Climate Corner: Citizen watchdogs

Jun 8, 2024

Randi Pokladnik

In 1978, Lois Gibbs, a homeowner in the suburb of Love Canal, N.Y., was concerned with her son’s failing health. She attributed it to him attending the 99th Street School, which was located adjacent to a toxic landfill. From 1942 to 1953, the Hooker Chemical Corporation, as well as the city of Niagara Falls and the United States Army, began using a partially dug canal as a chemical waste dump. Hundreds of barrels of toxic chemicals were buried in the enormous canal; ten feet deep, sixty feet wide, and three thousand feet long, near Niagara Falls.

She started to notice multiple diseases and deaths in her small 800-family community. Gibbs ascribed the widespread health issues to the landfill and polluted groundwater. She organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association and successfully pushed for the relocation of families living near the dump site. The national publicity of this tragedy led to the passage of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as Superfund.

I visited Love Canal in 2002. It was a surreal experience to see hundreds of driveways but no homes. The 99th Street School was boarded up with plywood and covered in toxic warning signs. The dump itself is surrounded by barbed wire. White plastic pipes, used for sampling the toxics below, pop out in various locations around the forbidden zone. The area stands as a reminder of what corporations have been allowed to do to local communities.

Another housewife and mother followed in Lois Gibbs’ footsteps. Ohio Valley resident Terri Swearingen led local residents in an unsuccessful battle to stop the construction of the Waste Technologies Incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, in the 1990s. Even though the location was less than 2,000 feet from a grade school, in a floodplain of the Ohio River, and in an economically depressed neighborhood, the U.S. EPA, Ohio EPA, and then-Gov. George Voinovich, failed the community and allowed this incinerator to be built. Along with Terri, 32 other citizens were slapped with a $33 million lawsuit for their efforts to stop the incinerator. Our family was a part of that SLAPP suit.

We failed to stop construction of the incinerator, now known as Thermal Heritage, however, as a result of citizens’ actions, in 1993, Voinovich signed into law a moratorium on new incinerators in Ohio.

It was members of the Concerned Ohio River Resident group (CORR) who alerted local politicians to the egregious problems associated with radioactive waste at the Austin Masters facility in Martins Ferry, Ohio. The company, located 500 feet from the Ohio River and 1,000 feet from the city water well, accepted and stored 10,000 tons of oil and gas wastes, some radioactive. It was only permitted to accept 600 tons of oil and gas wastes. Bev Reed, a member of CORR, noted that the group had brought in experts and scientists to speak about their concerns nearly three years ago and this incident could have been prevented had local leaders listened to the data. Once again, it was citizens who were doing the jobs of the regulatory agencies.

Unlike the USA, European countries abide by the precautionary principle when approving new chemicals for use in their countries. The precautionary principle states that “decision makers adopt precautionary measures when scientific uncertainties about environmental and health impacts of new technologies or products remain.” In other words, before a product or compound is allowed on the market, it must be proven to be safe. In stark contrast, “the U.S. waits for evidence of harm before regulating.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required testing on only 200 of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce and has been restricted in attempts to regulate chemicals in commerce under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

The lack of regulations, lack of testing, and ability to enforce regulations are some of the reasons we are now dealing with “forever chemicals” like the PFAS. There are more than 9,000 known polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), 600 of which are currently in use in the United States. Non-stick cookware, cosmetics, dental floss, stain resistant fabrics, and grease resistant food packaging are just a few products that can contain these man-made PFAS compounds.

The chemical lobby has influenced regulations for years. The Toxic Substances Control Act was reported to have been written by the American Chemical Council. Additionally, “reviewing the health and environmental impacts of pesticide products, the EPA often relies on industry-funded studies, with this corporate science rarely being available for public review.”

Recently, new regulations have been proposed for PFAS. The EPA has released a roadmap to address the widespread PFAS contamination in air, soil, and water. Some of the proposals include: considering the lifecycle of PFAS and pathways for exposure, preventing PFAS from entering the environment, holding polluters responsible, ensuring science-based decision making, and prioritizing protection of disadvantaged communities.

As a chemist, I never believed in the phrase “better living through chemistry.” Corporations are playing Russian Roulette with these compounds and citizens will be the ones who pay the price for lackadaisical regulations and testing. The new PFAS plan will go into effect on June 25, 2024. Hopefully it will help address the ridiculous contamination of our environment by “forever chemicals.” However, until industry gets out of bed with our regulatory agencies, we will be left with the responsibility of guarding our own health from these toxic substances.


Randi Pokladnik, Ph.D., of Uhrichsville, is a retired research chemist who volunteers with Mid Ohio Valley Climate Action. She has a doctorate degree in environmental studies and is certified in hazardous materials regulations.