Written/Published: November 6, 2013
“Retired Military Environmental Activist”
Wow—that sounded like an oxymoron to me; this seemed unlikely…or at least unusual!
Earlier this week I had the most amazing, far-ranging conversation with a retired military environmental activist (I guess technically he may not even be completely retired—as he told me that he was just called back in to duty on a project…he’s 68, and was a surgeon in several tours during the “Vietnam Conflict“—his words)!
I’m always excited when I find environmental activists in areas I wouldn’t expect, but when you add all the pieces together of course this guy is an environmental activist—who wouldn‘t be with all the pollution and destruction and contamination from toxic chemicals that he has seen personally—first hand—around the world.
I met him through a friend of a friend of a friend, as a result of the preview screenings of MisLEAD that I hosted in partnership with City and State Health Departments last month around the country for Lead Poisoning Prevention Week/Month. Scott, in Littleton, NH said he had a friend in Southern California who was very concerned about lead and might be a good partner—someone at least to have a conversation with and possibly work with on the film and in my advocacy work.
So, this week, when I had a quiet moment (no screaming lead-poisoned kiddos bothering me), I picked up the phone and gave him a call. His name is Robert (his friend Scott calls him Dr. Bob). Dr. Bob and I spoke for a very long time—which was especially interesting, given we had never met before! We talked about all manner of things related to lead. [& Dr. Bob, I’m going to paraphrase a bit here, so when you read this please let me know if there are any major inaccuracies!]
He told me of some of his amazing experiences and work as an environmental activist—and his current focus on building safe homes for low-income families (he’s about to do a short stint with Habitat for Humanity.) We talked about his work in the area of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction (as part of the first-responder teams.) He told me about the issues with the water-table pollutants in his area, specifically that people are dumping trash (including old leaded batteries and other leaded products!) in national forest lands that border residential communities. He spoke about how these areas “are not policed at all” and so there is no-one to regulate, fine or punish those who are doing the dumping (and they are dumping there to avoid the penalties and costs of properly disposing of this in hazardous waste dump sites.)
Dr. Bob went on to say that in many cases, these polluters are not fully aware of what they are doing. They have no idea that they are polluting the water table – directly impacting the water quality of their own drinking water and the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of other families and households “downstream.” He placed much of the blame on the lack of enforcement resources for such a large coverage area – he said that while some of these combined cities might have 400 or 500 or 600 cops, for the same area the vast expanses of forest land have maybe 3 or 4 rangers! How could 3 or 4 rangers possibly be expected to police the perimeters of HUGE areas of national forest? It’s just not possible—and the environmental issues (like toxic drinking water) that are literally killing off our citizens are not getting nearly the attention they deserve, compared to other issues (like policing for “real” crime—ironic in the face of all the recent studies and reporting that show lead exposure is actually a significant causal factor behind “real” crime.)
This conversation about national forests and lead then took a VERY UNEXPECTED turn… one I would never have imagined (although in retrospect I should have thought of this one years ago)—and again—the surprise was that this came from a guy whose life has been dedicated to the military:
For those of us who know lead history, we know that lead was used as a main ingredient in pesticides for decades on crops—like fruit trees and other large crops (we all know lead kills—well, lead kills bugs too!). In my conversations with families I occasionally mention the issue of leaded pesticides, but it doesn’t come up that often. Earlier this week I spoke with Carol Ann, (a mama of a lead-poisoned kiddo near Buffalo, NY) about her potential purchase of a new home that included an historic orchard that the seller said is “certified organic”; the orchard dated from the late 1800’s, so I cautioned her that even though it is now “organic”, there still may be unsafe levels of lead in the soil from previous generations’ usage of leaded pesticides and that the soil at the base of the fruit trees should be tested for toxicity levels if she thought her children might play there at all. [That lead doesn’t “go” anywhere; a farm can be certified organic after a period of not-using certain chemicals, but the “organic” status does not necessarily take into account the possibility of existing long-term lead contamination of the soil.]
Anyway…getting back to the conversation with “Dr. Bob”…
Dr. Bob started talking about the forests in Northern California, and how that area is the water source for much of the rest of the state (Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite comes to mind—one of my all-time favorite spots to visit and back-country hike!) And that’s where the conversation took an unexpected turn…(boy I did not expect a military man to start talking about marijuana crops!)
As many of us know, the Northern California national Forests are not only a source of water and an magnificent natural resource, but they are one of the largest areas of public land being used for the illegal growth and cultivation of private “crops”—marijuana growth (think, “Humbolt County”). And by the nature of these crops being illegal, they are also untaxed and unregulated.* And thanks to the limited distribution of power in our law-enforcement system – there are very few rangers in the area and most of them (due to concern over the nature of illegal drugs and those who buy and sell them) have concerns (dare-I-say fears?) about actually doing any enforcing since the growers outnumber the rangers.
*(Aside from a controversial, fascinating, reportedly successful grower/sheriff cooperative, voluntary registration/taxation program in Mendocino County—that was ultimately shut down when the Feds stepped in, superseding State and local law-enforcement authorities.)
The lead link?
So since these Northern California growing operations are unregulated (and clandestine, and as such, unseen/unwatched) – what do you think they are using for pest management? Dr. Bob says that it’s heavily weighted [pun intended] towards less expensive, illegal, lead-laden, highly-neurotoxic pesticides that further contaminate the groundwater (not to mention potential contamination of the crops!)
While at first this seems like a HORRIBLE set of confounding factors that ultimately might impact many of us (especially those in states like Colorado and Washington) in previously unforeseen ways…Ever the glass-half-full type, I see it as an opportunity…
Hmmm…just imagine what we could do if we were able to raise awareness, among all pot-growers, harvesters and users, of the dangers of lead-poisoning!? What if —regardless of your politics on this issue—we added these large numbers of generally wealthy “hidden massive-segment GNP producers” to our ranks of concerned parents, consumers and citizens at large? What kind of difference could we make in protecting future generations of children from the pervasive environmental toxicity caused by lead.
Coming soon to a Humbolt County theater near you: MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic! Anyone up for sponsoring and helping me to organize that screening?! I can think of a few people on my “friends” list who might have a personal vested interest in bringing this issue to that community! Just let me know where and when to show up.
November 6, 2013