Lois Gibbs Essay

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Lois Marie Gibbs is the founder and executive director of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) in Falls Church, Virginia. Gibbs first rose to public prominence in 1978, as the organizer and head of the Love Canal Homeowners Association in Niagara Falls, New York. Upon learning that the neighborhood elementary school her son attended had been built on top of a leaking hazardous waste dump, she and other residents of the Love Canal neighborhood-many with severely ill children or histories of reproductive abnormalities-organized to demand government assistance with health, safety, and welfare. In August 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal; the State of New York closed the school, announced the relocation of 239 families, and initiated a project to clean up the site.

Over the course of the next two years, Gibbs and other remaining Love Canal residents gained the attention of national and international media as they confronted the miscommunication and inaction of state and federal government agencies. In May 1980, shortly after the release of studies showing evidence of increased chromosomal damage among neighborhood residents, Gibbs and other members of the Homeowners Association held two EPA officials hostage in the association office and then released them in the presence of national television cameras.

In combination with the political pressures of an election year, the event helped prompt President Jimmy Carter to order and finance the permanent relocation of Love Canal residents later that summer. The Love Canal incident also led to the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980-better known as Superfund. This law established and funded a new federal program to clean up hazardous waste sites throughout the United States, and Gibbs became known as the “mother of Superfund.”

Gibbs subsequently moved with her two children to the Washington, D.C., area, and in 1981 she founded the nonprofit organization Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes (CCHW). The initial purpose of the organization was to share information, technical assistance, and organizing strategies with other communities around the country fighting to have hazardous waste sites cleaned up quickly and thoroughly. Although this purpose remains an important part of its mission, the organization-which in 1997 changed its name to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice-now leads and coordinates a diverse set of national environmental health campaigns. Over the years, these campaigns have addressed a variety of issues, including medical waste incineration in hospitals, precautionary approaches to risk, pesticides and toxic chemicals in schools, and the manufacture of PVC products.

Gibbs has written or cowritten several books, including Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen’s Guide to Reclaiming Our Health and Rebuilding Democracy (1995) and the autobiographical Love Canal: My Story (1982). She has also been the subject of documentaries and the made-for-television movie Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982). Among the many honors Gibbs has received are the Goldman Environmental Prize (1990), the Heinz Award in the Environment (1998), the John Gardner Leadership Award (1999), and an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York-Cortland.

Bibliography:

  1. Lois Gibbs, Love Canal: The Story Continues (New Society Publishers, 1998);
  2. Lois Gibbs and Murray Levine, Love Canal: My Story (State University of New York Press, 1982);
  3. Adeline Levine, Love Canal: Science, Politics and People (Lexington Books, 1982);
  4. Andrew Szasz, Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice (University of Minnesota, 1994).

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