. (The university’s findings on well-water safety also differed from those of the federal agency, and a reexamination of that situation is now under way.)

YCCC went on to conduct its own survey of the Middlesboro populace and discovered that 11 of 700 residents had leukemia (as compared with a national average of 7 to 10 cases in 100,000 people). When this information was reported to state and federal agencies, the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta was asked to look into the matter.

The notoriety of Middlesboro’s plight perhaps came to a head when 14 YCCC members testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources, after which state and federal environmental agencies began to bring pressure to bear on the city and the tannery to reduce pollutant discharges. Arrangements were made to import drinking water by pipeline, a project which is scheduled to be completed in July 1983. And in November 1982, the EPA began to move toward finally enforcing the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Permit. A deadline of April 1, 1983 was laid down for improvement of the color and solids content of sewage-plant effluents, though Middlesboro’s attorney is attempting to appeal that order.

Meanwhile, the Middlesboro Tanning Company has declined to participate in EPA hearings. Worse yet, the Delaware-based corporation claims that it will have to shut its doors if forced to pay its fair share of Middlesboro’s sewage-treatment costs. Despite this threat of increased local unemployment (a form of pressure which might well be called blackmail in some circles), the YCCC has the firm support of the community.

Throughout the battle, the environmental group has concentrated on being polite but firm, earning the support of state and federal agencies by remaining calm and presenting well-backed evidence. And, though the fight for clean water isn’t yet won, the progress the YCCC has made is substantial.

Prevention and the Sole-Source Aquifer

In Toxic Chemicals and Drinking Water, we discussed the pollution of our nation’s drinking water and listed the major federal regulations that were created to insure potable supplies. As we noted then, the Safe Drinking Water Act is one of the most important of these pieces of legislation — and one of its most powerful clauses is the sole-source aquifer section. To put it briefly, this states that ground water that is the only supply of drinking water for a significant population can be defined as such by code, and that classification will prohibit the development of any federally funded activity that might jeopardize the aquifer’s quality.

The Biscayne Aquifer, for example, is the major source of drinking water for the Florida counties of Broward, Dade, and (parts of) Palm Beach. The ground water there has been threatened by chemical contamination, by saltwater intrusion from the Atlantic Ocean, and by indiscriminate development in the areas from which the aquifer is recharged with surface water. Members of the Environmental Coalition of Broward County and the Friends of the Everglades began to move to protect the aquifer in 1980, and held meetings and conferences (at which volumes of expert testimony were introduced) in 1981. The edited proceedings of these forums were then published in the Handbook on the Biscayne Aquifer, which became the primary piece of evidence for a successful application for a sole-source aquifer designation. Up in New Jersey, the Passaic River Coalition worked closely with local government to gain its support for a sole-source aquifer designation.

By including the officials at every step, and by bringing in expert hydrologic testimony from scientists, the group was able to convince those in power that protection of their ground water resources was important, possible, and practical.

To date, aquifers on Cape Cod, Long Island, Guam, and near San Antonio, Texas and Spokane, Washington have also received sole-source designations. What’s more, 25 others are pending — and all of them are the result of citizens taking environmental matters into their own hands!