Lori Litman Ehrlich is a mother, volunteer, and leader of HealthLink, a citizen group working to protect public health and promote cleaner energy sources.

Monday, 24 Sep 2001


There is nothing quite like a memorial service to provide perspective and bolster environmental motivation.

HealthLink, a local phenomenon here on the north shore of Boston, sprung up over four years ago when a core of seven concerned local residents tried to find meaning in our “statistically elevated” cancer statistics. Some of these cancers (breast cancer, lung cancer, leukemia, and melanoma) have the highest rates in the state. Through our own research and studies conducted by the state of Massachusetts and the Harvard School of Public Health, our focus was quickly narrowed to a local coal- and oil-burning power plant, owned by PG&E and “grandfathered” from stricter emission standards under the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970. When we were convinced of the link and unable to contain ourselves, we began to speak out. We connected with good and willing government officials and patiently explained our discovery to others. We wrote letters and gathered in public places — something we soon dubbed our “road shows.”

The stone began to roll and gather some pretty productive moss. This spring, acting Governor Jane Swift (R) announced the toughest statewide regulations in the country and gave HealthLink, and a coalition of other local groups, public credit for this. These regulations still stand alone in their addressing of CO2 as a pollutant. So that’s the good news. The bad news is that with over 500 of these grandfathered plants in the U.S., this is a national issue. Power plant emissions are an even bigger problem internationally. The world of air is very round.

The PG&E-owned Salem Harbor Power Station.

As the Indian summer sun poured down on my family today at the cemetery, the fresh wounds of loss of my precious father in January were opened anew. This sun-drenched day also marks the last official day of mourning for the thousands of innocent Americans lost to terrorism. I think about how lucky I am not to have known anyone in the World Trade Center that day, but I feel the pain of those who did. My dad lived his 68 years entirely within a three-mile radius of a grandfathered coal- and oil-burning monster. His body was sustained daily with water from a beautiful lake that we have recently found to have three feet of fly ash (toxic solid waste left behind from coal burning) at its bottom. PG&E management frequently reminds me that I can’t pinpoint the cause of my dad’s brain tumor. Some day science and the law will evolve to a level of understanding where the causes of cancer will be proven; so for now, I must agree.

As I kiss my five- and seven-year-old daughters good-bye for school, a warm shiver goes through my body. The disaster at the World Trade Center has certainly put more meaning into that morning kiss goodbye. But I pray that the toxic load to their immune systems is less because of my work, in spite of what still needs to be accomplished. I also pray that their world is enlightened to the link between health and the environment so those who make up our cancer statistics will not have died in vain. The breakfast dishes and the laundry can wait. I turn on my PC and look forward to connecting with the other leaders of HealthLink and whatever challenges the day brings. Will I work on citing a local wind turbine today? Perhaps I’ll help evaluate remediation plans for fly ash removal from Wenham Lake, the source of drinking water for 40,000 local residents. Or maybe I can point out the absurdity of the grandfathering concept by gathering signatures on my “Grandfathers against grandfathering” petition. The fact is, all of this will be part of my day, and I look forward to sharing it all with you tomorrow.