Interview with CHE Partner, Wilma Subra
New Iberia, Louisiana
Steve Heilig: Tell us about your background and how you came to do the work you do.
I have a master’s degree in chemistry and microbiology. I worked for a research institute for 14 years after completing my master’s degree. Over and over again as the research institute performed investigations and evaluations of environmental stressors causing human health impacts, there was a lack of ability to provide the developed information directly to the impacted communities. The community members were not the clients for the studies and investigations. Federal or state agencies were the clients.
Image: Wilma Subra (center) with community members at the Agriculture Street Landfill Superfund site in New Orleans.
As a result, I identified the desperate need for technical assistance to be provided directly to the impacted communities. In 1981, I formed my own company to provide technical assistance on environmental and environmental human health impacts to community members.
What is the primary mission and work of your organization?
For the past 25 years Subra Company has provided technical assistance to community groups and individuals who are dealing with environmental and environmental justice issues and the associated human and ecological health impacts. The education and empowerment of groups with the information and knowledge they need to make informed community decisions is one of the major focuses of the technical assistance. The issues have ranged from cancer clusters and their associated potential causes; hazardous, solid, oil field and radioactive waste situations; air, water and soil pollution and associated impacts; industrial facility impacts on environmental justice communities; relocation of fenceline communities; landfill, incineration and injection well technologies for waste treatment and disposal; Superfund sites and many other situations dealing with the cumulative impacts of environmental stressors on human health.
Examples of a few of the recent successes attained by the communities that were provided technical assistance are:
- Relocation of a number of fenceline communities away from adjacent polluting industrial facilities to more health environments.
- Relocation of residential communities previously located on top of contaminated waste.
- Enactment of local toxic air quality regulations that are more stringent than state and federal regulations that will improve the air quality in environmental justice communities in a number of states.
- Broadened the focus of environmental justice communities to address cumulative stressors impacting the health of the communities rather than a single facility of issue focus.
- Identification of previously unknown pollutants, their concentrations and aerial extent, and pollutant sources in a number of residential neighborhoods that were experiencing human health impacts.
- Expanded and defined the extent of ground water pollutants under a number of communities that were using the contaminated ground water as drinking water sources. Worked with the local governmental agencies in providing alternative sources of drinking water to community members.
- Negotiated with responsible parties to achieve a more extensive cleanup, a cleaner cleanup more protective of the community, and more community considerate and less community threatening cleanup activities at a number of sites through the United States.
What are the most striking recent developments in your area of work?
In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina on August 29, and Rita on September 24, devastated the coastal states of the Gulf of Mexico (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas). The impacts on environmental justice communities and grass roots communities ranged from total loss of all earthly belongings (absence of homes and contents) to loss of contents and extensive damage of homes. Added to the burden of loss was the inability to return to homes, the need to seek alternative living accommodations outside the Gulf Coast Area, the loss of jobs, the lack of financial resources, and the loss of schools and churches. The environmental burden consisted of the lack of electricity, potable water and sewage treatment, the lack of health care, contaminated sediment sludge (contaminated with toxic heavy metals, Polynuclear Aromatic Hydrocarbons, and a host of microbiological organism), coating the surfaces of everything inside and outside, water soaked homes and contents with extensive mold growth on all surfaces.
The challenges are communicating the risk to community members returning to their community and to those still residing outside the area, assuring the community members have a right to return to a safe and healthy environment, providing information that community members need to make decisions about their future and the rebuilding of their lives, assisting community members in obtaining jobs in a devastated job marked, assisting community members is obtaining needed redevelopment labor, resources, protective gear, life essential supplies, health care and an endless list of other needs.
What are some major lessons you’ve learned in pursuing your goals?
Communities are desperate for information on environmental impacts as they relate to human health. Information is needed by the communities to educate themselves and other stakeholders and on which to base informed and credible community decisions. At the same time the communities have the most knowledge about their communities and have a host of assets that enable them to support and sustain the community in spite of great adversities. While providing communities with the needed technical information, efforts must be made to develop mechanisms to support and build on the assets existing within the communities.
Each of us possess talents that are desperately needed by communities. The communities can benefit from our input, experiences and expertise. But we must all remember that we do not own these communities. We are merely a resource on which the communities build their base of knowledge and make progress on the issues that most impact their health and quality of life.
What do you see as the biggest need in environmental health and major obstacles to that goal?
- Building the capacity of communities to understand and deal with environmental and human health impacts and stressors.
- Need for health care professionals to provide health care services to the vulnerable individuals in the communities. There also exists a need for medical experts to evaluate community health impacts and make the links to potential causes and exposures. Medical professionals who are treating the community need to be engaged in tracking and evaluating environmental conditions that may cause acute as well as chronic health impacts.
- Technical assistance to enable communities to initiate and participate in community based participatory research to address their environmental and human health stressors and reduce or remove the negative impacts.
Has CHE been useful to you in your work?
CHE consists of and has provided the technical expertise to assist communities in dealing with a host of environmental and human health related situations. Through the newsletters and conference calls CHE has provided information to a host of experts who have responded to specific situations in communities.
The ability to focus on specific community needs and to link the technical experts with the communities is an extremely valuable role that CHE has and continues to play.
Posted: 17 August 2006