Village Life News Archives Moms of the '90s Take On Environmental Issues

By Nancy Weil
American News Service

Dierdre Tinker, mother of three, has her own version of a power suit. On days she's meeting with Texas legislators, she reaches for her foam-rubber cement kiln outfit.

One side is dirty, sooty, gray -- meant to show what happens when a cement kiln smokestack burns hazardous waste without pollution control equipment. The other side is spotless. Toilet brushes hang from it to suggest "scrubbers" that companies use to reduce pollutants emitted into the air.

Her outfit speaks for her when she debates environmental cleanup with the lawmakers.

While national organizations such as the Sierra Club lobby Washington on the Clean Air Act, thousands of "enviro-moms" such as Tinker are waging their battles closer to home. In her case that means De Soto, southwest of Dallas.

They may at times dress funny, but these moms are on a mission. Armed with facts and figures, and driven by love and concern for their children, they're the "heart and soul" of the environmental movement, said longtime environmental educator Petey Giroux of Atlanta.

Without such women, "it would be a much less effective movement," said Ann Notthoff, who works with grassroots groups as a senior planner in the San Francisco office of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I think that women bring a very important perspective and approach to dealing with environmental problems," she said.

Mothers across the country speak with passion about what motivates their efforts.

"When I realized this cement plant had been burning hazardous waste for over eight years and I did not know it, that made me a victim and I wasn't born to be a victim," said Tinker -- like many other enviro-moms, a newcomer to the arena of public activism. "I wanted to look into it because in the meantime my children don't breathe so well."

Her three sons have asthma, one of them a severe case. Tinker believes emissions from the cement kiln, nine miles by air from her home, are contributing to the asthma. So she has helped rally her local and then statewide PTA behind tougher laws regarding permits.

With the biannual state legislative session under way in Austin, Tinker and her friend Becky Bornhorst have been driving three and a half hours to meet lawmakers every few weeks. Bornhorst lives near the same cement plant, and her 10-year-old daughter has had a cough -- since last September -- that she can't shake.

Environmentally aware mothers like Tinker and Bornhorst go head-to-head with lawmakers and corporate giants, waiting out the dog-years pace of government and then sticking around to be sure that laws are enforced.

One of the original environmental moms is Lois Gibbs, whose neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was a chemical-waste dump in the 1940s and '50s.

In 1978, she sounded the call to arms at Love Canal, where dioxins and other chemicals had seeped into basements in homes in her neighborhood, causing cancer and birth defects. The nation's single worst environmental disaster led to the creation of the federal Superfund to clean up hazardous waste sites.

In 1994, Occidental Chemical Corporation was ordered to pay New York $98 million over three years and assume wrongdoing in the catastrophe.

Gibbs became widely known for her work in the grassroots environmental movement and in 1981 founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, based in Falls Church, Va. The center said it has helped 8,000 community groups fight hazardous wastes.

Other moms were famous before they became environmental leaders.

Actress Meryl Streep started worrying about the use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables that her children ate. It was apples -- sprayed with the chemical Alar -- that helped trigger her concern eight years ago. So Streep and her friend Wendy Gordon banded together some of their Connecticut neighbors and soon persuaded the local supermarket to provide organic food.

From their kitchen-table meetings arose Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a national organization dedicated to helping consumers make environmentally informed choices about the food they eat and the products they use. Streep has said the New York-based group "can claim a good part of credit" for the Food Quality Protection Act signed by President Clinton last August.

The Texas moms do their environmental work through the state and local PTA, as well as with a neighborhood group called Downwinders at Risk. Like other women engaged in similar fights across the nation, they didn't intend to become leaders of a cause.

"We don't want to find out in the future that our kids have something terribly wrong with them because of what's going on," said Bornhorst of the hazardous waste burning. Some mothers already know something is terribly wrong.

Carolyn Freeman's children first started getting sick 10 years ago, right after she and her husband moved to a home they built on two acres about a mile from a fiberboard factory in a rural area locals call "the community of Gifford," near Malvern, Ark.

Her daughter Amanda, now 18, had a rash that looked like a third-degree burn. Son Travis, now 14, began to suffer from allergies and headaches. When he was in second grade, he started to have memory problems. He couldn't remember the days of the week or even his birthday.

"I knew this wood fiber was falling on our property continually," Freeman said. "You can actually see it falling out of the sky like snow."

After the county health department told her there were no funds to investigate the problem, Freeman went door-to-door herself, talking to 15 families. "Everyone had the same symptoms," Freeman recalled. "It was very chilling."

The Freemans and dozens of other families have filed suit against Willamette Industries, the fiberboard plant owner. They have also formed links with citizens groups in Pennsylvania and North Carolina where the same company either owns or wants to open factories.

In August, a federal lawsuit the Freemans filed against Willamette goes to court. A previous case involving another family was overturned on appeal after a jury awarded the plaintiffs more than $200,000 in damages. The appellate decision said that it couldn't be proved that the family inhaled enough wood fiber emissions to cause health problems.

Cathy Baldwin Dunn, spokeswoman for Willamette Industries, Inc., denied the Freeman's allegations and said the company will continue to fight the charges in court. She said there was no medical proof linking Travis Freeman's illnesses and the Arkansas plant.

In recent testimony before the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission, Willamette also contended that emissions at the fiberboard factory were significantly reduced by pollution control measures taken after the Freemans and other families first complained in the early '90s.

No matter what happens with her lawsuit, Freeman vows to keep fighting. She and her husband, who own a trucking company, had talked about moving, but they now feel the damage has already been done. Besides, they would be abandoning their neighbors, she said.

Freeman is struck by the irony of it all.

"We moved to the country," she said, "to breathe fresh air."

Posted May 9, 1997

Copyright ©1997 American News Service

[ Return to the News Archive ] [Return to Village Life Magazine ]

Copyright © 1998 Inc. All Rights Reserved