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September 3, 2009
Kevin Coburn, Director of Communications

Activist & Author Lois Marie Gibbs Speaks
at GMC Convocation

POULTNEY, VT -Lois Marie Gibbs described herself as a shy, 27 year-old housewife when, in 1978, she discovered that her child's elementary school in the Niagara Falls suburb of Love Canal was built on the site of a toxic chemical dump. That realization prompted her to organize the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which successfully fought entrenched corporate and government interests to win relocation of families in October, 1980.

"There is hope," she told an audience of about 400 students, faculty and staff at Green Mountain College's academic convocation held at 4 p.m. this afternoon. "We keep hearing about toxic waste, plastic garbage patches in the ocean . . . what we need to do is engage all of you. We are looking to your generation to help fix these problems."

Gibbs was the guest speaker for the annual Green Mountain College event, delivering an address titled "Love Canal Thirty-Plus Years Later: What Have We Learned and Where Do We Go from Here?" Later in the ceremony, Gibbs was awarded an honorary degree of humane letters. The citation, presented by GMC president Paul Fonteyn, read in part: "After years of canvassing neighbors, submitting petitions and pressuring local, state and federal government officials, president Jimmy Carter delivered an emergency declaration which offered to pay for the relocation of all families from Love Canal in October of 1980. Your victory led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, organized to clean up toxic waste sites throughout the United States."

Gibbs related the story of her son's severe epilepsy and her daughter's struggle with leukemia, and how she drew on the fear for their well-being as she fought what became a national battle against chemical hazards.

"This was in 1978, two years after a report came out that said homes in our neighborhood had levels of toxins in the air that exceeded workplace standards. This was when I leaned the lesson of Love Canal," she said.

She said corporate officials from the Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, had already determined through cost-benefit analysis that the 20,000-ton chemical dump, which included chloroform, dioxin and benzene, was too expensive to clean up. "We were not worth saving," she said.

After her experience at Love Canal, Gibbs devoted herself to helping citizens organize environmental justice campaigns. In 1981, she created the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), an organization that has assisted over 10,000 grassroots groups. Gibbs is now executive director of CHEJ and speaks with communities about toxic chemicals and children's unique vulnerability to environmental exposures.

Gibbs praised Green Mountain College students for their commitment to sustainability and implored them to use their training in environmental law, science, the arts, and communications to advance environmental causes.

"I had a high school education and a C-plus average," she said. "You have all this training I never had-I am happy to help you, but you are already doing it."

Each year, Green Mountain College opens the school year with an academic convocation on the Griswold Library Lawn. The event served as an official welcome to 270 first-year and transfer students.

Now celebrating its 175th anniversary, Green Mountain College is a private liberal arts institution that takes the environment as a unifying theme across the curriculum. A national leader in environmental sustainability, GMC recently won the 2009 Sustainability Innovator Award, presented to just three colleges nationally.


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