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Lois Gibbs's Grass-Roots Garden

By Libby Ingrid Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 1998

  Style Showcase


In a simple linen dress and brown sandals, she seems girlishly fragile for a moment. But she speaks with an articulate intensity you'd be hard pressed to

"I believe if there's enough people who understand how to participate in civic society, we can change the way this country is run."
Lois Gibbs

challenge. She is all fervency: that deep voice, those startling green eyes. "If we're going to take our country back," she starts to say, and you know that for Lois Gibbs, we is the little people and they are big business and big government. This is a war.

You can see how this woman could cause a media ruckus in a small town and across the country. You can imagine Gibbs 20 years ago, toeing a line in the dirt of her home – in the dirt that was Love Canal – and saying, this far and no farther.

Here in Falls Church, the yard of her ranch house is large, fringed with thick bamboo trees where morning birds gather. When she lived with her first husband in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the yard was tiny and money was tight. Gibbs had two small children and used to sew curtains and rise early to wax the floors. She was a homemaker, a self-proclaimed "Dolly Domestic."

These days she works a 60-hour week at her foundation, with her current husband and nine others in her employ. Through the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), a network of grass-roots environmental groups, people can get information and training on fighting possible environmental hazards in their communities.

    Lois Gibbs Gibbs and her foundation are working with the residents of Baltimore's Wagners Point. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Post)
This year Gibbs celebrates the 20th anniversary of a fierce struggle that she and her community fought against New York State, Hooker Chemical Co. and 21,800 tons of chemical waste. Aug. 2 marks the first evacuation of a place whose very name has become toxic.

The anger, the effort and the trampled trust in government have left indelible imprints on her life.

The license plates on her '88 Dodge Caravan read "Toxic 2." You'd know her coming and going.

Do people still think of you as the Love Canal woman?

"No, the 'dump lady.' " (She has an easy, husky laugh – a smoker's laugh.) "It's not very flattering, is it?"

dingbat

It starts, on this humid April day in 1978, with a door.

It's the storm door to a brick house on 99th Street and Wheatfield Avenue, three blocks from her home. She's sweaty and scared, standing on the steps, holding a clipboard with several sheets of paper.

Gibbs is starting a petition to close her son's school. Since he began kindergarten eight months ago, Michael has developed epilepsy and a low white blood cell count. She wouldn't have blamed anything other than bad luck and bad genes but for a series of articles in the Niagara Falls Gazette pointing to the presence of chemical waste under the 99th Street School.

Lois Gibbs is 27. And her whole carefully constructed life – the neatly kept $30,000 three-bedroom bungalow, the homemade curtains, the spotless floors – is about to disintegrate.

But at this moment she's just a worried mother who is also extremely self-conscious, and when nobody answers the door, Gibbs gives up on the whole petition idea and goes home.

That was the first day.


Lasting Suspicions
Lois Gibbs, 47, picks big bones. Right now she's promoting the 20th anniversary of her success at Love Canal. In August she'll give a tour of the area to legislators, ex-homeowners and the media.

Love Canal has left her with enduring suspicions. "I always understood that if you had a problem, the government was supposed to help you," she says. "They taught you that in school." These days she believes that "there are few people in power. . . . Every time you go around the circle, you keep coming back to those same few people."

You don't flip faith on a dime. Gibbs spent two years in the belly of the Love Canal uproar – the fears that swept the country, the conflicting health studies, the state's confusion about a plan of action, the Hooker Co.'s denials of wrongdoing.

Truth is, 20 years later, no long-term health effects on former residents have been proved. Many studies have been declared inconclusive, in part because of the small population of those affected and the intervening years. But the phenomenon of Love Canal is fertile ground for science, and two decades have not clouded interest. Right now the New York State Department of Health is conducting another long-term health study.

Gibbs believes the government didn't take the threat seriously enough. "Anything that was done there was based on panic and political pressure."

For the state and the EPA, "it was new ground. . . . They had no precedent on how to proceed," says Clark Heath, who was director of the Centers for Disease Control's chronic disease epidemiology department for 23 years and worked on the Love Canal crisis. "Government is good, even if it isn't always very fast."

Ever since panic monsooned across her town, Gibbs has questioned that goodness. She is certain of the link between the sickness at Love Canal and the toxins underground, even if science is not. She believes the health of small communities – particularly those of the working class and minorities – is "held very low in the priority list" of a nation preoccupied with economic growth. The state and city dragged their heels at Love Canal, she maintains, because the prospect of setting a precedent "scared them off from finding any hard data."

Some would agree that she has cause for doubt. "It's taken a long time for people to take public health issues into concern vs. economic health," says John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "I think there's good reason to be somewhat cynical."


White Picket Facade
Gibbs's childhood home of Grand Island, between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, had one grocery store and no movie theater. She was one of six kids born in seven years, and competing for attention was like swimming in quicksand. "You can only play in apple orchards so long," Gibbs says. She was hooked early on domesticity. "That's all she ever wanted was a home and a husband and children," says her mother, Patricia Conn.

Harry Gibbs came along after high school and they married and moved to Niagara Falls. Harry had a job at the Goodyear plant, monitoring vats of chemicals, and Gibbs stayed at home with their son, Michael, and soon enough, daughter Melissa.

Behind the wheel of Toxic 2, wearing owlish '70s-style sunglasses, Gibbs is recalling the recipe for an ideal life. "We had a white picket fence, we had a station wagon, we had a healthy child, we had a wood-burning stove, we had cable. We had the whole American dream."

But there was the smell. It was sweet and synthetic and so pervasive the community got used to it. It permeated their basements and back yards and the blocks around their homes.

In the 1940s and '50s, the Hooker Co. had dumped chemical wastes into a trench left over from the unfinished Love Canal hydroelectric power project and later sold the site to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1. A bargain that was not really a bargain. The deed disclosed the wastes buried underground.

Times were different. The relationship between certain toxins and human health was not so well understood. "The model in the old days when I was growing up [was] 'better living through chemistry,' " says Heath, formerly of the CDC. "Certainly up through World War II our view of chemicals was rather simplistic."

The Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls was growing. The board built an elementary school on land bordering the filled-in trench, and builders were constructing houses all around.

'Mother of the Superfund'

In the '70s high precipitation caused the contents of the trench to rise and migrate to the surrounding soil and water. In 1978 the state identified more than 80 chemicals in the area, some of which are known carcinogens, depending on the degree of exposure.

"I waited at the house for somebody to knock on my door and tell me what to do at Love Canal. . . . And then when nobody came, I went and knocked on doors," Gibbs says. With the plummeting real estate values in the area, her family could not afford to move.

She became president of the residential association, and with adversity came flair. Under her leadership, Love Canal homeowners picketed and rallied, carried empty coffins to Albany and burned politicians in effigy. Gibbs was everywhere – in print, on TV and radio. Several partial evacuations took place, but not until President Carter's 1980 emergency evacuation order were Gibbs's family and others in areas slightly farther from the dumping site relocated. A total of about 7,000 people moved, and the government purchased their homes. In late 1980, Congress passed the Superfund law to fund cleanup of sites, including Love Canal, for which Gibbs has been dubbed "Mother of the Superfund."

Big battles die hard. Just this past May, Occidental Chemical Corp., Hooker's successor company, and the City of Niagara Falls settled two 19-year lawsuits. Occidental has paid more than $233 million in settlements to the state, the federal government and Love Canal ex-homeowners in recent years, without admitting any wrongdoing or negligence.


Community Responsibility
The woman they call "Mother of the Superfund" birthed more than legislation. Gibbs's spirited and very public campaign catapulted industrial waste hazards to national attention. Her grass-roots self-advocacy became a model for hundreds of mad-as-hell housewives who followed. Something in the bedrock of American civic life shifted.

Barbara Quimby, who worked with Gibbs on Love Canal, says: "I liked her fierceness. She would look a politician in the eye and tell him what for."

"I called them all by their first name," says Gibbs, giggling, as if surprised now by her own nerve.

Gibbs's organization, CHEJ, has worked with 10,000 community groups. For those who feel threatened by environmental pollutants, CHEJ offers scientific information, organizational training, political savvy and small grants. Gibbs's funding comes from about 20 private foundations, membership dues and individual contributions. The annual operating budget is just under $1 million.

Gibbs first formed CHEJ in 1981 because, though she'd promised her husband otherwise, she found after Love Canal that she could not return to her normal life. "We received all these calls from all these different people from across the country, and they were just like me. . . . I realized that I had some sort of responsibility."

CHEJ is different from such broader-based national groups as the Sierra Club and the NRDC, which are "fighting to hold the line" of regulation currently in place, says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. "Lois has focused much more clearly and directly on citizens being able to have an impact on their own communities, and that's a method of organizing that has really spawned thousands of other local organizations," he says.

"I believe if there's enough people who understand how to participate in civic society, we can change the way this country is run," Gibbs says. Hers is a raw idealism, far-reaching, ambitious and some might say simplistic. Gibbs at 47 is perhaps as optimistic as at 27, though her faith is now in what could be rather than what is.

Her aspirations are broad and her methods are tough. "She doesn't cut deals," says consumer activist Ralph Nader. "She doesn't play the inside game."

There are those who argue she's too suspicious, too over-the-top. CHEJ's biggest national campaign is to eliminate dioxin, a suspected carcinogen found at Love Canal, and Gibbs and her foundation have written the book "Dying From Dioxin." Gibbs has written that her book "addresses why chemical companies, plastic producers, paper mills, and other manufacturers – with their partners at the EPA – have conspired to cover up industrial sources of dioxin."

Conspired? Partners? It borders on paranoia, some critics say. "I think [Gibbs] has difficulty in knowing when to declare victory," says Clifford T. Howlett Jr., vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, who maintains that dioxin in the environment on the whole is "approaching the natural background levels" because of recent regulation and industry efforts. Neither his nor Gibbs's assessment is definitive.

When the state declared parts of Love Canal habitable and began to repopulate it in 1990, Gibbs was back in the fray. She criticized the habitability study and the cleanup of the area, which has involved soil-capping the site and collecting and treating the waste. She says the measures are temporary and the next time water levels rise, Love Canal toxins will seep out again. "My sense is if we're going to build houses somewhere, why take the risk?"

The cleanup measures are "pretty well permanent," maintains the EPA's Love Canal Project coordinator, Damian Duda, who says no residents have reported health complaints linked to the site.

But Gibbs, it seems, cannot forget the stink of Love Canal.


'Get in His Face'
Wagner's Point. A lowdown dirty scrap of land on the tip of a South Baltimore peninsula. Everywhere you look, massive storage tanks, lumbering fences, the high towers of an oil refinery. Funny, you can't even see the water.

But stand here, next to this paved playground, and breathe in. Smell it? Might be the sewage treatment plant, might be the refinery.

The neighborhood is about 270 people, six blocks of old, narrow row houses. Silver tanker trucks rumble down the street next to the playground. The place was first populated around the turn of the century by cannery workers. Nowadays residents fear fires and the chemical air. They have experienced a high rate of cancer, which may or may not be linked to the environment.

Most people want out now, and recently Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke offered to purchase the houses at their appraised value and pay residents relocation costs. The city could then enlarge its sewage treatment plant over the area. But not all residents want to leave, and those who do fear their homes will not be worth much. If the city cannot come to an agreement with the residents, it might acquire Wagner's Point through eminent domain.

This is the kind of community that CHEJ can help.

"Basically everything that we have done was her suggestion," says community leader Rose Hindla of Gibbs. "She doesn't do it for us. It's more of, 'You've gotta help yourself but I can help you as you go.' "

In a narrow row house living room, Gibbs and two of her staff sit with Wagner's Point community leaders to discuss an upcoming meeting with the mayor. They're preparing precisely what to say, as they do each time. Gibbs is a gutsy, rallying force. "Go and get in his face," she advises one woman who will be speaking with the mayor. And later: "You had him flustered at that [last] meeting. . . . That equals power, dear."


A Sense of Life
Gibbs and her second husband, Stephen Lester, a toxicologist she first met when he was hired by the state to work on Love Canal, have two sons, 7 and 12. Her elder children are grown now. Michael has recovered from the illnesses he had at Love Canal, although his hair has been gray since he was 17, a fact Gibbs traces to scalp problems from contaminants.

Gibbs and Lester travel a great deal. She says she spends about six months of the year on the road, working with communities and students. With their long hours, coordinating schedules is tough. "I can't remember the last time I went to bed before 1 a.m.," Gibbs says.

After a protracted backyard lunch, Gibbs, her sons, Michael, 26, and Chris, 7, leave to do errands. Out the front door, across the lawn and into the Caravan, all three walk without shoes – as if barefootedness were an inheritable trait. Michael's long hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Chris wears a yellow soccer shirt and an impish grin. Two sons almost 20 years apart, a child of Love Canal and a child of Falls Church.

"I've just learned to look beyond [certain] things," says Gibbs. "When you almost lose your children, you really have a sense of how precious they are."

She climbs into the driver's seat, her bare tanned foot poised on the gas pedal.

She starts the engine.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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