Legacy Story: Environmental Warriors (2002)

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Carol Johnson stands in front of Xcel Energy’s Riverside Plant in Minneapolis, one of the stops on the Women’s Cancer Resource Center’s toxic industry tours. Photo Dawn Villella

The following story appeared in the April 2002 issue of Minnesota Women’s Press. Twice per month in 2024, MWP is uplifting select pieces from our 39-year archive with a focus on longstanding issues. In tandem with our “On the Surface” print issue, our March focus is on women in agriculture and environmentalism.

Carol Johnson knows the meaning of Bob Dylan’s lyrics “the times they are a-changin’.” “My brother and I used to chase each other around the barn with a DDT sprayer,” she recalled with a sigh. Half a century later, she wonders if that toxic exposure led to the breast cancer she developed in 1995.

Johnson, environmental coordinator for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Minneapolis, is one of a growing band of women environmentalists who are saying enough is enough to industrial and corporate polluters. They’ve smelled the burning chemicals from coal-burning power plants in their backyards, seen their children pass through black clouds of diesel bus exhaust on their way to school, been diagnosed with cancer or watched family members die from the disease.

What they have not seen is enforcement of the environmental health and safety regulations set out in the 1970 Clean Air Act. “The public assumes that the Pollution Control Agency is protecting our air and water quality, but they’re not doing the basics,” said Rep. Jean Wagenius, who is leading the charge for tougher environment regulation in the state legislature. 

Last summer I had the privilege of working side by side with my mother, Paula Maccabee, as a students intern for the Sierra Club. A Yale lawyer-turned environmental advocate, Maccabee has organized health professionals, community activists, and legislators to fight against dangerous toxins like diesel, dioxin, and mercury.

Through my work with the Sierra Club, I met other women waging the battle to save our environment. Women like community volunteer Elizabeth Dickinson and professionals like Carol Johnson and Kathleen Schuler, who turned personal battles with cancer into a campaign to protect families from cancer-causing chemicals. In every case, the dedication of these women was inspiring. I had to spread the word.

Paula Maccabee

As a lawyer, Maccabee fought to protect women from unsafe commercial products like the Dalkon Shield. In the Attorney General’s office, she coordinated a coalition to prevent and address violence against women. As a city council member, she worked to prevent discrimination and eliminate hazardous run-off from polluting factories. For the past two years as the Sierra Club’s Air Toxics Campaign Project Coordinator, she has worked to raise awareness about chemical pollution by reaching out to citizens, schools, religious groups, health professionals and other nonprofit organizations. 

“I became concerned after my mom got breast cancer and my favorite aunt died of lung cancer. It comes out of a very basic motivation as a mother and as a daughter,” said Maccabee. “I want to protect my family.”

Her work includes organizing and educating at the grassroots level and lobbying in the heart of political power. But it’s the ordinary citizens who hold the key to change, she says. “Until ordinary people are aware that toxic emissions from dirty coal plants, dangerous emissions from cars, buses and trucks and the manufacturing and burning of plastics and chlorine-bleached paper poison our air, the government is not going to do anything,” Maccabee said. 

“For each environmental problem, there are things that the average person can do in his or her own life, like buying more energy efficient appliances, and then there are things that they have to demand of the government, like cleaning up dirty coal plants.”

The 1970 Clean Air Act “grandfathered in” older boilers, not requiring them to adopt modern pollution control equipment. As a result, none of Minnesota’s coal-fired power plants meets today’s pollution control standards for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. 

Maccabee and the Sierra Club are fighting to clean up the dirty coal plants in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Stillwater, and Burnsville. She works with environmental activists at “Clean Energy Now” to help them bring their concerns about first coal plants to Xcel Energy’s offices and to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Recently, Maccabee has helped local high school students, including her daughter Nadia, organize and strategize ways to reduce children’s exposure to diesel emissions on school buses. 

The message is simple, Maccabee said. “We need to stop business as usual. Air pollution is putting our children in harm’s way.”

Elizabeth Dickinson

Elizabeth Dickinson takes a stand against coal-burning power plants. Photo Dawn Villella

Elizabeth Dickinson followed her nose into the environmental movement. “I noticed a terrible, burning, acrid, chemical smell when I was coming home from work every evening,” she recalled. Dickinson thinks she was probably getting a whiff of Xcel’s High Bridge coal plant, so near to her West Side St. Paul home she can see the smokestacks out the window. 

Dickinson joined the West Side Citizen Organization’s (WSCO) environmental committee and began mobilizing her neighbors. She helped to organize a forum about the health effects of coal-burning power plants. But she felt she needed to do more. She targeted the legislature, testifying in hearings on behalf of a 2001 POWER Campaign bill that would have reduced mercury emissions from coal plants. 

Although supported by 50 different environmental and consumer groups, “the bill got decimated,” Dickinson recalled. “I saw that if anything was for the environment, they were voting it down.”

Frustrated with legislative inaction, Dickinson decided to return to grassroots organizing. She worked with WSCO to form a metro-wide coalition called “Clean Energy Now” to clean up the plants. The group mobilized a massive lawn sign campaign kickoff on April 13 to raise awareness of the health risk of Xcel’s coal plants. 

“If I don’t take a stand against coal burning in my neighborhood, then I am tacitly giving the polluting corporations my permission to continue,” she said. “Xcel is never going to voluntarily completely clean up their plants. It’s the citizens who have to stand up and make a lot of noise.”

Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler’s mid-life crisis response was not the stereotypical lose-the-business-suit-and-buy-a-motorcycle. When she turned 46 she got breast cancer — and she became an environmental activist.

Although Schuler had worked for environmental causes since the 1980s, she now works full time for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) on food issues. Schuler helped organize two Women’s Cancer Resource Center’s conferences on cancer and the environment. The more she learned about environmental toxins, the more concerned she became about a connection to rising incidences of children’s cancer. 

“So many children are getting cancer, and that shouldn’t be happening,” said Schuler. “They don’t have high fat diets and they don’t smoke.”

Armed with a strong will and a curious mind, Schuler was determined to tackle the problem. She refocused her work at the IATP to include children’s health. Schuler also joined the Minnesota Children’s Health Environmental Coalition and developed a curriculum to teach parents how to reduce environmental health risks to their children by buying more environmentally safe household products. In the past two years, Schuler and her partner have taught this class to 30 different groups.

Schuler also coordinated Integrative Pest Management programs to reduce pesticide spraying in schools, and helped get the Janet B. Johnson Pesticide Notification bill — the first attempt to regulate pesticide spraying in Minnesota — passed in 2000.

“We need to educate ourselves and then get involved politically,” Schuler said. “We have to work extra hard as citizens to get our voices heard.”

Carol Johnson

She may look like a grandmother, but when it comes to environmental activism, Johnson has unique and timeless energy. For the past four years, she has demonstrated innovative Earth Friendly cleaning products, teaching more than 5,500 church members, students, community activists and professionals in Minnesota how to detoxify their homes by using natural, and often edible, cleaning products.

Johnson started raising awareness about the cancer-causing chemicals found in homes after she found a lump in her breast.

As Johnson began looking for an explanation for her cancer, she turned to her personal history and to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center for answers. What she learned was that the cancer could have been a result of exposure to DDT on her family’s farm, or the radiation in x-rays for her teeth, or the lead-based paint used on her house.

“You can only explain breast cancers 20-30 percent of the time,” she explained.

At the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, Johnson discovered that many household chemicals — from chlorinated bleach to pesticides —  could cause cancer. She decided one of the first things to do was get rid of suspicious chemicals in her own home. 

“Of the 85,000 chemicals introduced since World War I, only five percent have been tested for health risk,” Johnson points out. “Industry has been putting every roadblock in the way to keep from getting testing done.”

Right now Johnson is collaborating on a “Right to Know” bill in the state legislature that would prohibit the release of cancer-causing chemicals or toxins that cause reproductive harm into our drinking water.

In her work at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, Johnson has also coordinated two toxic industry bus tours that opened the eyes of dozens of Minnesotans to the pollution-creating corporations in our own backyard. The tours took participants to the True Green Chemlawn plant, Koch Refinery, the Hennepin County incinerator, Xcel Energy’s coal-burning power plants and Polaris Industries. At each stop she provided detailed information on how the pollutants the plants produced affect our lives. 

“We’re coming up against the corporate desire for profit over everything else,” Johnson warned. “That’s why I’ll probably grow old and wrinkled, and I’ll still be out there.”

Jean Wagenius

In her 16 years on the House Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, Wagenius said she’s come to realize that “the biggest fight is keeping our good environmental laws intact and having enough money to make them workable. The budget cuts are falling hard in the environmental area. The people who should be protecting the environment are not doing their jobs.”

Wagenius points the finger at the state’s Pollution Control Agency and her fellow lawmakers. 

“According to the Pollution Control Agency, if the coal plants were brought up to the 1970 Clean Air Act standards, we would prevent 250 deaths a year in Minnesota,” Wagenius said. “There’s no pressure on the state to do that and there has to be. I think my taxpayers would be floored to learn that the head of the Pollution Control Agency, Karen Studders, believes that Minnesota should rely on volunteerism to solve our emerging pollution problems. In essence, this means that the polluters choose whether or not to pollute.” 

The government’s failure to reduce toxic pollution in the water stream is hypocritical, Wagenius charged.

“We’re not protecting the very thing that’s one of our backbones. One-third of our lakes are not fishable or swimmable.”

Until his death in 1999, state Senator Willard Munger was the “great protector” of Minnesota’s environment. He was a strong environmentalist and people relied on him, but that reliance may have weakened the environmental community, Wagenius speculated. Armed with a sharp intellect and a giving soul, Wagenius has become the environment’s newest legislative protector. But she’s not working alone.

“In the past two years, there’s been a real refocusing on environmental issues,” Wagenius said. “It’s partly due to Paula Maccabee. There is old environmental leadership. … I’m not discouraged because I see this leadership. As long as people get out and vote for the environment things will change — for the better.”

April 2002

Editor’s Note:

Minnesota Women’s Press shared this story with Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that advocates at the legislature for policies that support the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, to get a picture of how advocacy around clean energy has changed in two decades. They offered the below statement:

“Stories like this really make it clear how far we’ve come — but also how far we need to go to continue building an equitable, clean energy future for all Minnesotans. Today, organizations like Fresh Energy and clean energy advocates around the state are pushing hard for fossil-powered coal and gas plants, which we create health- and climate-harming emissions, to wind down and close.
The message is no longer to “clean up dirty coal plants,” but it is to create timelines to close them entirely and bring online more renewable and carbon-free energy faster.
Last year, 2023, was a landmark year in Minnesota for clean energy and climate. Governor Tim Walz signed the 100% clean electricity bill into law which commits all utilities to provide their Minnesota customers with 100% carbon free electricity by 2040 — this is a really big deal. And as the transition to clean energy continues and we electrify everything that we can, like home heating, transportation, and more, it’s crucial that the electricity we’re using comes from carbon-free and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. To that end, the 100% bill was a foundational piece of equitable economy-wide decarbonization that will help Minnesota meet its emissions reduction goals.”