Senator John Heinz

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The Heinz Awards

1999

Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs shares the Heinz Award in the Environment for demonstrating the importance of citizen activists in protecting both the health of their communities and the environment as a whole.

In 1978, when the first discovery of toxic waste occurred, the residents of Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, New York, discovered that their homes and their children were being poisoned by industrial toxic waste dumped there decades before. After her own son became ill, Lois Gibbs, then a young housewife and a high school graduate, educated herself about toxic waste issues and, as head of her neighborhood association, became the spokesperson for the 1,000 families in Love Canal. Her mission was set. She addressed college classes, gave press conferences, and was eventually invited to testify before Congress. She acted to challenge the government at all levels to redress this environmental assault on her community and, thankfully for all of us, she succeeded.

The victory at Love Canal, and the attention brought to it by Lois Gibbs, awakened the nation to the hazards of chemicals in our environment. A message was sent that individuals can act against powerful industrial and governmental forces to protect themselves, their homes and their families. That message is still reverberating across the land.

Ms. Gibbs did not stop with her victory at Love Canal. In 1981, she established the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes to provide the information and support needed to empower other communities to organize themselves to reduce and eliminate threats from toxic substances and other environmental ills. Her message was not "not in my backyard," but "not in anybody's backyard."

Ms. Gibbs and her organization continue to grow intellectually and in effectiveness. Now renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, its mission has moved beyond toxic wastes to embrace a wide spectrum of environmental health issues, becoming the leading crusader for environmental equity in the nation. Working with a slender budget, she and the Center now provide information, training, and inspiration to more than 8,000 local groups throughout the United States.

Lois Gibbs has been at the heart of campaigns that have increased public awareness in unprecedented ways and led to major responses by public agencies and elected officials throughout the country. Her work has been critical to the passage and continuing success of the Superfund program in cleaning up hundreds of hazardous waste sites across the United States.

Love Canal was not the first toxic waste dump in America, but it did change the way society thinks about the disposal of such material. Likewise, much of the history of American environmentalism in the past 20 years reflects the leadership and genius of Lois Gibbs. The community participation and local empowerment she pioneered became part of later statues and regulatory policy. Her early writings on community involvement in environmental issues were the blueprint for a form of participation that is now commonplace.

At a time when local action is of increasing importance in the work to preserve public health and the natural world, Lois Gibbs continues to inspire and empower a growing number of Americans to help themselves, their communities, and the planet.

Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.


UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD

December 2005 - Gibbs' Center for Health, Environment and Justice leads "a drive to eliminate packaging or products that use what it calls 'the poison plastic'"or polyvinyl chloride packaging. Recently major companies including Microsoft and Crabtree & Evelyn have agreed to phase out PVC packaging, attesting to the success of Gibbs' newest campaign. - Plastics News

March 2005 - Gibbs meets with officials from the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, Canada to demand that they "test every child in the Belledune area for lead poisoning" after heavy metal contamination from a nearby smelter has caused serious health concerns. - The Canadian Press

March 2004 - As the federal government prepares to take Love Canal off the nation's Superfund list, Gibbs criticizes Congress for failing to reauthorize the corporate taxes that once helped pay for Love Canal and many other toxic cleanups. - The Oregonian

September 2003 - Gibbs' Center for Health, Environment and Justice is soon to become the new coordinator of the Environmental Health Alliance, a coalition that includes 160 organizations and which is formed around the Blueprint Ensuring our Safety and Economy (BESAFE) movement. This new direction comes during the 25th anniversary of Gibbs' original crusade at Love Canal. The new BESAFE movement is aimed at forcing the government to "heed early warnings about hazardous materials, put safety first, utilize a democratic decision-making process, and choose the safest solution." - E Magazine

January 2002 - Gibbs, along with the Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign, conducts a study that concludes that there are staggering numbers of schools being built on or around toxic sites. The study also "notes there has been a sharp increase in the number of children afflicted with asthma, cancer, diminished IQs and learning disabilities", thus indicating that the situation could potentially be grave and needs to be addressed. - The Washington Post

March 2000 - Gibbs joins protesting residents in South Buffalo "during a 'toxic tour.'" The protestors and Gibbs were demanding that the city take action against the "large deposits of cancer-causing coke wastes" in the area. - Buffalo News

December 1999 - The agency responsible for the clean up of Gibbs Love Canal, the Love Canal Revitalization Agency, is officially relieved of its burden as it has successfully "restored and sold 239 homes." While "Love Canal lives on" as an example about the seriousness of toxic waste, "the agency's job is done" and it will be closed shortly. - Buffalo News

February 1999 - Gibbs is one of six women to be inducted into the Western New York Women's Hall of Fame. Gibbs is being recognized for her tireless work with Love Canal, "a campaign that led to the relocation of families from the chemically contaminated site in Niagara Falls and drew national attention to toxic waste sites." - Buffalo News

January 1999 - Gibbs receives the John W. Gardner Leadership Award for her selfless work at Love Canal and more recently at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. - Independent Sector

Lois Gibbs