When you get into your first toxics fight, the hardest thing to understand is the government. Corporations you can understand. Corporations only exist to return a profit to their investors. They are also supposed to obey the law, but no one expects a corporation to have a conscience or to "do good" if it's not required by law and if it's going to cost real money. (Corporations sometimes sponsor "meaningful" events, like concerts on Sunday TV, to give the appearance of doing good, but most people recognize this as part of a game plan for turning profit.)
Modern corporations, pursuing profit, are dangerous, at least the ones playing with hazardous chemicals. To protect themselves, Americans look to government. The power of government is supposed to shield us from the stupidity or the malevolence of corporations. When you get into a toxics fight, the hardest thing to understand is that the government isn't protecting you and doesn't seem to be interested in protecting you. This is a rude shock.
Governments develop their own agenda. In some sense, government is simply an extensions of business. From local zoning boards up to the President, government can be viewed this way. But there's something else at work as well. To some extent, governments have their own agenda, independent of business--maintain stability, keep things the way they are, reduce the rate of change. The indelicate way to phrase this is "CYA--cover your ass" meaning don't risk anything, don't go out on a limb, don't take chances--don't do what's right, do what's safe. Bureaucracies take on a life of their own, serving their own goals, not the goals of the people they were set up to serve. The main goal of a bureaucracy is to survive; doing anything is secondary. Once you understand that the government isn't going to protect you--isn't even trying to protect you but rather is trying to protect itself against you--you are ready to deal in the real world. Now you have two alternatives: (1) put on your hip boots, enter the swamp of electoral politics and try to reform government from the inside, or (2) become a citizen activist and work on government not through government.
If you have taken the second route, this book's for you: The Citizens Toxics Protection Manual from John O'Connor and friends at the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards. This is the best 10 pounds of information you'll find packed between two covers, which is why we call it "the ten-pound manual." Based on years of experience, this manual distills the essential information that citizens need to protect themselves against predatory corporations and do-nothing government. Whether this is your first fight or you are a seasoned citizen-warrior, you'll find this ten-pound manual wonderfully useful.
The good stuff starts in Chapter 3: Organizing to Win--how to get your group together and keep it together; how to plan and develop a strategy. In the eloquent phrasing of Ray Salek [Citizens Organized for Pollution Prevention (COPP) in Bridgewater, NJ]: how to "Kick derriere."
Chapter 4 tells how to conduct a corporate campaign, including how to find out what you need to know about a corporation to affect its behavior; but it's Chapter 5 that really delves into "researching and obtaining information." Chapter 5 is not as detailed as you might like, but it's plenty to get you started.
Chapter 6 is "Cleaning up toxic waste sites" by the country's leading expert on Superfund cleanups, Dr. Hank Cole of Clean Water Action. This chapter is the best thing we've seen on Superfund and how to make it work for you.
Chapter 7 by Richard Youngstrom describes a new tactic that citizen groups are beginning to use--the on-site inspection of facilities. Rather than waiting for chemical problems to develop, some groups are trying to prevent problems by insisting on their right to inspect local factories. This is not a casual sight-seeing stroll through the plant after hours; it's a careful look at a company's operations and it's done with technical expertise and plenty of preparation.
Chapter 8 is a long (166 single-spaced, typed pages) discussion of environmental laws and the handles they offer to citizens, written by a really smart lawyer, Sanford Lewis. Read it carefully.
Chapter 9, "Using the Media," shows you how to turn this major institution against your adversaries. These days, environmental fights really boil down to your ability to turn one social institution against another, to whack your adversaries with the biggest institutional 2x4 you can find. The media is one of the best 2x4s around, and one that is accessible to you if you approach it right.
Chapter 10 presents "a new strategy for providing comprehensive environmental protection in the community"--toxics use reduction. This is a fundamental approach to environmental protection, one guaranteed to work if the nation's environmental movement can pull it off. It was the National Campaign Against Toxic Hazards (a coalition of grass roots-oriented groups) that first focused on toxics use reduction, while others were advocating "waste reduction." It is now clear to anyone who thinks about it that reducing the use of toxics materials is the only way to control environmental destruction and minimize human exposure to toxics. Waste reduction does nothing to keep toxics out of municipal dumps and incinerators, it does nothing to prevent toxic exposures of workers and their families, it does nothing to prevent Bhopal-type accidents, it does nothing to prevent indoor air pollution, which is where most Americans get exposed to toxics. In short, "waste reduction" is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far. Toxics use reduction is what we must have.
Chapter 11 discusses community health surveys, how to do them and how to use them. [Warning: Before you undertake a health survey, phone the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (Arlington, VA) at 703/276-7070 and ask them why they think community health studies may be a tactical error.]
Chapter 12 is "Health Effects of Toxic Wastes in the Environment," plus four worthwhile appendices.
All citizens aiming to kick derriere should own a copy of the
ten-pound manual. It's a steal at $25 from: National Campaign,
20 East Street, Suite 601, Boston, MA 02111; phone (617) 482-1477.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: information services; federal; citizen groups; john o'connor; national campaign against toxic hazards; ray salek; copp; hank cole; clean water action; sara; richard youngstrom; sanford lewis; legislation; laws; enforcement; regulations; strategies; source reduction; waste reduction; cchw; opinion surveys; health; occupational safety and health;