Genial Grandmother Is 'Top Gun' in Environmental Activism
Published on Sunday, October 21, 2001 by the Associated Press
Genial Grandmother Is 'Top Gun' in Environmental Activism
by Sharon Cohen
ON THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI -- When the call came, she stepped into her silver Impala and drove through sugar cane fields that sprout like bamboo curtains. She was greeted by a mystery, poison and sick people.

It was a familiar scenario for Wilma Subra. This time it was the people of Myrtle Grove Trailer Park in southern Louisiana with the problem: Their drinking water had high levels of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing chemical.

Wilma Subra
Wilma Subra
(Louisiana Environmental Action Network)
They wanted to know how long their wells had been contaminated. They worried about rashes, headaches, stomach pains, miscarriages. They turned to Subra for answers. She didn't disappoint them. "When you leave a Wilma meeting, at least you understand something," says community activist Albertha Hasten. "She makes you feel like you're not illiterate, like you didn't come from the poor side of town. She makes you feel like you're special."

For two decades, Wilma Subra, a chemist by trade and environmental crusader by reputation, has helped more than 800 communities--many of them poor towns along the Mississippi River--take on or fend off polluters.

Pick a spot along the Mississippi that's polluted, and chances are she knows what poisons lurk in the soil or water, how they got there and whether they're being cleaned up.

"She's like a champion when she goes into a community," says Marylee Orr, head of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, an umbrella of grass-roots groups. "She's larger than life."

But stop if you're imagining a stiletto-heeled, miniskirted Erin Brockovich type. It's sensible sandals and gray knit for Wilma Subra, who looks like--and is--a genial grandmother.

She's also a no-sass, all-sober scientist who has lectured at Harvard, testified before Congress, helped draft environmental laws, consulted on cancer clusters and toxic spills, fought sugar cane growers and landfill operators--and, in return, joined the elite club of MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipients.

Even opponents offer kind words.

"Wilma is a top gun for the environmental movement," says Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Assn., a business trade group.

"They like me because I'm a lot easier to deal with than the 'radicals,' " Subra confides with a Mona Lisa smile.

Her friend Doris Falkenheiner says Subra's soft-spoken ways allow her to be blunt without making enemies.

"She can say things in a way where people understand them intellectually and don't want to hit her," says Falkenheiner, a lawyer who has called upon Subra's expertise. "I can say X, Y and Z, and someone will want to throw me off the bridge."

Though Subra works across the nation, much of her focus has been the 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that environmentalists call "Cancer Alley," where chemical and fertilizer plants and refineries pump out tens of millions of pounds of pollutants each year.

"Knowing how people use the river as a sewer makes me angry and frustrated," Subra says, warily eyeing swirling dust clouds as grain is loaded onto a river barge.

Here, miles of smoke-belching pipes stretch across the horizon, the stench of oil hovers in the air and refinery plumes glow in the night like giant eerie candles.

Here, Subra is a general surveying a battlefield.

She knows the enemy: toxins like benzene, toluene, xylene, dioxin.

She knows the terrain: where each landfill and every medical waste incinerator is located.

And she knows the casualties: the thousands of people along bayous and back roads who have asthma, skin rashes, nerve damage or cancer and believe it's connected to their environment.

Some blame lifestyle, such as cigarette smoking, for these ills. Subra disagrees. "It's the chemicals," she insists.

In the Myrtle Grove Trailer Park in Iberville Parish, about a dozen miles south of Baton Rouge, the state capital, residents asked Subra this spring to investigate vinyl chloride in the wells.

Recently filed lawsuits maintain the state knew of high levels of the chemical in wells at a nearby park for more than three years before test results this spring informed the public.

"It's like you woke up one morning and there was a horrible green monster, and you didn't understand it," Subra explains.

Wilma Subra, the scientist, knew what questions to answer, what records to request and how to explain the findings to frightened people.

Wilma Subra, the activist, pressed for more tests to determine the source of the chemical.

She never leads a community's fight, but provides facts, savvy and, at times, backbone for those who do. "If you do all the walking and talking," she says, "you're just another hired gun."

The 57-year-old former teacher urges others to dig up facts themselves, then helps them compose their testimony to be read at public hearings--sometimes 50 speeches in a single meeting.

"They have to have ownership," she explains.

Subra gets dirty, too, if necessary. She wades knee-deep in oil-caked swamps and trudges through flooded rice fields to gather samples she analyzes in her lab.

About 75% of the time she works for free. She pays her bills heading a three-person chemical testing firm in New Iberia, where her clients include food companies. Wilma Subra, the microbiologist, can analyze hot sauce too.

In 20 years she has helped defeat landfills in Louisiana, Illinois and Utah. She has gotten hundreds of dumps and oil field waste areas cleaned up. And she was instrumental in forcing industry to report more specifically on what it releases into the Mississippi.

Some critics say her activism deprives communities of jobs.

She has faced setbacks too: A 15-year fight to stop an incinerator failed. A two-decade effort to relocate black residents who live next to a refinery has been unsuccessful.

And she's convinced that a string of break-ins at her office was related to her work. The burglar always ate from her refrigerator--and may have been trying to send her a message, police said. But she and her husband took it in stride.

"Wilma, who are you harassing this time?" he would tease when another call from the cops came in to her home near New Iberia.

Over the years, Subra says one of the most persistent problems she has faced has been environmental racism--a tendency for polluting industries to locate in poor, minority areas where they think residents won't put up a fight.

When a company called Shintech Inc. proposed a $700-million plastics plant near the predominantly black community of Convent, La., a few years ago, Subra was asked by local folks to investigate the possible consequences. She concluded it would release dangerous chemicals into the air and water.

When she met with ministers who were promised the plant would bring desperately needed jobs, she was blunt.

"How many people in your congregation can pass a drug test?" she asked. "How many people can meet the job requirements?"

"They realized the jobs weren't going to be theirs," she says, "but the pollution was."

Copyright 2001 Associated Press