Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste was founded in response to growing grassroots concerns about local environmental threats.

Summary of Event

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (CCHW) was founded in 1981 by grassroots leaders of the movement that had developed out of the Love Canal crisis. In 1978, reports had begun appearing about hazardous chemical wastes buried beneath homes and schools in the Love Canal Love Canal incident neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York. More than twenty-one thousand tons of wastes had been generated by Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation then a division of Occidental Petroleum. The residents who had unsuspectingly bought houses built on top of the hazardous wastes formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) to force the government to relocate them, provide financial assistance, and clean up the area. Environmental activism Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste[Citizens Clearinghouse] Hazardous waste;activism Waste;hazardous [kw]Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded (1981) [kw]Hazardous Waste Is Founded, Citizens’ Clearinghouse for (1981) [kw]Waste Is Founded, Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous (1981) [kw]Founded, Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is (1981) Environmental activism Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste[Citizens Clearinghouse] Hazardous waste;activism Waste;hazardous [g]North America;1981: Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded[04370] [g]United States;1981: Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded[04370] [c]Organizations and institutions;1981: Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded[04370] [c]Environmental issues;1981: Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Is Founded[04370] Gibbs, Lois Kenny, Luella Bullard, Robert

The LCHA, like Concerned Neighbors in Action Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA) of Southern California and other similar groups, was a new twist in the history of American environmentalism. Members of these neighborhood-based groups did not fit the usual profile of environmental activists, who had traditionally been young, white, well-educated, middle-class professionals. Instead, many of these antitoxics crusaders held blue-collar jobs, had no more than high school educations, and were politically inexperienced. Antitoxics activists also tended to have materialist values, that is, they prized economic security, law and order, and national security, whereas many other environmentalists held postmaterialist values such as concern for qualitative and aesthetic issues, civil liberties, and liberal causes. Moreover, more people of color participated in antitoxics campaigns than in other environmental causes.

The antitoxics groups organized themselves without benefit of the resources of preexisting or professional environmental organizations. They began to form during the 1970’s; eventually at least one such group organized in nearly every community in the country that had ever had a hazardous industry. Antitoxics activists tended to confront their antagonists with specific problems rather than abstract political agendas. Initially, their goals were to prevent or to clean up hazardous-waste pollution. The goals grew to include better waste-management strategies, greater citizen input in policy making, and environmental justice for all. Like the National Toxics Campaign, National Toxics Campaign which formed in 1980, CCHW was a national outgrowth of a local struggle.

When the LCHA had begun to prevail in its struggle against government and Hooker Chemical, its members were surprised to find themselves receiving hundreds of telephone calls from around the country asking them how they had organized. In response to these questions, Lois Gibbs, one of the most effective members of the LCHA, founded Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in 1981 to help other communities fight toxic-waste problems. CCHW became an example of the kind of widespread effect that a local, seemingly obscure conflict could have. It also pointed to how environmentalists learned from one another and shared their experiences to mutual benefit. Through this network, the environmental justice movement began, and local antitoxics struggles spread to the regional, national, and finally global level.

LCHA activists had experienced a number of ostensibly friendly outside groups arriving in their neighborhood to set up news conferences; the activists had been besieged by so-called experts and government officials. CCHW was founded to provide help to a community without taking over or advocating directly. CCHW was the only environmental organization in the United States that devoted virtually all of its resources to helping grassroots citizens’ organizations act and speak for themselves. Two overlapping phenomena became observable among environmentalists: They pursued their aims through either science or local, indigenous knowledge, and a split grew between the large, Washington-based environmental organizations and the many small grassroots bands of activists.

Science involves distinctive professional techniques. Scientists observe, identify, describe, and interpret natural and social phenomena; they are usually members of established institutions, and their methods are inculcated through specialized training in institutions and frequently require technical equipment provided by those with an interest in the research, such as states, universities, foundations, and corporations. Local knowledge, on the other hand, consists of knowledge gathered empirically by breathing air, drinking water, tilling soil, observing flora and fauna, harvesting forest produce, and fishing or navigating rivers, lakes, and oceans. This kind of knowledge about ecosystems, culture, and economies was generated and inherited by community-based activists.

Antitoxics campaigners were neither scientists nor professional activists but rather involuntary environmentalists who deduced connections between toxic-waste dumps, pesticide runoff, or nearby poison chemical factories and the declining health of their families, friends, and livestock. They had little doubt about the causes of their problems. The fact that a scientific grounding for their fears may not have been established did not deter their actions. It did not surprise these people that the manufacturers of toxic chemicals disputed their risk to humans and the environment; nor did it surprise them that their governments often joined forces with the developers and polluters who provided campaign contributions and tax revenues.

Lois Gibbs challenged Hooker Chemical at Love Canal when she perceived her neighborhood to have become unlivable and her children to be at risk. Hers was a struggle for herself and her immediate circle of family and friends, a very different motivation than that of activists such as Earth First! Earth First! members, who act more out of universal concern for the entire land and all of its inhabitants. The difference between someone like Gibbs and people like Dave Foreman Foreman, Dave and Mike Roselle, Roselle, Mike two founders of Earth First!, is that Gibbs defines “home” as her personal habitat and its adjacent surroundings, whereas the others define “home” as the whole planet.

The widening gulf in U.S. environmentalism between grassroots groups and Washington-based organizations was first noticed during the 1980’s. The two groups were characterized by different styles of action, different attitudes toward power and authority, different approaches to compromise and deal making, and usually different resources, as the centralized groups tended to be better funded and more institutionalized. The grassroots groups proved to be less respectful of those in power and less willing to compromise on their demands than the established organizations, who tended more toward traditional lobbying and interest-group behavior.

An example of this trend toward disunity was CCHW’s 1993 campaign with organized labor against the North American Free Trade Agreement North American Free Trade Agreement (1993) (NAFTA). Greenpeace, Greenpeace the Sierra Club, Sierra Club and CCHW were the only well-known environmental groups that opposed what they considered the ecological dangers posed by trade liberalization. CCHW’s stated purpose was to help concerned individuals form strong, locally controlled community groups that could fight for, and win, environmental justice and, in doing so, gain the power that comes with taking control of their own lives. The action of groups such as CCHW changed the way corporations and government dealt with waste.


The Love Canal struggle served as a wake-up call to the nation. Since then, working-class and minority communities began to take control of their own environments and to stand up to major multinational corporations and all levels of government. Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste played a critical role in the struggle against industrial poison. Its success could be measured by the impact the group’s activities had on public opinion about the environment, on legislation passed as a consequence of antitoxics campaigns, on administrative reforms, and on the growth of a significant social movement.

Media coverage of Love Canal and the controversies over hundreds of other hazardous-waste sites instilled greater concern among the general public about local pollution problems. Pollsters found large majorities everywhere against locally unwanted land uses, so-called LULUs. Environmental sensitivity rose steadily throughout the 1980’s as citizens became increasingly aware of the dangers of chemical wastes. Many citizens began to express their willingness to pay increased taxes to help protect the environment, and more people joined environmental groups and volunteered their time.

Although CCHW’s primary concern was to aid people at the local level, the organization and the larger antitoxics movement contributed significantly to passage of the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, Pollution Prevention Act (1990) as well as other legislation. The Pollution Prevention Act created a new office of the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help industry reduce waste through information and assistance in technology transfer, as well as to financially assist state pollution prevention programs. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) required federal, state, and local governments and industry to work together in developing plans to deal with chemical emergencies and to report regularly on hazardous chemicals. The 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) (CERCLA, more commonly known as Superfund) Superfund (1980) was a direct governmental response to Love Canal and the perils of toxic wastes. Though mired in litigation for years after its passage, Superfund was intended to aid in the cleanup of the thousands of hazardous and toxic sites in the United States. Much of CCHW’s work centered on making Superfund work, and the organization brought about many technical-assistance grants for community groups around Superfund sites.

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste helped stop the national practice of landfilling commercial hazardous waste, and it assisted a dozen communities in evacuating from neighborhoods contaminated by toxic substances, most notably that of Times Beach, Missouri. The organization took part in the national campaign against the use of styrofoam in the food industry and helped to prod the McDonald’s McDonald’s restaurants[Macdonalds restaurants] McToxics campaign[Mactoxics campaign] fast-food chain to eliminate its use of styrofoam packaging. CCHW helped institute the national move toward curbside recycling. It worked to educate the country about the dangers of forced acceptance of wastes from out of state, a practice most states ceased by the early 1990’s. The organization also exposed the problems of dealing with the disposal of medical waste, and it helped block the construction of many new medical-waste facilities.

CCHW’s most significant achievement was building a movement devoted to environmental justice; membership rose from two hundred concerned individuals in 1981 to nearly eight thousand grassroots groups in 1994. The group’s aid to local organizations was almost always successful. CCHW exposed industrial and governmental plans to target low-income and minority communities for waste sites when the organization exposed the existence of the Cerrell Report, an industrial how-to manual for polluters to overcome citizen opposition to incinerators and other dangerous facilities.

CCHW was sensitive to industry’s complaint that waste was an inevitable consequence of progress. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the organization, which changed its name to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), studied waste-reduction strategies such as reusability and package redesign and alternatives to landfilling and incineration such as composting and recycling. The intent was to help local groups change their opposition slogan from Not in My Backyard to Not in Anybody’s Backyard. The necessity for massive cleanups at Cold War-era military facilities, continued squabbling over responsibility for past toxic-waste dumping, and struggles over incinerator siting ensured that CHEJ would stay busy for many decades. Environmental activism Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste[Citizens Clearinghouse] Hazardous waste;activism Waste;hazardous

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Michael Harold. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. Rev. ed. New York: Pocket Books, 1981. An early and angry treatment of the dangers of toxic waste, particularly as exemplified in Love Canal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullard, Robert D. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Chronicles the efforts of five black communities, empowered by the Civil Rights movement, to link environmentalism with issues of social justice. With tables and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press, 1993. Details resistance campaigns and strategies by which citizens of color have struggled for their communities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edelstein, Michael R. Contaminated Communities: Coping with Residential Toxic Exposure. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. One of the pioneering studies of the social and psychological impacts of residential toxic exposure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Epstein, Samuel, Lester O. Brown, and Carl Pope. Hazardous Waste in America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983. An analysis of the science, politics, and economics of hazardous waste in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, Thomas H. From Love Canal to Environmental Justice: The Politics of Hazardous Waste on the Canada-U.S. Border. New York: Broadview Press, 2003. Examines similarities and differences of environmental movements on both sides of the New York-Ontario border. Useful for academics and activists alike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gedicks, Al. The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations. Boston: South End Press, 1993. Documents struggles against outside intervention in community economic development and explores the underlying motivations and social forces that propel them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, Lois Marie, with Murray Levine. Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Inspiring first-person account of the battle waged by the Love Canal Homeowners Association against Hooker Chemical and the federal government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Kenneth A., Allan Schnaiberg, and Adam S. Weinberg. Local Environmental Struggles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production. Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Examines three case studies of grassroots environmental movements and the struggles they face.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Adeline Gordon. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982. The definitive account of the Love Canal disaster. Examines the interplay of science and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nader, Ralph, Ronald Brownstein, and John Richard, eds. Who’s Poisoning America: Corporate Polluters and Their Victims in the Chemical Age. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1981. A thorough survey of the leading polluters in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Szasz, Andrew. EcoPopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Reconstructs the growth of the antitoxics movement and suggests that the movement may prove to be the vehicle for reinvigorating progressive politics in the United States.

U.S. Congress Protects Public Against Hazardous Waste in Transit

EPA Is Charged with Regulating Toxic Chemicals

“Cradle-to-Grave” Legislation Covers Hazardous Wastes

Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal

Superfund Is Established to Pay for Hazardous-Waste Cleanup

Dioxin Contamination Forces Evacuation of Times Beach

U.S. Congress Requires Governments to Inform the Public About Toxic Pollutants

Categories: History