Every year, to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I name a Healthy Kids Hero who demonstrates extraordinary responsibility and inspirational leadership for safety.
The 2009 Healthy Kids Hero Award winner is Ruth Breech, Program Director at Global Community Monitor in El Cerrito, CA. Ruth Breech was nominated by Peter Fugazzotto, Director of Oceans and Communities, for her work to protect school children in Addyston, Ohio from the hazards of toxic industrial pollution.
Described in the media as a "tenacious, high-energy community activist," Breech is motivated to "tell the untold story" of the people who suffer in silence in "fenceline" communities such as Addyston, OH.
Breech's leadership shows how individuals and community groups can work together to break the silence about hazards and stimulate government agencies to take necessary action.
Like the Healthy Kids Heroes before her, I hope Ruth Breech's story can inspire others to break the silence about environmental health hazards and to take action to save lives where chemical hazards and other unhealthy conditions in school and communities are routinely ignored.
Once upon a time in Addyston, Ohio...
From 2003 to 2007 Ruth Breech was an organizer with Ohio Citizen Action, www.ohiocitizen.org, an environmental watchdog organization that runs anti-pollution Good Neighbor Campaigns. Ohio Citizen Action uses the power of community organizing to convince major industries to prevent pollution at their facilities.
In his nomination, Fugazzotto wrote: "Ruth led the community fight in Addyston, Ohio that resulted in reducing the dangerous exposure to toxic chemicals from Lanxess Plastics, a 130-acre chemical plant directly across from an elementary school. Her work helped inform the recent USA Today investigative series "Toxic Air and America's Schools" focusing on toxic pollution from factories creating hazards for school children...She's an inspiration."
Ruth Breech, now at Global Community Monitor (GCM) in El Cerrito, CA , shares her experience and expertise with communities across the country. In her first year at GCM, she assisted in training 1,000 community members and mothers to fight back for their health and future generations, especially low income residents and people of color in communities that suffer from an unfair burden of pollution.
Breaking the silence.
In September, 2004, Breech began to visit Addyston two to three times a week with a cadre of canvassers ringing doorbells and asking residents what it was like living in such close proximity with the plastics plant.
The residents talked about the persistent odors from the plant, the dust that collected on their cars, and the large number of illnesses such as asthma and cancer in the neighborhood.
For most residents it was the first time anyone had asked them about whether or not the odors from the plant were bothering them and it got them talking among themselves. Some residents near the plant were so concerned that they were trained to conduct their own environmental monitoring with air sampling "buckets" made from 5 gallon plastic buckets, plastic liners, and sealed lids with a small air pump to create a vacuum. Their air monitoring showed serious air quality problems.
"Ruth Breech did an amazing job of helping neighbors organize and meet every week," said Executive Director Sandy Buchanan, quoted in the article "Addyston, Ohio: The Plastics Plant Next Door" by Steve Lerner, online at The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE). (www.healthandenvironment.org)
Addyston is a working-class factory town on the banks of the Ohio River 12 miles from downtown Cincinnati in the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana tri-state area. Addyston is a company town where 97 percent of the tax revenues come from the Lanxess plant. Most residents have family members or friends who work at the plant. Speaking out against Lanxess was seen as threatening to local jobs and economy.
"It is a culture where it is not accepted to rock the boat," said Breech.
Advocacy in Action
"She went into a highly charged environment in a small company town where the mayor was not happy with an outside group raising issues about air quality and she did not back down. Through canvassing and walking-and-talking tours through Addyston, Breech continued to find new people willing to speak out and keep pressure on Lanxess to clean up its act, " said Buchanan.
Breech worked with the community to learn about the health risks of the chemicals they found and to ask the hard questions they needed to ask.
She was not trying to close the plant. "We want them to stay here. We don't want them to shut down. That is not our intention. We are here to clean them up. We want them to be good neighbors for a very long time," she says.
Over 26,000 members of Ohio Citizen Action sent handwritten letters and petitions urging Lanxess Plastics managers to work with neighbors to cut emissions and make their community safer and healthier. The fact that so many people from around the region got involved made a big difference. Read more about the campaign at http://www.ohiocitizen.org/
Reacting to community health concerns and community sampling data about the impact of emissions from Lanxess, the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services installed air monitoring equipment on the roof of Meredith Hitchens Elementary School.
On December 6, 2005, after hearing results from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's (OEPA) seven month monitoring of air quality, Three Rivers School District officials closed the Meredith Hitchens elementary school attended by 370 preschool to first grade students. On June 14, 2006, The U.S. EPA issued an 8-page Notice of Violation against Lanxess citing air pollution problems, leaks in the chemical piping system, and asking questions about wastewater discharge.
As a result of Ohio Citizen Action's campaign, Lanxess committed to invest $1 million to reduce butadiene emissions, another $1.5 million to reduce accidents, appointed a new plant manager and opened positive dialogue with the community and parents.
"Most Americans expect that the government will protect them from chemical releases [such as those at Lanxess]," said Hagit Limor, one of the first reporters to report on the Lanxess pollution. "But what emerged as I did these stories was that government officials do not lead on these issues but rather need to be led."
"It has been left up to grassroots groups and the media to shine a light on chemical pollution problems. As a result, a lot of corporations that are responsible for a lot of pollution are flying under the radar...and that leaves the population at risk," she says.