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.
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.
Tuesday, 25 Sep 2001
So began the not-so-secret life of this environmentalist after I kissed the “home team” good-bye yesterday. No laundry was done. No dishes, either — a low priority on my almost completed to-do list, at least until the family underwear runs out. Sprinkled in with dentist appointments, clothing returns, and choosing just the right tile for a new floor, I managed to check in with my accounting practice and meet with some fellow board members to discuss HealthLink’s place in the world. I’ll save the details of my accounting practice for the AICPA, should they care to hear about it, but you may find the details of my morning meeting interesting.
Over coffee and under an ominous warm fog, our meeting was held outdoors to enjoy the glory of our rocky coast before we begin nesting for the cold New England winter. The uneasiness pervading our country has not spared the environmental movement or our board. The question was posed: “How do we contextualize our environmental mission within the terror gripping our country?” Since the day of the hijackings, two weeks ago, the magnitude of evil, shock of loss, and the proximity of our terrorist-targeted Logan Airport have rendered many of us normally crusty New Englanders emotionally paralyzed. Personally, I’ve found myself wanting to be alone with my television one day and seeking crowds of familiar faces the next. Our discussion was indication that we all needed to discuss our emotional states and how our health/environmental message still had meaning now that terror has found American soil.
On 11 Sep 2001, an hour before the first plane from Boston slammed into the World Trade Center, I sent out an email attempting to form a coalition to study (partly) and expose (mostly) the origin of the coal burned at our power plant, the PG&E-owned Salem Harbor Generating Station. From a surprise visit last month from worldly Greenpeace on the Rainbow Warrior, we learned that PG&E had just signed a two-year contract with Exxon-Mobil to purchase 5.2 million tons of coal from a mine in northern Colombia, the fourth largest coal producer in the world. PG&E, the owner of the two filthiest grandfathered fossil fuel burners in New England, has made a strange bedfellow out of local labor unions, but now the company is importing all this coal from abroad. Certainly, worse than importing the coal, however, PG&E is supporting unthinkable human rights abuses that are swirling around the Colombian mines. More than 40 union leaders have been slain so far this year. Last year, 129 were assassinated. Colombia’s nongovernmental National Labor School reports that 1,500 union officials have been killed in the past decade. Although the corrupt cultures of Colombia and Afghanistan are worlds apart, supporting their similar guerilla behavior is a vote for their behavior. There is a link. That’s not quite the context we were looking for at HealthLink, but we were almost there.
The context we crave is bigger than just PG&E buying coal from Colombia. Simply put, and unanimously agreed, the context we were searching for is energy. The U.S., with its insatiable appetite for foreign fossil fuels, should not flaunt itself with such waste and inefficiency. Energy is at the root of much of the U.S. struggle in the Middle East, and energy may also be breeding similar problems in Colombia. We all decide that location scouting for a wind turbine in our town will provide clean energy and a small but tangible solution to the energy corner into which we have painted ourselves. It was duly noted that ever
y HealthLink meeting seems to adjourn with a discussion of conservation and renewable energy. HealthLink, too, is renewed, as we’ve found the context we needed.
Wednesday, 26 Sep 2001
I finally had a chance to deal with that laundry I’ve been complaining about for a few days. While I folded to CNN, I reflected.
I thought I had heard it all, after spending two years learning about the toxic effects of living in close proximity to the PG&E-owned coal- and oil-burning Salem Harbor Power Station. After following a dump truck of waste to its final destination, I soon found out that what comes up those stacks was only part of the story. Another part of the story (of course, there is more), is the solid waste left behind after the coal is burned, referred to as fly ash. Just like air emissions, arsenic and heavy-metal fly ash enjoy special federal and state exemption from regulation.
From 1956-76, this poisonous waste was carelessly dumped in an old gravel quarry, the Vitale Fly Ash Pit, located a few hundred feet upstream from Wenham Lake, a source of drinking water for 40,000 people. Over the last quarter-century, this 33-foot-deep pile of power plant waste unsurprisingly found its way into the lake, and now quietly sits three feet deep at the lake’s bottom, leaching its toxic legacy. Wenham Lake ice used to be coveted around the world for its purity, demanded by Queen Victoria in fact, but now its safety is in question. With lots of grassroots effort, formation of the Wenham Lake Watershed Association, and some good publicity, we’ve actually brought the original owners of this plant to the table. We’ve been involved in the efforts to remove this waste from the drinking water and prevent further contamination.
My reflection was interrupted by a stunning news report: The mighty Quabbin Reservoir, 412 billion gallons of pristine drinking water for 2.2 million Massachusetts residents — and the largest unfiltered drinking water source in the nation — has apparently been identified by the U.S. Justice Department as a possible target of terrorism. To make matters worse, state police observed two small planes flying low over the Quabbin with one dropping a small package into the water. Neither plane has been located in spite of police observation of the plane’s markings. So what was in that package? What evil lurked in those airplanes?
As I sit here at my desk, looking more suspiciously than ever at my glass of water, I can’t help but worry and wonder. Terrorism, a concept previously beyond the realm of understanding for most Americans, is now something upon which we have declared war. We are suddenly putting armed forces around our drinking water sources to protect it from a biological or chemical attack.
Although motivated by much less evil intent, I contend that Americans have been waging a terrorist war on drinking water since the Industrial Revolution. Only this kind of terrorism is slower and travels under the radar screen of the media. Instead of sarin gas, anthrax, and small pox, the war previously waged on the environment used weapons such as arsenic, particulates, and many other chemicals I’m unable to pronounce. Perpetrators have been welcomed into our open society and natural resources under the guise of self-regulation to some degree. Those who have waged this war on our natural resources have always lived among us and still do.
Perhaps our not-quite-complete success at Wenham Lake could be globally applied. Perhaps if the good folks of the world observe a grassroots lesson and share their stories, pool their resources, form coalitions, and get some good press — all while carrying a big stick — the wounds of evil that fester in our psyches and on our earth can begin to heal.
Thursday, 27 Sep 2001
The delicate choreography of my daily juggling act seems clumsier than normal today. Sometimes, it just happens that everyone calls at once — clients, friends, and fellow members of HealthLink — right when the kids come home from school and the dog throws up on the rug. As I put in endless volunteer hours in an attempt to point out things that I see as common sense, I’m left scratching my head. Why, exactly, do environmental activists need to work so hard? Society places so little value on this work. When did common sense take a detour for so many smart people, making things like special exemptions for certain polluters a good idea? It’s a sad day when even the spirit of the law of the land is difficult to discern.
I have tried for years to make sense of the grandfathering provision in the Clean Air Act, which allows over 500 coal- and oil-burning power plants in every state to pour more toxic pollutants into our air than newer plants. Even more puzzling, though, is a rule called New Source Review (NSR), used to determine if a plant has been updated enough on the inside to strip it of its grandfather status. Hmmm. A disincentive for modernizing, which at the same time, ironically, is the best tool in the provision for environmentalists to enforce cleanup of these old plants and the basis on which many Eastern states are suing Midwestern states for the filthy air arriving daily on the jet stream. Industry, in its greed, has apparently crossed the line many times, not thinking it would ever be called on it. EPA, on directive from the current administration, is reviewing this rule, putting the lawsuits at risk of evaporation.
In the 24 years since this curious provision and rule were conceived, and in the many years before the Clean Air Act was created, how many lives have been permanently altered or lost because of this provision? The Harvard School of Public Health told us that thousands have died and millions have asthma directly traceable to grandfathering. Statistics, although frightening, don’t paint the picture well because they lack the warmth and sparkle of live human beings. They also don’t speak to the pain and suffering of a horrific cancer death and the tears in the fabric of a community or a family left behind. Where is our common sense? Homeland protection means something more to me.
In an attempt to win back the righteous good name of American grandfathers, I have created a petition called Grandfathers Against Grandfathering. Although not a grandfather, the first signature on this petition is my own in honor of my daughters’ grandfather, my dad, who passed away in January from a brain tumor. HealthLink and I have collected almost 1,000 signatures from 43 states and 8 countries.
My forward-thinking town of Marblehead recently instituted a smoking ban for public places. This good public health policy, warmly embraced by the town, protects both those who frequent these places from inhaling unfiltered and involuntary secondhand smoke, as well as those who work there. The well-documented link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer, emphysema, asthma, and other cancers make this an equitable common-sense solution for those who choose not to smoke.
What if common sense were lacking among local lawmakers? When this law was passed, what if the town officials proclaimed:
- We’re no longer going to allow smoking in public places, but if you currently smoke, you may continue to do so indefinitely until you voluntarily decide to stop … or you die.
- This rule is only for those who take up smoking at this point. We will use a New Source Review rule to determine if you are a new smoker or not.
- Those grandfathered by this rule, while out in public places, should be sure to blow smoke in the faces of those to whom this rule applies while you enjoy this loophole — especially children.
- Don’t even come close to quitting, because if you do, and you start up again, you will be subject to this smoking ban.
- In spite of the fact that we know that smoking causes many cancers, asthma, and emphysema to those nearby, let’s meet at an EPA hearing in a quarter century or so and see just how deadly this has been!
The concept of grandfathering needs to end. The playing field must be level. All plants should be subject to a tough four-pollutant law like we now have in Massachusetts. It’s common sense.
Friday, 28 Sep 2001
I’m so grateful to Grist for providing me with this outlet, even if only for one week. I have an after-hours diary entry today; I’d like to share a puzzling dream I had last night.
Having been somewhat repressed in business school, I don’t often return there in my subconscious. But there I was, back at school. This time, though, school had a very different feel. There were familiar faces and new faces, young people and old people, many different skin tones — even children. There were languages I’ve never heard and others with recognizable accents. As soon as class began, everyone understood each other. Some carried briefcases, others weapons. Some had tools of their trade and others carried babies. They all seemed to have arrived here recently with heavy hearts and so much on their minds.
When the class assembled under a big, shady willow tree by a brook, I began to sense what was going on at this school. Everyone was anxious and willing to learn. Their minds and hearts were open, and they were willing to listen and understand other points of view. This class had such a feeling of importance, but I couldn’t make out the professor’s identity. Curiously, there was no agenda.
A woman with a baby on her back began, “My homeland has been stolen from me and I have no food for my children. My children are growing up angry, and I am weak and desperate.”
The man with the weapons spoke up: “I was the one who stole her homeland because I am craving power and control as the superpowers of the world don’t recognize or respect me. I grew up angry and seek out leadership, good or bad, to give meaning to what I feel is the darkness and smallness of my existence.”
A man with a briefcase was unable to contain himself any longer. He said, “Since graduation, I’ve achieved great professional success and my company’s shareholders are very pleased. I’ve worked very hard and am proud of what I’ve achieved, but I’m fearful that I’ve too often rationalized the misuse of precious natural resources and disregarded the effects upon indigenous people around the world for the sake of the bottom line. At this point in my life, though, I’m looking for more meaning to my existence and would like to start looking for more life-sustaining alternatives to the way I do business.”
Then a young (hey, it’s my dream!) mother stood up and said that she, too, is learning about her place in the world. She works tirelessly every day to undo a small part of the damage that the man with the briefcase has caused to her local environment. She sees detrimental changes in the health of her generation that her mother’s generation didn’t know. She worries for the health — and now the safety — of her children. She wants the man with the briefcase to understand the consequences of his actions, and she is grateful that he wants to make more respectful choices in the boardroom. She’s certain that this will help him find the meaning to his life that he is seeking, which in turn, may ripple throughout the world.
Boom! Suddenly, I’m startled awake. Was that thunder, or are we under attack? I don’t hear rain. I’ll wait for the lightning. Please, let there be lightning. One, two, three … phew, there’s the lightning.
After lulling myself back to sleep, I didn’t resume this dream. (Nor can I share with you what I did dream about.) I never did get to figure out what the lesson of that particular classroom was, but I do hope they all graduate with a greater understanding of each other.