When does a “wrong thing” become a “WRONG THING” such that it grabs our attention and demands action?
Maybe it’s when it gathers so much momentum that willful ignorance is no longer an option.
One such situation is unfolding in Western New York. In the North Tonawanda-Wheatfield area, just outside of Niagara Falls, there’s a twenty-five acre landfill full of toxic 1960s-era chemical waste. Some of the contaminants include heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, caustics, and plating tank sludge.
The landfill also houses contaminated soil associated with Love Canal, one of the most significant environmental disasters in US history. The North Tonawanda/Wheatfield site was officially closed in 1968. To this day, it lacks a modern cap. There’s no fence around the property, nor are there warning signs advising people to stay away.
The landfill is located behind a sizeable neighborhood. Its residents have long used the site for recreation. Children, teens, and adults ride dirt bikes, build bonfires, or run the worn paths around the landfill. It’s basically an extended backyard for the residents of the adjacent neighborhood.
In December of 2015, more than forty-seven years after the landfill was closed, the landfill was declared a “significant threat to public health and/or the environment.”
And for almost all of those years residents have reported concerns to the authorities. Some people complained about high levels of sickness in the neighborhood. Others reported seeing battery casings and rusty barrels laying around. Odd odors could be detected in the air. Orange-tinted water surfaced. Incredibly, parents reported that children suffered chemical burns after playing on the property.
Fast forward to 2012. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) finally decided to investigate the landfill. DEC is the state agency tasked with keeping residents safe from environmental threats. It took DEC three more years to conclude that there was a problem with the site. DEC hosted a community meeting to answer questions from dozens of worried residents. It removed eighty (yes, eighty) truckloads of Love Canal-contaminated soil. After those truckloads were removed, DEC re-classified the landfill in December 2015 as a Class 2 Superfund site, which means that it’s an immediate threat to public health.
Besides the neighborhood residents and the town supervisor, nobody seemed particularly concerned about the fact that a toxic landfill containing some of the most deadly toxins ever manufactured was in close proximity to a neighborhood. It wasn’t reported on the national news. It merited just a few seconds or lines in the local news. I posted it on Facebook. (It did get 12 likes, so that’s something.)
But two weeks ago, a local investigative news outlet wrote about the landfill and the alarming change in designation. It reported that DEC in 1989 had called for the site to be capped properly to contain the chemicals. DEC had also recommended that a fence and warning signs be placed around the landfill.
None of those things occurred. Not one.
The issue gathered steam last week. State Senator Robert Ortt wrote a scathing letter to the acting commissioner of DEC, Basil Segos, seeking answers. “…DEC decided to classify the site as a Superfund site AFTER the removal of the love canal material … how is this possible?” He goes on to write that “I have a hard time drawing a conclusion other than this was a complete dereliction of duty by the DEC for 25 years.” He is still unable to get an accurate answer as to the extent of the contamination.
Other news outlets are starting to follow the story. Erin Brockovich has even weighed in.
The wheels are in motion.
So why does it take so much force to propel situations forward? Wrong things are wrong, aren’t they? This site was a problem twenty-five years ago, ten years ago, and five years ago, so why did it take so long for this to come to light?
Let’s start with residents. It’s easy to see why people hesitate about speaking up. They saw things that didn’t seem right, reported some of them, but then lacked the confidence to pursue specific answers. Why is the water orange? What are the tests showing … are tests being done? Why exactly are there barrels laying around? Realistically, how far can a resident go when the authorities are reassuring them that there’s no problem? The average person doesn’t have training as a doctor, industrial hygienist, or toxicologist. But the government employs lots of them and, rightly or wrongly, people generally believe that the government will tell them what they need to know, especially when it comes to their safety. It's hard to build momentum when you're not sure what you're talking about.
And the average person doesn’t want to have to think about the dire consequences of toxic exposure. Are they putting their children to risk? Are they poisoning their pets? Is their house worth less than what they paid for it? Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to worry about things that may or may not be a problem. It’s hard to build momentum when nobody shows up.
The average person doesn’t want to stand alone, either. Speaking up is hard. See my earlier post on that issue: http://www.christenciviletto.com/#!9-–-Reasons-Not-to-Stand-Up-To-Wrong-Things/c1q8z/550c29de0cf292acc4cdd1bd Often it involves sharing private medical information. It costs time and money. There’s a social cost, too. People think you’re crazy. Your neighbors don’t want to hear about your environmental concerns because it impacts their property value. Or, they might be employed by the local government or a public university and they don’t want to speak up and then lose a job with benefits and a pension. Momentum cannot gain a foothold when it's choked off by uncertainty or fear.
Similar concerns probably torment the minds of agency officials. Is their job at stake if they do speak up? Will there be a budgetary crisis if they spend the money to test? What if nothing's found and they've spent a lot of money? What if something IS found and they should've known about it sooner - will they face a criminal investigation? (think: Flint, Michigan). Momentum won’t gain its footing here.
What about political will? Senator Ortt has shown leadership and made a very public statement about his disappointment in DEC. His letter to DEC has prompted action. He’s the elected voice for these residents and his word carries weight. Here’s a solid place for momentum to gain a foothold.
What about the press and social media? These outlets push issues to the forefront. It’s the job of a journalist to ask the hard questions, to seek out the documents, or to take the pictures. Here’s another good avenue for things to get moving.
The Wheatfield site didn’t become a “THING” until it gained momentum. It took a group of vocal residents attending the DEC community meeting and demanding answers. It took a willingness to speak up about shared medical issues. It took a news article to shine a light on the many missteps that led to the current debacle. It took a political leader’s willingness to listen to constituents and publicly demand answers.
Momentum both feeds and drives these processes. We feel less alone when others jump on board. We learn to find our voice. We educate ourselves about the facts. We demand answers and action. The movement gathers steam and pretty soon “wrong things” are “WRONG THINGS” … and we start down the path of righting them.
Be bold. Insist on answers. Find your God-given voice and be the person who gets that momentum started.
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