“Earl Hatley is a stalwart advocate for environmental justice and everyone’s right to clean water. He is a highly regarded organizer who has rallied his community to force government to address the toxic brew of massive mining, coal-fired power plant, and factory farm pollution in the Grand River watershed.” ~Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Earl Hatley has changed thousands of people’s lives for the better, and yet many may not know his name. The reason for this is simple: Earl does not do what he does for fame, and he most certainly does not do it for fortune. Earl is an environmental activist because it is his calling. This man has lived his life fulfilling a purpose that was laid out to him during a vision quest many years ago and that he has stayed true to ever since.
First, a small fraction of his many accomplishments: Mr. Hatley is a co-founder of the LEAD agency and served as the board president from 1997-2003. The LEAD agency’s original focus was the Tar Creek Superfund site in Pitcher, Okla. He also serves as the Grand Riverkeeper, protecting Grand Lake and the upper Grand River watershed working in conjunction with the Waterkeeper Alliance founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Earl’s resume is filled with so many acronyms that it looks like it was written in a foreign language. He was worked with the National Toxics Campaign, too many tribes to mention and served on numerous water monitoring councils. Mr. Hatley was appointed by the governor to serve on the Hazardous Waste Management Advisory Council for the Department of Environmental Quality back in 2007. If all of that doesn’t sound impressive enough for you let me break it down like this. Earl has worked on a total of 18 Superfund sites so far in his career. Each Superfund site affects hundreds if not thousands of people. Each site not only affects the people living there at the time, but countless future generations.
How does a life with such purpose begin? To go down a road such as this where would you even start? This is a story best told by Earl, because in addition to his many accomplishments Earl is a master storyteller and his story is colorful by his own account.
“It all started with one of my trips to Berkley. I believe it was in Jan of ‘69. Those days, the campus was very liberal and anyone could walk into a classroom and listen to a lecture. I found out that Dr. Paul Erlick was doing a series of seminars on his new book called The Population Bomb. He did four lectures on his book and after each one I would go down and hang out with him and discuss the issues.
After the last lecture I went and shook his hand and thanked him. When I did, he held onto my hand, he said, “Earl you are working to end the war, it is good to end the war but you are learning a valuable skill. What you are learning is how to be an organizer and we really don’t have any schools for this, so before you walk away you have to promise me that you will dedicate your life to being an organizer and that you will organize on the big picture.” and I said “The big picture is?” “The environment”, he said.
So we shake hands on this, which means after the war is over I would be an environmental organizer, and what could I do? I shook hands on it and left. For two years it rattled around in my brain. A few years later, I went to Arkansas to cool off from all the anti-war demonstrations and I went on a vision quest. I was there, living in a cave and I tried to find my vision that would tell me what to do with my life to show me my road. It took quite a while and I was very frustrated because the vision wasn’t coming and I felt down and rejected. Right in front of where I was camping was this tree and a waterfall. Finally, I wrapped my arms and legs around the tree and put my forehead to the bark and asked what my vision was. I don’t know how long it took, but then I had my vision. The result was that I was to be a warrior for Mother Earth and I was to work to try to stop the pollution of the earth to protect the animals and the people. After it was over, I was thinking back on what Dr Erlick said, and I thought, “How did he know that?” But since they were both the same thing it was obvious it what I was supposed to do. Back in those days, you couldn’t make a living as an organizer, so in order to raise my family, I did environmental and social justice work in my free time.
In 1987, after there had been a national campaign to reauthorize the CERCA (Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation), which gave the EPA the chance to work on abandoned industrial sites. This would be when a company had gone bankrupt and there was no one to clean it up, it is where the Superfund sites came from. If the responsible party did not clean it up it gave the EPA the right to do the work and charge the owners three times the amount required. This is when jobs became available for community organizers and lobbyists for the work to be done. When that happened in about ’87, I decided to go back to college to get a masters degree because I wanted one of those jobs. I got my masters in Political Science at OSU, a big part of that was environmental policy and law. A job came up the summer after I had graduated to be a regional organizer with the National Toxics Campaign.
This is when the real work began.
One of Earl’s most notorious sites was Cancer Alley in Louisiana. He says “In Louisiana I worked in the African American communities that had been polluted from the industries and refineries in the area. Toxins such as chlorine, dioxins, hydrocarbons and solvents were being released into the air and in the ground water. It was really a whole mixed bag of chemicals and the people were afflicted with cancer as well as a number of other illnesses depending upon the exposure levels.”
Another project Earl worked on was at the site of an abandoned lead mine in Missouri. “They were going to ruin one of the most pristine rivers in the U.S. and we worked to stop that.” During this time in North Central Missouri, an effort was made to dump ash from multiple hazardous waste incinerators. “It took a while, but we were able to stop it. During this fight, we got Willie Nelson to come up and that is how I got hooked up with Farm Aid. At that time in the 90’s, Oklahoma had 12 Superfund sites and I worked on all of those sites to organize the communities.”
Another memorable site Earl helped organize was the Jacksonville Air Force Base north of Little Rock. This was a staging point to ship Agent Orange to Vietnam. “The base was closed down and they left the Agent Orange in the drums. In this community, there was a part of the cemetery called Babyland. You could look at the dates of the deaths and correlate the toxic release dates to the deaths of the children. When the base shut down, the Agent Orange was left in barrels on the tarmac and over time the barrels began to leak, it was running down the asphalt and into a stream that flowed thru the community. I went in and took samples of the stream and in the soil, on the yards and in tap water. As a result, The National Toxics Campaign filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense. We ended up losing the lawsuit but we did force the EPA and the State of Arkansas Environmental Department to clean it up.”
“Another site that sticks in my mind is the Bartlesville site. I got a call about a zinc smelter on the west side of town. The area was full of chat from the smelters with lead dust blowing all across the community. The area next to the site was poor, and they were telling me all about the health problems they were suffering from such as cancer, renal failure, and for some reason a lot of the women had lost their hair. The two main contaminants were lead and cadmium.
The Bartlesville story ends with the site becoming an accelerated Superfund model, a poster child site for the new method of cleanups. The work was started almost immediately and scrubbers were installed on the smelters stacks. In a very short time, they were digging up yards and removing soil from playgrounds and replacing it with clean soil.
“When I get the call for a new site, it is usually from a person in the town. I agree to meet that person and we start going around and talking to others who might be affected. Then we start preparing to have a meeting. Once the local media hears something is going on, they come check it out, they interview me and find out what I am doing there and typically, all hell breaks loose and I get threatening calls. I have faced lots of harassment, been held at gunpoint, had my phone tapped, my office bugged and frequent break-ins to look over my files.
That has been going on at different times in my career. Once it became such a regular routine I started putting my appointment books and other information on top of my desk, because I didn’t care what they knew. I just didn’t want them to tear up my stuff. It didn’t bother me if they knew if I was organizing a march or demonstration.
In every town I have worked with the minority of people and the majority didn’t get the scope of the problem. The people tend to think in the communities that I go to that if there was a problem, the EPA or the state would be there to fix it, they think that a facility has a permit or even if the site has been abandoned it must be okay, that there would be a government agency there taking care of it. The reality is that is not true. The problem is that it is cheaper to pollute than to fix the problem or stay within guidelines. They think, ‘How often will we get caught and how much will that cost?’ versus making changes to stop releases of contaminates. Most agencies are under funded so they don’t have the resources to inspect and test industries on a regular basis.” This is where you come in.
Citizens need to be diligent; they need to be informed about what is going on in their community. For instance, if you are on a river and see a discharge pipe and it is sending foul water into a stream, research it and find out what it is and what is going on. Take it upon yourselves to report it to the DEQ, so it will be on the DEQ radar. Then follow up and keep calling.
So in closing I asked Earl “How do you still do this after all these years? All the hard work, low pay, little recognition, isn’t it frustrating work?” He says, “The reason I do this is this is my mission in life and I go back to when I hugged that tree I am thankful. I think back to my vision quest… and know that this is what I am supposed to be doing. It has been hard, and I have been beat up and yelled at, but I have been very successful at teaching others how to organize. This has been my spiritual path and my mission in life and there is no way I could ever leave it. I think sometimes that I am at the end and that’s when I get my second wind and I think I can’t ever leave it now.”
To register environmental complaints call the DEQ enforcement hotline (800) 522-0206. If you see something that you think is dangerous to the environment, do what Earl says and “Call all the damn time.”
Next month, we will be talking with Earl about organization techniques and strategies for those who are facing an environmental issue.