Gracia O'Neill makes me laugh. The smart, sassy, community-minded assistant director of the nonprofit Clean Water for NC shoots straight when it comes to the lack of sex appeal related to her line of work in the field of environmental justice.
"How unattractive does this sound?" she asks me. "'Will you come out to a public hearing on the Title V wastewater permit next week?' That's not sexy. It's not interesting. It doesn't sound exciting. It sounds difficult and complicated, and who needs it?"
However, the snooze factor of public comment has a very bright flip side, which O'Neill described during a recent Q&A.
Does it make a difference if people show up for a public meeting or write a letter of comment to a government official?
Absolutely! It makes even more of an impact when people do show up because officials know that people wouldn't be there unless they really, really cared. And when people don't show up for a hearing, we get that thrown in our faces all of the time. It gives the impression that nobody cares and that there's really not a problem.
What's Clean Water for NC (CWNC) all about?
CWFNC is not just an environmental organization--it's an environmental justice organization. Environmental justice is "the concept of fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin or income"(reading with excellent diction from wall poster).
It grew out of the social justice movement of the '60s. A lot of studies have focused on the populations living around the industries and facilities emitting toxins into the air, water and soil. They've shown that a disproportionate number are sited near populations of either low-income or [people of] color. Environmental justice is the concept that it really shouldn't be happening this way--that we all need to bear that burden equally.
I'd also add that we never get involved in anything without a community group. We're not the lead, we support the community group, do what they want to do, and help them do the research.
Could you describe a few recent CWNC projects?
Our organization has been a very strong advocate of cleaning up the Pigeon River in Haywood County. We've also been working closely with a group in Madison County called Laurel Valley Watch (where a developer has proposed building a 300,000-gallon-per-day wastewater treatment plant onto a tiny creek). We also worked really hard on a statewide well-user protection bill.