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Activism at its Finest

By Geov Parrish

Patty Martin is middle-aged, a self-described Republican, socially conservative and a mother of four who lives in the Central Washington farming community of Quincy (pop.: 5000). She acknowledges that she sounds like a radical, but she insists that she isn't. Martin's attendance at some council meetings would change the course of her life.

I know what she means.

My introduction to politics came over 20 years ago, when I was working as a morning DJ, Program Director, and jack of however many other trades were necessary at the only radio station in Tillamook, Oregon (pop.: 3,920). I played country music, of course, except for the four Swiss yodeling songs between 6 and 7 AM for the Swiss dairy farmers and one particularly enthusiastic local advertiser. In those days, small town radio stations weren't programmed by satellite from some big city and actually had local staffs.
KTIL even had a newsperson-rare today. And one fall day, he threw out his back painting his house. Consequently, for a couple of months, after signing the station on at 4:30 in the morning and working all day, I had to go cover the city council meetings. And I was hooked.

I became interested. Then I became an activist. Then I became a full-time activist. Two decades and a long, twisting road later, I make my living writing about and agitating for public policies all over the country, and millions of people seem to care what I think about a lot of different issues.

In the decade since Patty Martin discovered her town's city council meetings, her life has taken a somewhat different, and far more remarkable, path.

Martin first landed in council chambers when she had begun supplementing her homemaking with volunteer work around town. One thing led to another-a new recycling program, tutoring and recruiting other tutors-and so, when one of the projects led to her brush with civic politics and she decided to start watchdogging her elected officials, she was already well-known around town.

Within a few months, at the insistence of a friend, she decided to apply herself by running for mayor. And she won. She beat Quincy's incumbent mayor in a 66% landslide-which is to say, Patty got 649 votes.

Her newfound civic activism wasn't all that was on her mind, though. In one of those city council meetings she'd attended months previously, she'd heard about a peculiar land deal the city was proposing: paying top dollar for mediocre farm land, well outside town, to use for the disposal of wastewater from the town's expanding industrial wastewater treatment plant. Quincy is home to two major plants that produce frozen foods and several that market agricultural fertilizers.

Martin wondered about the cost of the deal; but she'd suspected something was more seriously wrong. Martin had been encouraged to contact Dennis DeYoung, a farmer who had accused a local fertilizer manufacturer, Cenex/Land O'Lakes, of poisoning his land by effectively paying a tenant to apply some of its industrial waste as "fertilizer." What she found in talking with him was enough to make her believe that the land the city intended to buy had also been contaminated by bad "fertilizer," and enough to make her start digging around.

Four years later, in 1997, she, too, lost in her re-election bid-not to another energetic political newcomer, but to a vigorous campaign waged by Quincy's biggest employers and businesses. Martin had become a pariah to much of her own community, which is a big deal in a small town. But then, not every small town mayor stumbles upon a practice that conceivably threatens the entire country's food supply, inspires a Pulitzer-finalist investigative series by a big city newspaper, spreads to national network TV, and jump-starts an entire national movement to clean up a very dirty industry.

None of it was intentional, Martin says today: "I had a choice between running for office and trying to make a difference, or sitting back and [being] totally frustrated for four years, not being able to fix what I didn't like. I believe people become cynical. That's not my style." So, reluctantly, Martin ran for office. And won. And her life changed forever.

What Martin had stumbled upon-and then relentlessly pursued with a combination of stubbornness and a mother's urgency-was a regulatory loophole that allows corporations across the country to dispose of their industrial facilities' toxic waste by simply calling it a "product." As a "product," these hazardous wastes suddenly no longer need to be stored, expensively, in specially designed industrial waste landfills. They can be sold. To us.

And it turned out that one of the best ways to "use" many types of toxic waste-legally-is to claim to "recycle" them-as is-for their nutrient or micronutrient content, however minimal, and to call the result fertilizer. And then, rather than using specially designed landfills, the waste can be spread on the land that grows food for livestock, and food for humans.

Fertilizer, Martin discovered, is tested for levels of the active ingredients listed on its label. But there is no regulatory oversight that controls the unlisted ingredients-in agribusiness as well as in home gardening products-of poisonous heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and dioxin. Those metals may or may not harm various plants, but untreated they invariably stay in the soil, accumulate in the food chain, and can be lethal to humans.

The particularly clumsy disposal of waste by Cenex killed or stunted much of the plant life in that original farmland outside Quincy; as Martin notes, "A person could potentially dispose of waste on a person's land, pay for the crop damage and it would still be cheaper than putting it in an industrial landfill" (Quincy's city council backed away from the deal to buy that land, once Martin started asking questions). But there is absolutely nothing in most places to legally prevent companies from selling their toxic waste to other companies who then put it into products used to (supposedly) help grow our food. Proper waste disposal costs a lot of money, and providing it to, say, a fertilizer maker does not. Industries across America now call the process "industrial recycling," and insist that no harm has been proven-most likely because no studies have been done at all to establish the actual degree of health or safety risk involved. Most of those companies then object strenuously when people like Martin point to anecdotal evidence of harm, cite increasing childhood health problems like asthma, autism, and cancer then demand to know what's being put on and in our food.
Five years ago, Martin's outspokenness got her unelected as a small-town mayor. Since then, she's continued to work tirelessly on this issue.

She's started a national advocacy group, Safe Food and Fertilizer (http://www.safefoodand fertilizer.com). Last year, HarperCollins published a book on her story ("A Fateful Harvest" by Duff Wilson, the original Seattle Times investigative reporter who wrote about her). She travels the country, speaking and lobbying and organizing on the issue. Her civic curiosity has blossomed into an improbable crusade that has helped and inspired millions to better understand what's in our food, and that may some day lead to safer food and stricter controls on industrial waste disposal.

Martin certainly isn't the only person in the country who has sounded the alarm on this particular issue-though as a former elected official of a small farming town, her word carries special authority. But her experience does show what many of us doubt in an era when corporate and money-making interests control many of our public decisions, from small town Farm Bureau politics to Lincoln Bedroom auctioneering. Individuals not only can make a difference in such a climate; very often, we're the only thing that can. If we don't, nobody else will.

Martin has met with astonishing success, but there are also plenty of other less spectacular stories all around us. A couple of years ago, the acreage from which much of Seattle's drinking water is drawn-the Cedar River Watershed-was under consideration for clear-cutting as politicians decided how best to manage the land for the next 50 years. The various options laid out ranged from only clearcutting some of the land's timber, to raise the money to manage the watershed, to clearcutting a lot more of it, so as to make more money for the city.

The mainstream environmental groups that were paying attention had already signed off on the "lesser" option-only clearcutting about a third of the watershed. It was literally two people-Jasmine Minbashian, who worked with the Pacific Crest Biodiversity Project, and Erica Kay, an activist with Seattle Earth First!-Who decided to start organizing to demand that the city consider the possibility of not clearcutting any of the land at all. They took their case to elected officials and to the public, showed that the extra cost to water users would be minimal and the benefits to salmon habitat and water quality enormous, and it became an issue. And two years later, they won. The City of Seattle now officially plans to not clearcut that watershed until at least the year 2049.

Ask Erica or Jasmine if they made a difference. Or ask Brita Butler-Wall. She's the former PTSA mom who, five years ago, started a group to challenge the Seattle School District's disturbing enthusiasm for corporate advertising in its schools. A few months ago, in a near-complete reversal from those days, Seattle's school board, for the first time ever, adopted a policy explicitly aimed at minimizing salesmanship in our public schools-a position Brita and like-minded parents and community activists dragged them to kicking and screaming.

Or ask residents in Beacon Hill or Bitter Lake. They breathe easier than they did a couple of years ago thanks to neighborhood activists-particularly Rick Barrett in Bitter Lake and the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, a local group that focuses on environmental concerns in poor, urban, nonwhite areas, on Beacon Hill. Those activists got Northwest Hospital and the VA Hospital to stop disposing of their medical waste through the last two remaining smokestack incinerators in Seattle.

Activism doesn't necessarily require organized activity, and it can be as simple as the decisions we make every single day through our choices as consumers. Think of it as a daily election. We have the power to let businesses know what we will and will not accept through the ways in which we choose to spend our money. Businesses spend BILLIONS to find out what our desires are so that they can be sure to fill that need effectively. Many times, they just create that demand themselves with savy marketing campaigns which promise our eternal happiness (at least until the next ad) just for buying a box of "whatever."

When we make choices with our money based on our beliefs-and especially when we let them know what we're choosing and why-companies take heed. We can define our own happiness, rather than letting marketers do it for us, by buying from those companies that are already adhering to the values we support. Whether it's seeking out shoes or clothing from companies that don't use child labor and sweatshops, or fairly traded shade-grown coffee, or organic food from growers who would never put toxic sludge in your dinner, something as simple as deciding what we buy-based on our values-is a very important form of activism.

In Patty Martin's case, it has already helped-several fertilizer companies now make a point of telling their customers that they don't use industrial waste in their products. Martin has certainly become a believer-not just on the issue of industrial waste disposal, but on the larger issue of the ability, in our cynical times, of ordinary people to make a difference in the world around us. "In my community, I was the voice for people who'd never had a voice before," she says now. (Along with other divisions, two-thirds of Quincy is now Hispanic, but the white minority still controls most of the town's politics.) "And on this issue, I helped to disclose information about a practice that the public would otherwise have been denied, and farmers would only have discovered after losing crops or livelihoods."
Martin undoubtedly could have lived without the local hostility and the loss of her mayor's office-initially a six-by-ten foot room with a window to the hallway, for a job paying $500 a month-but she sure doesn't sound like she regrets having gotten involved. "You don't ever have to run for political office," she suggests-though she thinks that's a fine idea, too-"But you do have to look over the shoulders of your elected officials. People have to be engaged in the political process. This is a democracy, and a democracy is a participatory form of government. We're encouraging people to contact their elected officials, introduce themselves, and tell them they're going to be watching what they do."

Spoken like a true radical.

Information on use of industrial wastes in fertilizers and Martin's group can be found at http://www.safefoodandfertilizer.com. For information on a wide variety of environmental and social justice events and groups in the Seattle area, check Jean Buskin's Peace Calendar at http://www.scn.org/activism/calendar.