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Grass-roots groups foster ethics of whistle-blowing.

WASHINGTON -- More than 800 people gathered May 14-16 for the Grassroots National Convention, as part of a concerted effort to deter further incidents of environmental abuse in this country.

These people -- whose neighborhoods are endangered by waste incineration, whose rivers are polluted with toxic waste, whose children are threatened with lead poisoning -- came to tell their stories and develop strategies to achieve what they call environmental justice.

"We believe in building from the bottom up," said Lois Gibbs, founder and director of the Virginia-based Citizens Clearninghouse for Hazardous Waste, which sponsored the convention. "People come to realize they have the power to change laws and fight for a safe environment by making their agenda known to elected officials and industrial leaders."

Gibbs speaks from her own experience. Her fight began in 1978 when she discovered her neighborhood was built on 10,000 tons of buried chemical waste left by Hooker Chemical Co. She organized a local group, The Love Canal Homeowner's Association, which ultimately forced former President Jimmy Carter to order the relocation of 900 families from the contaminated area.

Gibbs started CCHW in 1982 in response to hundreds of calls from citizens nationwide who wanted help in their own struggles for environmental justice. Today, the grass-roots movement works with more than 7,500 citizens groups.

Workshops addressed the hazardous effects of pesticides, medical waste, toxic chemicals, lead poisoning and incineration. Strategy sessions provided actions and tactics for community organizing.

"People of color (African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and American Indians) have borne a disproportionate burden in the siting of municipal landfills, incinerators and hazardous waste treatment," said Robert D. Bullard, professor of sociology at the University of California and author of Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality.

Quoting a 1987 United Church of Christ study that said 62 percent -- 15 million -- of African-Americans live in communities with one or more abandoned toxic waste sites, Bullard called for a national policy to address environmental racism.

Ralph Nader, founder of the Center for Study of Responsive Law, said there is a great need to develop the ethics of whistle-blowing, "the lone individual of conscience within a corporate or government organization who sees wrong and tries to right it." Employees are among the first to know about fraud and corruption, industrial dumping of toxicants into waterways, and undisclosed adverse effects of prescription drugs and pesticides, but they are often the last to speak out, Nader said.

He said the ethic of whistle-blowing must be extended into corporate and governmental bureaucracies. He added, however, that "the ethic will only flourish in these settings if employees have the right to due process within their organizations."
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Title Annotation:Grassroots National Convention, Washington, D.C.
Author:Vidulich, Dorothy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:May 28, 1993
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