Denver Direct: Adrienne Anderson: American Environmental Leader

Monday, September 12, 2011

Adrienne Anderson: American Environmental Leader

The following biography is reposted from the book American Environmental Leaders From Colonial Times to the Present Grey House Publishing, Grey House PO Box 860, 85 Millerton Road, Millerton. NY 12546, updated in 2008. Adrienne sent this to me in March, 2009, so I assume that she had approved the contents. (Edited for format, picture added.)

Anderson, Adrienne
(February 10, 1952 – )
Grassroots Public Health Organizer and Educator
Grassroots community organizer Adrienne Anderson has been a leader in toxic contamination struggles throughout the western United States since she became involved with the issue in 1983.
From 1992 till 2005 she worked as an instructor at the University of Colorado-Boulder (CU), sharing her knowledge and research methods with students as they investigated contaminated site histories and how regulatory agencies respond to the problems; her abrupt and controversial termination in 2005 was widely perceived as the University’s capitulation to political and corporate interests threatened by her investigations and those of her students. Currently, Anderson coordinates the Nuclear Nexus and Safe Water projects of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center.
Adrienne Anderson was born February 10, 1952, in Dallas, Texas. From a young age she was concerned about justice; as a child she defended black children’s rights to ride their bikes through her tree-lined neighborhood. Then, as a student at Southern Methodist University (SMU), she challenged her sorority’s practices which favored white students. Anderson earned a B.A. from SMU in 1974 and worked for one year for the Texas Department of Public Welfare in Dallas. Although welfare casework was frustrating because Anderson realized that the system, for all its good intentions, tended to control and harass its clients, Anderson gained a respect for poor people’s ability to organize and help one another.
Anderson began work in a doctoral program in sociology at the University of Oregon in 1975, where she concentrated on social policy, political economy, and field research methods. While studying there, she helped to organize one of the first university unions in the country for graduate teaching fellows, and also worked for Lane County, Oregon, to design and implement an outreach program to assist the county’s rural poor. Anderson took a leave of absence from her studies in 1979 to pursue her career in social change, organizing full-time in Denver, Colorado. From 1977 to 1983 she served as executive director of the Mountain Plains Congress of Senior Organizations, which advocated for the rights of low income elderly people living in the Rocky Mountain region.
By 1983 Anderson had focused her attention on energy and the environment and how these issues affected poor people. She became regional director of the national Citizen Labor Energy Coalition and then organized and became director of the Colorado Citizen Action Network (CCAN). CCAN, which was affiliated with the national coalition Citizen Action (CA), was a statewide coalition of grassroots antitoxins groups and labor, family, and senior citizen groups devoted to energy, environment, and health care issues. When CA increased its commitment to hazardous waste and public health issues in 1984, Anderson sent her staff on a canvass to garner support for stronger federal legislation to clean up the nation’s Superfund sites-the most contaminated areas of the country that the government had committed to clean up.
Canvassers returned with disturbing stories about birth defects and children’s health problems in the Friendly Hills neighborhood southwest of Denver. Anderson assisted in forming a local citizens’ group affiliated with CCAN, the Friendly Hills Health Action Group, to investigate the neighborhood’s problems.
The investigation revealed that the Denver Water Board, the county and state health departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency all were aware that Titan missile manufacturer Martin Marietta was routinely violating the Clean Water Act. It was discharging scores of toxic chemicals, including the highly carcinogenic rocket fuel propellant hydrazine, into waterways that ran through the site and into a neighboring Denver water supply treatment plant. The plant treated the water for bacteria but not for the toxic chemicals it contained and then piped it to Friendly Hills and other neighboring areas.
Anderson’s work with the Friendly Hills Health Action Group forced the water board to close the contaminated water treatment plant in 1985 and convinced the governor to order a criminal investigation of the cover-up conspiracy between Martin Marietta and the Denver Water Board. In the midst of this campaign, Anderson became Western Director for the National Toxics Campaign (NTC). In addition to her work on Denver’s interlocking toxic sites, such as Martin Marietta, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Lowry Landfill, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plants, and the Coors brewery, Anderson also organized and assisted community toxics campaigns in other western states, including Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Alaska. She participated in a three-year campaign in Ponca City, Oklahoma, that eventually forced an evacuation of the entire south half of the town, where benzene poisoning from a Conoco refinery’s contaminated groundwater swamped 400 neighboring homes. As part of the successful campaign for evacuation, Anderson helped form a local citizens’ group, the Ponca City Toxic Concerned Citizens, and accompanied the group to Oklahoma City, 100 miles away, where they camped out on the grounds of the state capitol for months to protest the governor’s failure to respond to the problem. Finally taking Conoco to court while continuing their public protests, the residents in 1990 won the largest private buyout of a contaminated community in the nation.
Over the years, working for various organizations, Anderson has helped over 20 communities organize citizens’ groups to respond to local environmental disasters. She currently concentrates her work in the Denver area, a city ringed by Superfund sites whose owners, she found, have trucked toxic wastes to and between various sites for several decades. A complicated, interlocking set of relationships among corporations, the corporate law firms that defend them, their public relations firms, and municipal and federal government agencies has made it difficult to address the problems. When Anderson, appointed in 1996 by the mayor of Denver to the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District Board to represent the sewage plant’s workers, uncovered documents about a plan to treat plutonium-contaminated groundwater from the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site east of Denver, she alerted sewage workers and farmers who worked land close to where the sludge would be spread, who protested the plan. Anderson’s and her students’ investigations of federal files revealed that the Lowry Landfill was contaminated with plutonium and had been used as a dump for years by the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant This resulted in threatening letters from the sewage plant’s management. Anderson fought back, invoking the whistle-blowing protection statutes of several national environmental laws.
For her work on this case, Anderson was given the Brown-Silkwood Health and Safety award for 1998 from the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Local 2-477. In 2001, a senior federal whistleblower judge ruled against the sewage agency for its threats and efforts to silence her. Anderson was awarded nearly half a million dollars in damages, including one of the largest punitive damage awards ever issued. However, just after this victory, the incoming Bush administration-which had put its own appointees into the Department of Labor- reversed the judge and overturned the ruling, instead of implementing the judgment.
From 1992 until her controversial termination in 2005, Anderson taught at the University of Colorado-Boulder, offering such courses as Environmental Ethics: Race, Class and Pollution Politics; Advanced Environmental Investigations; and The War Environment. She emphasized research techniques and assigned her students to investigate local polluters and how the appropriate regulatory agencies responded to their violations. Anderson invited regulatory officials to visit the class at the end of each semester; they were met by well-prepared students demanding explanations for the problems they uncovered. Although Anderson’s courses received consistently high scores in student evaluations, and the University’s large Environmental Studies program depended upon her to teach required courses for the program, her presence at CU was officially protested by one of the targets of her investigations, the ASARCO mining company. (An Anderson investigation revealed that ASARCO had contaminated a Denver neighborhood, and the company was fined $38 million.)
The public relations firm representing ASARCO, Coors, Shell, Martin Marietta, and others-all of which pollute the Lowry Landfill- also complained to the University about Anderson and her courses. Although students successfully rallied for many years to assure that Anderson teach, the Environmental Studies department did not renew her contract in 2005. Students, using tile skills Anderson had taught them, investigated University records and found a barrage of communications from polluters and political appointees of governor Bill Owens. The records showed that these corporate and government interests sought to undermine Anderson’s faculty position over the pollution research she and her students had discovered, along with evidence of lax enforcement actions by the state. After Anderson filed a grievance, two investigating faculty committees found that her rights had been violated and recommended her reinstatement.
The American Association of University Professors-CU Chapter also investigated her case, concluded that her termination had serious implications for the University’s academic integrity and its role in protecting public health, and called for her reinstatement The University, however, refused to reinstate her.
Anderson’s current position with the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center allows her to continue researching and organizing around the various toxic and nuclear contamination threats plaguing the region. In one case, she assists Native Americans, in another, ranchers and farmers, and in yet another, residents whose homes abut a radioactive waste site the military has refused to clean up. Anderson’s articles and reports are available on-line at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s website:
“AAUP University of Colorado,”; Cowan, Jessica, Good Works: Jobs that Make a
Difference, 1991; Obmascik, Mark, “Listen! Money’s Talking,” Denver Post, 1996; “Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center,”; White, Nadia, “Environmental Studies Made Demands at Campus Rally,” Boulder Daily Camera, 1998.