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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

Lessons from Crab Orchard

by Gary Wolf, Regional Association of Concerned Environmentalists

If experience is a great teacher, we've had 10 years of lessons at Crab Orchard. Here they are.

Lesson No. 1. Industrial uses don't belong on public lands. Crab Orchard is the only national wildlife refuge authorized by Congress to include industry among its uses. It is also the only refuge on the Superfund list. Resist expansion of this practice.

Lesson No. 2. Be careful demanding quick resolutions. Urgency is relative. Public dissatisfaction with Superfund's slow pace prior to its 1985 reauthorization was heard loud and clear by policymakers. Hence, the rush to burn and de-list sites.

Our quiet refuge became a huge local news story that made it to the New York Times. Politicians rallied to the cause. Superfund was summoned. Ten years later our refuge is quiet again—and not because things are resolved. Prompt action doesn't always mean good or final action.

Lesson No. 3. Superfund listing is no blessing. It can mean both bureaucratic inertia blocking resolution and bureaucratic momentum steamrolling a remedy against popular will. Crab Orchard is a 10 year case study of lawyers, technocrats and consultants. The more they're paid and the longer it drags on, the less influence the people have on the outcome.

Lesson No. 4. "Community relations" is a hoax. A CERCLA requirement, it's a PR buffer between the public and the process. It assumes the people are ignorant and endeavors to keep them that way. It poses as public discourse for the media but channels and stifles real discussion rather than promoting it.

For the last three public meetings, several volumes of relevant information were available only days before. The public is supposed to show up and ask intelligent questions. But without access to relevant information, we're often forced to look stupid.

Lesson No. 5.If PCB's are the problem, the EPA will say that incineration is the solution. Incineration technology is a commercial bandwagon on a hazardous waste roll, and the US EPA is in the driver's seat. Start opposing it before it's officially selected. It almost always is.

Don't forget the forgotten incinerators. We've been fighting the portable one they want to bring into our refuge because it's the only incinerator in our area. Or is it? An hour away across the Ohio River in Kentucky is one of the worst.

We have no garbage incinerators locally, but a power plant burns tires, hospitals burn medical wastes, and grocery stores burn trash. One incinerator may provoke public concern, but direct attention to all dioxin producers.

Lesson No. 6.Make alliances. More than other environmental issues, toxics demands (and more often gets) soldiers beyond the environmental movement. Workers are often affected; get organized labor involved. We should have done more with the refuge's anglers and hunters. If cultural differences are in the way, get over them.

Lesson No. 7. Don't count on the news media. Reporting on Crab Orchard has usually presented the government as well-meaning, industry as responsible, and citizens as suspicious, uninformed or hysterical. Reporters have made no serious effort to study documents in the public information repositories, relying instead on sound bite reporting of public meetings only.

Fighting toxics is a battle for the long haul, but newspeople have short attention spans. Develop news contacts, keep them informed, and practice politeness. But to get your own message out, do your own media.

News coverage may vary with locale. Toxics issues often crop up in rural areas. Don't expect experienced, dedicated, well-informed journalists with a lot of time. On the other hand, big-city journalists may have a zillion other story possibilities.

Lesson No. 8. Be careful with language. Especially theirs. When they say "thermal treatment unit," keep saying, "incinerator." Don't let their acronyms numb you or their bureaucratic jargon jar you into anger. It's not that they can't make it plain—they're trained not to. Force them.

Lesson No. 9.Beware "risk assessment." When they say it with reverent certainty, expose it as speculation. When they talk about "acceptable" levels of disease, ask "Acceptable to whom?" When they say "only one cancer per million," explain that any unnecessary dispersion of toxics is premeditated random poisoning. Explain that dioxins cause immunological and reproductive system disorders at 1/100 of the dose they cause cancer. When they pretend that "risk assessment" figures have some relationship with reality, explain that their estimates cannot possibly be accurate when they do not include over 90% of the chemicals dispersed and when they understate (by a factor of several thousand) the quantities of chemicals included.

Lesson No. 10. Don't ever give up. Individuals might, but work on bringing new blood into your group so it can sustain itself. It's a life and death issue, true, but have some fun from time to time, whether that means a light-hearted protest or an occasional party.

It may be time for us. Local activists are still active, but the infernal machine may be on its way.

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