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Published: Saturday, 7/31/2010

Environmental activist urges others to become involved

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lois Gibbs speaks at the Needmor Fund on a tour stop with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. Lois Gibbs speaks at the Needmor Fund on a tour stop with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
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Lois Gibbs, former Niagara Falls housewife-turned-activist who was at the center of the Love Canal controversy of the late 1970s that led to an overhaul of national pollution laws, made a stop in downtown Toledo Friday to generate support for area activists.

The stop is part of an Ohio tour for Ms. Gibbs and members of her Center for Health, Environment and Justice group in northern Virginia that she founded after being among the Love Canal evacuees.

"People are willing to get involved. They just don't know how to do it," Ms. Gibbs told a group of 20 people at the Needmor Fund on South St. Clair Street.

She recalled the events that led her, at age 27, to give up a comfortable suburban life in an "American-dream community" for a decades-long fight of what she perceives as injustices across the national landscape, many of them pollution-related.

The same woman who admittedly became a government agitator was feted by Lucas County commissioners with a proclamation for "effective grass-roots environmental activism." It was presented to Ms. Gibbs by Lucas County Administrator Peter Ujvagi, who said he has admired her tenacity.

Love Canal was a planned community in eastern Niagara Falls where dozens of homes and a school were built in the late 1950s after the city had purchased the land from the Hooker Chemical Co. for $1 in 1953.

Myriad health problems, including birth defects and miscarriages, occurred because the homes were built too close to a canal that had been turned into a municipal and chemical dump. It leaked hazardous industrial chemicals, including cancer-causing benzene, resulting in an evacuation of dozens of families. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its Web site calls it "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history."

The Love Canal saga also led to congressional passage of the U.S. EPA's Superfund Act. That law is intended to make polluters pay for their messes even if that means reimbursing the government over many years. Sites designated for cleanup under the Superfund Act are considered many of the nation's worst toxic dumps.

Ms. Gibbs has visited Ohio on other occasions, including a rally she led in the late 1990s when residents of Marion, Ohio, raised questions about the leukemia cluster at the former River Valley Middle School complex. It eventually was replaced.

She is an aficionado of Toledo politics, occasionally checking in on the career of former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. She has been in the area for various functions in recent years, including a three-day visit in 2007 in which she stopped off at Warren AME Church, visited residents of Wauseon, delivered a lecture at Maumee Valley Country Day School, met with some people in Toledo's central city, and visited residents of Harbor View, the town near Oregon that claims to be Ohio's smallest village.

The fund-raiser she attended yesterday was for her center and an offshoot of it, called Ohioans for Health, Environment and Justice.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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