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OVERWHELMED BY THE PROSPECT OF CONFRONTING AN ENVIRONMENTAL WRONG? Rest Easy and Read On


“How do we start?”

It’s a question I hear over and over.

Many of you recognize that there are environmental problems in your area—or at least you’re concerned about the potential for one. But you’re overwhelmed with the thought of what you can do. After all, you’re just one person. You have a job or a household to run, or maybe both. You might feel that you’re too young or too old to take on a cause.

Lots of you are sick.

Many have no money.

Rest easy. Today I want to offer a big-picture approach to confronting environmental wrongs. It pulls together the last several blogs that relate to how (and what) to research, and provides a blueprint for action.

Confronting environmental degradation is a step-by-step process. Some of these steps occur simultaneously, but there’s still an order to things. The idea is to tackle the issues a chunk at a time. You’re gathering information, building support, demanding action. The goal is to right the wrong.

The problem didn’t happen overnight, and neither will the solution, which is frustrating because we want instant action once we’ve narrowed in on an issue that is potentially harmful to us, our family, or the environment. I get it. And in a perfect world, we should all feel the same sense of urgency once a problem has been identified. But for those of you who read my blogs entitled “PLOW THROUGH: Eliminate Beaucratic Obstacles When You're Taking A Stand,” and "REASONS NOT TO STAND UP FOR WHAT'S RIGHT" you know that we don’t live in a perfect world. People lie. People avoid uncomfortable things. People won’t believe there’s a problem … sometimes people don’t want to believe there’s one because of their own self-interest.

Nonetheless, there are times when you need to demand change because lives depend upon it. Or the health of our planet requires it. So, I’m speaking to you, the person who thinks they might be ready to be the change, but is overwhelmed by the prospect of getting started.

Step one: get educated. Everything starts here. You need to understand the health statistics for your region, the potential environmental issues around you, and the manner in which problems are tested and addressed. See my two-part blog on “WHAT LIES BENEATH” to help you get started by using the Internet to help you learn how to learn. See also my blog on “YOU CAN FIGHT CITY HALL … And Win” for specific thoughts on how to organize your research.

Part of getting educated means that you’re gathering scientific and research papers relating to your concern. Did you know that you can legally request records from government agencies? The federal law is called the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. When you make a request, it’s called a FOIA request. You can do that on individual agency websites – for example, the EPA’s FOIA request link is: http://www2.epa.gov/foia.

You can also request records from state agencies. In New York, the law is called the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL. You can research how to make a foil request by accessing the state’s site at: http://www.dos.ny.gov/coog/freedomfaq.html

Or, you can access individual agency FOIL sites directly. For example, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) site found at http://www.dec.ny.gov/public/373.html

Step two: use the preliminary information you’ve acquired to gather detailed records and ask more focused questions of politicians and agency representatives, including DEC, EPA, County Health, State Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. Ask each representative for details like:

What is your response to this finding?

What happens next?

Have you considered ______ concern?

When can we expect additional testing to start?

See my blog on “PLOW THROUGH: Eliminate Bureaucratic Obstacles When You’re Taking a Stand” to help you gather and organize information, identify public officials with responsibility for your concern, follow up, and then hold them accountable.

Step three: inspire others to care about the answers to the questions you’re asking. You’ll need the people most affected by the issue – residents, school officials (if a school is potentially involved), school board members, private businesses that might be affected, or advocacy groups focused on certain natural resources or animals. This type of support is essential. Agencies will pay attention when more than one family or group contacts them with similar concerns.

Once you’ve got a core group, get organized. Bank on the strengths of individual members. Some have a technical background, while others are skilled in dealing with the media or working with people on the telephone. Allow people to discover and operate in their natural abilities.

Step four: hold politicians, agency officials, and corporate representatives accountable for what they say that they’re going to do. If they promised to test water or air, then follow up in writing to determine when that testing will be done and what specifically will be tested. Make sure the testing gets done. Ask what will happen next. Get an estimated timeframe. Do it in writing and keep on them.

Step five: enlist the help of environmental groups to help you get better equipped. Some will provide expertise. Certain groups will pay for testing. They might offer the help of a toxicologist to explain or interpret results you’ve obtained through government agencies such as the EPA and DEC. I’ve already talked about groups like the riverkeepers (BNriverkeeper.org, for example), but there are many other groups around the nation that are focused on specific aspects of toxic exposure. For example, you can contact the Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org), Earthjustice.org, or CHEJ.org, an environmental mentoring group founded by Love Canal’s Lois Gibbs. There are also local chapters of baykeepers, coastkeepers, etc. Here’s a good place to start for a list of US environmental organizations: http://www.startguide.org/orgs/orgs08.html. The bottom line is that you’re not alone. Take advantage of the resources that are available.

Step six: Go public. Your core group should use social media and news organizations to spread the word, enlist help, and hold officials accountable.

Perhaps start a location-specific (or cause-specific) Facebook site and a twitter account. Start educating people about the issue. Post studies, news articles, health statistics possibly related to your issue. Start calling out your political representatives by name and post their views about your concern. It's very important to connect names with a potential issue—both for and against. Encourage constituents to write and email those representatives: provide addresses on social media to enable others to write easily.

For newspapers, you can easily email radio, TV, and print news outlets, both local and national. Send them what you’ve found. Send them pictures. Send them the responses you’re getting from officials. Build a relationship with a particular reporter. Keep that person posted if you don’t have enough information to start.

Step seven: With your core group, and once you have some research to support your concern, schedule a community meeting. Ask permission to hold the meeting at a school or fire hall. Advertise in the neighborhood and online. This is how you build greater consensus and garner help. Form committees responsible for certain aspects of your cause. For example, one committee could handle the contacts with political reps, while another handles social media. Yet another can be in charge of gathering and organizing research.

Step eight: Go to Washington … or your state capital. (I even included a picture of where the New York State Assembly meets, below.) Once you’ve identified a legitimate concern, and you’ve contacted your representatives, it’s time to address the bigger legislative body. That might be the state assembly or Congress itself. These are your representatives. And your tax dollars at work. Make appointments with representatives or seek permission to be heard by the larger body. Organize a protest if necessary. You might need a permit, and you’ll definitely want to notify the news and spread the word online. Start small and build.

Now take a breath. You may have a caught a tiger by the tail. But by using a considered approach, one that gathers support and information along the way, you’ll get there. Wrongs can be righted.

We can do better in this world. And we must.

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