March 18, 2009

Hero 2009
Ruth Breech

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,, 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).  (

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

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.

March 01, 2009

Inspiring Hero 2009 Nomination

Al Sena,
Executive Director, Facilities Department, Rio Rancho Schools, New Mexico

Dedicated to Award-Winning Building and Student Excellence

Al Sena, Executive Director Facilities, of Rio Rancho Public Schools in Rio Rancho, New Mexico speaks with pride and passion about his role as a leader in the development and implementation of sustainable High Performance School Buildings throughout the Rio Rancho School District.

"There is an opportunity in public work to leave your footprint or your fingerprint," says Sena. "That's what I am trying to do -- to improve learning environments for kids so that they will benefit for years to come, even after I am gone. Also, important for their future, they will understand how the environment affects their health and their learning."

Sena has the enthusiastic support and cooperation of his school board, staff and district parents for the values he has brought to the school system to improve student achievement, reduce costs and preserve environmental resources. He was nominated by Phillip A. Bradley-Ortiz, Project Manager, Rio Rancho Public Schools.

The Rio Rancho School District is deeply committed to Building Excellence.

Everyone understands that providing all students with a clean, safe, healthy school environment supports student excellence. Sena describes how building design and curriculum are integrated to foster cooperation with health and environmental goals.

One example of practical design is to position rest rooms near classrooms and to provide educational materials about the benefits of frequent hand washing. The convenient location of the restrooms makes is practical to build time to wash hands into class transition times.

Sena has been working for the Rio Rancho Public Schools for ten years. He has oversight of all buildings in the fast growing school district serving 16,000 students on 18 campuses totaling over 1.9 million square feet and 450 acres of property.

He is responsible for custodial, maintenance, grounds, capital improvements, and administration. He has direct involvement in the planning, design, and construction of new facilities and is liaison for the City of Rio Rancho's many departments. Additionally, Sena coordinates with state and county agencies for capital outlay.

He is steward of many programs and projects including:

- The Healthy High Performance Cleaning Program that was especially motivated by the goal of promoting wellness and reducing absenteeism among school staff.

- The Rio Rancho schools are an US EPA Energy Star Partner. See the Rio Rancho Sandia Vista Elementary School

- Energy Conservation. To see the latest results of the Rio Rancho’s exemplary Energy Conservation program and the EnerG3 Powerpoint presentation go to http://webster/Administration/Facilities/documents/Jan2009.pdf

- The Rio Rancho School District is one of 12 partners in the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) Green Schools Program to reduce energy consumption in educational facilities nationwide.

- The Rio Rancho School Board has endorsed the goal of achieving a Silver Leed rating for existing schools. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System) is a third-party certification program. It is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

- Rio Rancho School District is one of 12 districts in the country participating in a new LEED for Existing School Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Rating System. It is a whole-systems approach to improving the indoor environment; and uncover operating inefficiencies. One of Rio Rancho's schools is a prototype for the LEED Existing Building certification.

- The Rio Rancho schools will be seeking Silver LEED Certification on three schools, two built and one currently under construction. (For information about LEED® Certification see or

- Two elementary schools were awarded the Monarch Projects of Merit Award by the Southwest Region of the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International (CEFPI). The annual Southwest Region Monarch Award recognizes and honors the members of the Southwest Region and their influence for creating, delivering and maintaining excellence in school facilities planning.

Sena also serves the Southwest Representative on the board of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) and the New Mexico Public Schools Facility Authority, Maintenance Advisory Group.

With Al Sena's professional leadership, the Rio Rancho Schools are reaping the benefits of their commitment to health, performance and sustainability. They are at the forefront of the development of Healthy High Performance Schools.


Successful EPA Chemical Cleanout Partnership

Submitted by Matthew Langenfeld, US EPA, Region 8, Pollution Prevention and Toxics Program,
Our schools are a safer place today due to the efforts of a dedicated team of professionals. This team has worked collaboratively to clean out 1,515 pounds of hazardous and toxic chemicals, and explosives from 5 tribal schools at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

These schools have a total student population of 668 that includes 561 Native Americans. This is the first ever successful partnership through the EPA national partnership alert with the SC3 Charter Partner Program. Read about US EPA Schools Chemical Cleanout Campaign (SC3) partnerships at

Pollution Control Industries (PCI) in Indiana answered the call and provided an estimated $26,000.00 in services to remove and properly dispose of chemicals from the schools.

Together this team has accomplished tasks that would have been impossible for an individual to accomplish. This work has been ongoing for over 2 years.

The collective sense of responsibility, inspirational leadership, and exemplary persistence and courage has protected hundreds of Native American school children from laboratory chemical and other dangerous chemical school hazards and unhealthy school conditions.

The risk of exposure to toxic chemicals for numerous children has been reduced or eliminated by these significant and heroic efforts. This team has used a very practical process and cost saving measures to reduce risk to chemical exposure. The team has worked tirelessly to improve chemical safety school conditions for Native American school children.

I nominate the following individuals for the Healthy Kids Healthy Schools Hero Award.

David Nelson, Director, Environmental Protection Department, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, PO Box 590, Eagle Butte, SD, 57625

David Nelson has been very dedicated to improving the safety of tribal schools at the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. He made EPA aware of the need for removal and proper disposal of hazardous and toxic chemicals, and potentially explosive chemicals from tribal schools at the reservation. He reported leaking containers, deteriorating storage shelves, unsafe storage conditions, and unwanted, unneeded, and outdated chemicals. He supported the use of his staff for coordination of activities with schools. David made school chemical cleanout activities at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation schools a priority. He sent a letter to all schools seeking collaboration and assistance. As a result of his initiating efforts, over 200 individual chemicals have been removed and properly disposed from five schools at Cheyenne River as follows.

Robert Smith, Coordinator, Tribal Brownfields Program, Environmental Protection Department, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, PO Box 590, Eagle Butte, SD, 57625

Robert Smith has consistently provided assistance and gone above expectation to remove toxic and hazardous chemicals from tribal schools at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Robert has fostered critical relationships with school personnel. He gained the support, cooperation, and participation of school administration and staff allowing easy access and a positive working environment. He was instrumental in conducting inventories of chemicals, obtaining cost estimates for disposal, working with contractors to safely lap-pack chemicals, and collect chemicals for shipment and proper disposal. Removing chemicals from these schools prevent eventual release to air, water, and soil. All chemicals collected were listed on a hazardous waste manifest and transported for appropriate disposal at a Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facility (TSDF) according to land ban restrictions. This is the first ever successful partnership through the national partnership alert with the SC3 Charter Partner Program. These Indian Country schools include Cheyenne Eagle Butte High School, Dupree High School, Takini School, Timber Lake High School, and Tiospaye Topa School. These schools have a total student population of 668 that includes 561 Native Americans. A total of 1,515 pounds of chemicals were removed to include neurotoxins, carcinogens, suspected carcinogens, strong oxidizers, and corrosive, caustic, toxic, ignitable, flammable, shock sensitive and potentially explosive chemicals and were properly disposed. The estimated cost of transportation and disposal services provided by PCI is $26,000.00.

Elizabeth Bird & Myla Kelly, Coordinators, Peaks to Prairies Pollution Prevention Information Center, Montana State University, Taylor Hall, Bozeman, MT, 59717 

Elizabeth Bird and Myla Kelly have worked tirelessly and dedicated many hours to school chemical cleanout activities at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. They supported the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Environmental Protection Department with chemical inventory and collection activities. Peaks to Praires received grant funding for school chemical cleanout activities at tribal schools in South Dakota. Based on David Nelson’s requests for assistance and demonstration of need, it was decided that this work would be conducted at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation schools. Elizabeth and Myla kept focus on chemical inventory, cost estimates, and collection. They worked on locating funding sources and obtaining funds for chemical cleanout. Additional workshops, teacher education, and staff training activities are planned.
Kristina Meson, School Chemical Cleanout Campaign, EPA/Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW (5302P), Washington, DC 20460
Kristina Meson always goes above and beyond expectation to remove toxic and hazardous chemicals from schools nationwide and has assisted Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation with activities in Indian Country. Kristina is very successful with school chemical cleanout activities. Over the past 2 years, she has worked overtime without compensation to further the school chemical cleanout program at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Upon notification of a need for cleanout of chemicals from these tribal schools, Kristina requested assistance from the School Chemical Cleanout Campaign Charter Partner Program and Partner Alert request for assistance from ORCR. Pollution Control Industries of East Chicago, Indiana answered the request and offered to provide free services for the schools to collect and properly dispose of toxic and hazardous chemicals. All chemicals collected were listed on a hazardous waste manifest and transported for appropriate disposal at a Treatment, Storage and Disposal Facility (TSDF) according to land ban restrictions.
 Tita LaGrimas, Executive Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, Pollution Control Industries, 4343 Kennedy Avenue, East Chicago, IN 46312
Tita LaGrimas answered Kristina’s School Chemical Cleanout Campaign Charter Partner Program and Partner Alert request for assistance. She obtained approval from Pollution Control Industries (PCI) to travel to South Dakota, collect the chemicals, ship them to PCI Treatment Storage and Disposal Facility in Indiana for proper disposal. She demonstrated dedication to this project and took a personal interest in protecting the students and staff at Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Based on her involvement, the project was completed in a short period of time and went very smoothly. Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation Schools will forever be safer for school children based on Tita’s work. 

Background Information for Cheyenne River Sioux, South Dakota 

Tribal School Cleanout Updated 02/09/09, 11/12/08 (1,515 lbs)

Estimated Cost $26,000.00  (Partnership with Pollution Control Industries - Pro Bono)

Eagle Butte High School, 24 Students, 38% Native American

Dupree High School, 62 Students, 63% Native American

Timber Lake, 110 Students, 39% Native American

Tiospaye Topa, 221 Students, 100% Native American

Takini, 232 Students, 100% Native American