MONTPELIER — An environmental group involved in closing Vermont Yankee, opposing existing and planned landfills and organizing communities affected by PFAS contamination is changing its name to better reflect what it has been doing for the past three decades.
Toxics Action Center announced Tuesday that its name has changed to Community Action Works.
“Our mission isn’t changing,” said Sylvia Broude, executive director of Community Action Works. “We work side by side with everyday people to confront those who are polluting and harming the health of our communities, and we will continue to partner with the people most impacted by environmental problems, training them with the know-how anyone would need to make a change in their own backyard, none of that is changing.”
She said the name change is to reflect the group’s environmental work beyond pollution.
According to the group, it formed 33 years ago after people in Woburn, Massachusetts, dealt with contaminated drinking water tied to several cases of leukemia in children. The incident was detailed in a book, “A Civil Action,” by Jonathan Harr, published in 1995. The group’s original name was “Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste.” It helped to pass the Massachusetts Superfund law, and became “Toxics Action Center” in 1997.
“Toxics was really the prevailing frame for the environmental movement, and I think that’s really changed in a lot of ways,” said Broude. “Certainly we are confronting toxic threats left and right whether its PFAS contamination in drinking water or air pollution that exacerbates the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, but more and more, we’re also working through the lens of climate change, we’re thinking about environmental justice, so it’s no longer about toxics and our name had us really locked into a one-issue area that holds us back from connecting with communities that need our support.”
She said the group believes that teaching people how to deal with pollution in their own communities is the most effective, long-term way to deal with the problem, whether that’s opposing gas pipelines or pushing the town government to adopt more clean energy sources.
Given that the group works within the environmental realm, Broude said it’s not overly concerned about being confused with similarly named organizations in other sectors.
“We know that no name is perfect, but we feel this name described the core of who we are,” she said, adding that she expects people will continue to find the group through its website and social media presence. We also rely on word of mouth and often get referrals from other environmental groups in the state, sending their members and other residents to us to help with their efforts,” she said. “For example, Rights and Democracy connected with us recently and invited us to partner with them and provide assistance on an effort to stop oil trains that have been idling in residential neighborhoods in Bennington.”
Fossil fuel infrastructure is often viewed as a climate issue as opposed to a toxics issue, said Shaina Kasper, Vermont state director for Community Action Works. “We’ve done a lot of work over the past couple of years stopping polluting power plants and the fracked gas pipeline in Addison County.”
She said the group has also been working with partners to get Vermont to develop a statewide environmental justice policy.
“Vermont is one of eight states in the country that doesn’t have an environmental justice policy on the books, and I think our rural context and overarching demographics can really obscure some of these existing environmental injustices,” Kasper said, adding that it’s hard in Vermont for local people to come together and advocate for themselves effectively on environmental issues.
“We do see environmental injustice all the time all across the state with so many different examples of folks fighting landfills and quarries and biomass plants and pipelines, there’s so many examples of this,” she said. “Last year, along with a bunch of partners including Vermont Law School, (University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources), and the Center for Whole Communities, we launched this project called REJOICE, which stands for Rural Environmental Justice Opportunities Informed by Community Expertise. This is a project to assess and address environmental health and qualities and to build healthy and resilient communities.”
She said the project was planning to hold six events across the state to hear from communities about environmental justice issues, with the ultimate goal of compiling them and releasing recommendations to state lawmakers. Only two were held before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the state government to implement social-distancing guidelines, but the others have been held online.
“Over the next year we really plan on finishing up these conversations and compiling these results into a report with policy recommendations to recirculate to these communities for feedback and, ultimately, to close the loopholes in our policies,” Kasper said.