In the struggles for clean water and clean air, all too often women and young people are on the front lines of the battle for change. Why? Because they are also on the front lines of the fallen. This is a story of how women and young people across the country are struggling, and may very well succeed, in their battles for their, and our, safety. Their growing activism is against such toxic chemical giants – Chevron and DuPont and, in some cases, even against their own city governments.
Yearly, and sometimes twice or three times yearly, Chevron’s Richmond, CA plant has what their PR department calls an “incident.” This “incident” leaves their neighbors gasping and wildlife rolling up dead on their shores. In recent weeks a “flawed diagram trigger” at the Chevron refinery released a huge cloud of toxic gas over Richmond, CA. This follows a 600-gallon oil spill only two months ago. These frequent toxic bursts are dubbed “minor” by corporate heads and even some county officials.1 But in Richmond, it means danger to people, wildlife and food resources. And women and young people are key to the fight against these dangers.
While Chevron executives shrug off their 29 violations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, women in Richmond are clear this is no joke. Richmond’s former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin continues her lawsuits against Chevron – winning some with her intelligence and persistence. Neighborhood women follow her lead and notify the press and frankly weigh in as often as they can:
“It smelled like somebody spilled gasoline in front of my house,” Richmond resident Margaret Berczynnski said to ABC News about a recent Chevron debacle. “I cannot take my kids to the water…..I’m really scared.” 2
People of color, forced into neighborhoods near toxic dumps, are especially aware of the tragic decades of these unchecked poisons. Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, history professor at Sacramento State, examines the issue closely in her book To Place Our Deeds. She explains that Jim Crow laws of the South drove people of color North. Then real estate companies connived them into housing on dangerous land near known toxic dumps. Wilson Moore describes the situation as —
“a tenouous existence on the outer edges of the city’s industrial vision trapped at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy.” 3
As women of every race and occupation call out for justice, their young people are not afraid to join them. “During COVID-19, Richmond residents have to deal with Chevron’s pollution on top of the pandemic,” said Miguel Diaz, a student at Richmond High School during a recent virtual press conference. Young Diaz, an active member of Richmond Progressive Alliance, was clear in his call for change: “What is the limit? Where do we draw the line and say enough is enough? When do we move past Chevron?” 4
Miguel echoes other young people across the nation who are working for and calling for an end to death by chemical poisoning. 5
In places like Flint, Michigan – women and young people are taking on the leaders’ mantles demanding an end to this subjugation. 6 Mari Copeny, age 13, has been organizing to end lead pollution in the city’s water since she was 8. For young Copeny, the corporation she has long been fighting, is the city. “Mari holds weekly water distribution events for thousands of Flint residents who otherwise would not have access to clean water. She’s also partnered with a filtration company to make a water filter that can provide the equivalent of 160 water bottles for every dollar donated.” 7
On the East Coast, Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, in Wilmington, North Carolina knows much about neighborhood poisoning. She also knows the hard work, the frustration and the hope for triumph that it takes to try to overcome environmental harm. In Emily’s city, the heedless cruelty of a former DuPont chemical facility, now called Chemours, has made many in her community concerned about the water supply, especially for children. Emily found out this truth through her youth ministry work:
“I kept noticing my students were asking for prayers for their parents and siblings who were battling rare cancers, or serious medical problems; a lot of my neighbors were getting ill with rare blood cancers, my own husband almost lost his eyesight to a brain tumor three years after we moved to the area and began drinking the tap water. When we learned a chemical company had poisoned our drinking water it made us wonder if this was why so many loved ones were suffering medically.” 8
Chemours manufactures fluorochemical products–the most notorious is Teflon–a non-stick coating in cookware, which emit chemicals known popularly as PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl chemical compounds) All chemical processing plants create very high temperatures in their process, so currently they use water as their cooling agent. This method creates thousands of gallons of wastewater containing PFAS. The PFAS in the wastewater was poured into the Cape Fear River poisoning the waterway, the ocean and the groundwater located below the manufacturing facility. The sickening water is tricky to capture and PFAS compounds are not degradable. There are now 5 counties in the Wilmington area suffering from these venomous chemicals from this one chemical company. 9
Although this poison has made drinking water so toxic there are several counties identified with potential thyroid, liver and testicular cancer clusters, 10 PFAS are not yet regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. 11 Meanwhile, many in the Wilmington area are concerned about how safe the tap water is since a 2020 EWG nationwide tap water study showed an elementary school in Brunswick County had the highest levels of PFAS in tap water recorded. 12 The chemical company has failed to provide emergency water to the 300,000 residents living downstream who still have high levels of PFAS in their tap water. The company is also actively fighting lawsuits from two water districts in the Wilmington area.
Residents are forced to pay for expensive under sink filters and send their children to school with bottled water. Over 4,000 residents living near the chemical company have contaminated private wells and many are afraid to breathe the air, cut the grass, or grow vegetable gardens. Many worry about the health of their pets and farm animals.
Meanwhile PFAS are now being discovered in polar bears’ blood streams. 13 The PFAS are poisoning distant oceans.
Emily Donovan began her career in youth ministry after her husband successfully battled his brain tumor. Since then Emily has devoted her life to protecting her community and all of North Carolina from the dangers of PFAS exposures. Among all their many activities they have taken on, Clean Cape Fear is suing the EPA to force Chemours to pay for toxicity and human health studies on 54 different PFAS the company released into North Carolina’s air, soil, water and food supply. This process may take years but the concerned residents who founded Clean Cape Fear are in for the long haul. Emily’s leadership team and coalition of supporters are pulling together all the stats they can to fight these “Forever Chemicals” and she has testified twice before Congress. 14
The wheels of justice are slow in listening to women and the young. Yet these chains of earnest activity in Richmond, in Flint and in Wilmington are getting stronger and stronger every year.
- ‘I’m really scared’: Neighbors sound off after 600-gallon oil spill near Richmond’s Chevron refinery
- Richmond California Chevron Oil Spill.
- Pollution, Poverty and People of Color: Living with Industry.
- Richmond: Cleanup efforts end after recent Chevron refinery leak
- Chevron Says Flawed Electrical Diagram Triggered Major Flaring Incident
- The Unfinished Business of Flint’s Water Crisis
- Meet the young activists of color who are leading the charge against climate disaster
- Phone conversation, Mary Ann Maggiore with Emily Donovan, Co-Founderof Clean Cape Fear, March 22, 2021.
- Op,cit, Phone Conversation Emily Donovan
- EPA Delivers PFAs Action Plan
- Op,cit, Phone Conversation Emily Donovan