A 'hysterical housewife' reflects on 39 years of environmental activism

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In 1978, Riverside County resident Penny Newman found out her two little boys had been exposed to toxic waste at their elementary school in what is now Jurupa Valley.

It was an especially rainy winter, and the flood control channels beside the school were coursing with water. But there was something odd about it: a stiff foam floated on the surface. Her boys played with the foam, shaping it into beards.

It wasn’t until later that Newman learned the water had overflowed from a hazardous waste dump uphill from the school called the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and that it contained cancer-causing chemicals.

"Because of my ignorance, I had allowed my kids to be put in a position of danger,” she recalled.

Newman’s battle to learn what had happened, and to get the pits cleaned up, would lead to a nearly 40-year career in environmental activism in the Inland Empire. Now she’s retiring from the organization she founded to run for public office.

'I took the agencies at their word'

Newman did not intend to become an environmental activist. She was terrified of public speaking.

“I would practice all day long to make a phone call to the utility to ask a question about a bill. I had to practice because I was so afraid of talking,” she recalled.

She also trusted the government was acting in her best interest. Her husband had been a fireman. Her mother had been the mayor of Perris — its first female mayor. So when she learned that the floods of 1978 weren’t an accident — that the regional water quality control board had, in fact, authorized the release of contaminated water into her community to prevent an even larger, more catastrophic flood— she couldn’t believe it.

“It never occurred to me that that could happen,” she said. “The disillusionment was hard to deal with.”

At first, she blamed herself. She had heard about the hazardous waste dump in the old quarries above the town years earlier but had been told by officials that it was safe.

“I took the agencies at their word, so I kind of just forgot about it,” she said.

Now, her kids who had a history of asthma were getting sick, complaining of head and stomach aches.

“And I know as an individual that it wasn’t my fault they were exposed, but in a way it was because I didn’t play a role in how decisions were made. I chose to sit at home in my little cocoon and pretend everything was fine,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s very hard to go back and tell that story because it brings up all those feelings of the fear, the guilt.”

Activist, or 'hysterical housewife?'

Around this time, the tools for cleaning up toxic sites like Stringfellow were brand new. In 1980, Congress created Superfund, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency the power to  clean up contaminated areas and then go after polluters for the cost. The Stringfellow Acid Pits were on the agency’s first-ever list of Superfund sites published in 1983.

Newman organized a group of  worried parents to demand EPA and state agencies use this new tool to clean up the site. Her approach to activism came out of her concern for her family, not out of an interest in the environment. And her tactics reflected her role as a mother. 

“Organizing is like working with kids,” she said. “You ask [officials] to do something, you give them a timeline. If they don’t do it, there’s a consequence. If they do it, there’s a reward.”

When she learned the EPA was threatening to cut funding for a staff member working on the Stringfellow clean up, Newman organized a dime drive on his behalf. She called it "Dimes for Joe." She delivered the coins to the EPA's office in Sacramento, knowing the agency wouldn't be able to accept her money, but also knowing it would draw attention to the lack of funding.

"She was really good strategically," said Lois Gibbs, who led the clean up of the toxic Love Canal in upstate New York. "Who else would have collected dimes for Joe and understood they couldn't take it, and set up this dynamic where, 'We can't take your money, but we can't afford Joe?'"

It was effective. Marcia Smith, who worked for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control at the time, recalled cringing when she answered the phone and it Newman was on the other line, “because I knew I was going to have to be accountable and answer hard questions.”

But being a female activist in the 1980s, when most regulators and elected officials were men, was often frustrating. At best, they were dismissive, calling female activists “hysterical housewives.”

At worst, they ogled them. Gibbs recalled a strategy Newman developed for dealing with unwanted attention.

“Every time they look at you like they’re undressing you with their eyes, just focus on their crotch, their zipper. They think the barn door’s open, and they don’t know, and they don’t want to touch it to find out, so they go away,” she said, laughing.

Moving on from Stringfellow

As the legal wrangling over the Stringfellow clean up wound down – as lead plaintiff in a lawsuit, Newman won the residents of Glen Avon (which is now Jurupa Valley) over $100 million in damages – Newman broadened her focus. She joined up with Gibbs, who by then had formed her own environmental justice organization, and traveled around the country, advising other communities and activists dealing with their own Superfund or toxic waste sites.

“She had the history,” Gibbs said of Newman. “She understood when someone said to her, ‘I can’t do this because I have a sick son at home,’ she can say, ‘Forget it.  I have a sick son and I did it.’ So there was this immediate credibility.”

By the early 1990s, Newman decided she wanted to stop traveling so much and return to Riverside County. She realized chemical exposures in the Inland Empire were widespread. In particular, she was concerned about groundwater because a plume of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, had been detected in an aquifer beneath Rialto. So she founded the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ).

Unlike older, mainstream environmental groups operating in Southern California at the time, Newman’s group was driven by very personal concerns about personal and public health.

“They’re not interest groups,” explained Mark Lopez, who heads up East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in Los Angeles. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m interested in the environment, let me go join that group.’ It’s, ‘I’m affected by this, my babies are affected by this, this is my issue.’”

Smog, jobs and diesel trucks

As warehouses began to gobble up vacant land in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, CCAEJ shifted its focus to air pollution. The logistics industry – moving imported goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to warehouses and beyond – has boomed since 2011. It is responsible for more than one in five jobs created in the Inland Empire since then, according to economist John Husing with the Inland Economic Development Partnership.

But that growth has meant a proliferation of diesel trucks driving through neighborhoods that already breathe some of the smoggiest air in the country. Sea breezes blow smog east from Los Angeles into the Inland Empire, trapping dirty air against the San Bernardino Mountains.

That worries Newman, who has opposed many warehouse projects on the grounds that they add to the pollution burden. She said she feels similarly today to the way she did  in 1978: there’s a threat to her community, and she wants a say in how it gets resolved. She said that’s why she has decided to run for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. It’s a crowded race for an open seat in District Two against five other candidates. The election is next June.

“Who it is that sits at that table needs to understand their responsibility. They have to be grounded in the community. That’s the most important piece,” she said.

But Husing, the economist, worries that as supervisor Newman would try to kill the one bright spot in the region’s economy.

“I wouldn’t put her in any public office,” he said. “Her advocacy is not to improve the projects, it’s to stop them.”

For Newman, running for office is the next step in a long career of harnessing her concern for her family and using it as a vehicle for change.

“How do you deal with all of the suffering you see and still be able to positively work forward?," she said. "I’ve learned how to take that, turn it into anger,and turn it into action.” 

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