FEATURED VOLUNTEER: Ross Vincent
Executive Committee Chair, Sangre de Christo Group, Rocky Mountain Chapter
By Mary Coday Edwards
“The reason the Club is as influential as it is is because we win a lot of battles and that’s because we choose our battles, we fight them well and we engage a whole lot of other people in the conversation and ultimately persuade them that what we want to do is the right thing even if they want the right thing for different reasons than us. It means we have to put ourselves in a position to be heard and we have to express ourselves in ways that make people want to listen,” said Ross, who along with his wife, a physician, moved to Pueblo 25 years ago from New Orleans.
They thought they were moving to something resembling an environmental nirvana, the illusion abruptly shattered when, after living in Pueblo only a couple months, the two attended a Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting sponsored by his wife’s clinic. The speaker was then president of the City Council, who was asked by a member of the audience what the City Council was going to do about the Army’s plans to burn chemical weapons right outside of town.
“Coming from the petrochemical corridor,” said Ross, a chemical engineer originally from Delaware, “where incinerators are nightmares for just about everybody who lives near them, my wife and I looked at each other and groaned.” And there went nirvana.
Taking on the Army – and Winning
“I knew that all the impacts were local but that all the decisions were being made someplace else - most of them in Washington or in northern Virginia.” That’s what got Ross started. He began to look around for the best means to tackle this issue and ended up settling on the Sierra Club.
“The rest is history,” he said, “I’ve been at it ever since – a quarter of a century. We were lucky enough to get plugged into a group of people from other sites, and for a while there were even some people from Russia because they had a similar problem. We created a group in 1991 called the Chemical Weapons Working Group that consisted of representatives from all eight of the domestic chemical weapons sites. We set about trying to get the Army to look at alternatives [technologies] to incineration because we knew they were there. The Army had refused to even think about other options because the chain of command had said ‘you’re going to incinerate these things’. When you have a command structure like that the only way to change it is to get new orders from above; those had to come from either the President or the Congress.”
Ross on a tour of coal bed methane
fracking areas with local residents
near Stonewall, Colorado. Photo
courtesy of Velma Campbell.
When tackling “the largest bureaucracy in the world,” setbacks can be expected. Congress passed legislation requiring the Army to look at other alternatives, which they did – to a limited extent. Not happy with the Army’s conclusions, Congress passed more legislation – this time taking the process away from the Army. “They gave it to the DOD [Department of Defense] … which was a huge slap on the wrist for the Army.”
A program was designed that separated it entirely “from the people who had been making all of these bad decisions for so many years. But it only applied in Colorado and Kentucky because our Senators were the only ones who had sponsored the bill. The senators from the other states [where chemical weapons sites were located] didn’t sign off.”
The DOD then hired the Keystone Center to pull together a dialogue of people from the chemical weapons sites in each of the states, and appropriate personnel from some of the states’ regulatory agencies. “They set us down and said, ‘how are we going to fix this problem? What are we going to do about it?’ It was an amazing exercise. It lasted almost three years. At the end we ended up with RFPs [request for proposals] that would be used by the Army to solicit proposals from vendors for technologies to evaluate. For the first time and as far as I know the last time – ever – ordinary citizens from effected communities were on the inside of the procurement process, which is normally closed. They were part of the discussions where they put together the criteria that would be built into that RFP. Those people continued to work on the inside during the review of the proposals that came back - there was an extraordinary level of public involvement. We came out the other end with a consensus on how it ought to be approached and because of the way the legislation was written it then came down to a choice at both of those sites - here and in Kentucky – about whether to go with incineration or one of the five or six technologies that would work successfully.”
At each of these sites, Congress had also authorized the establishment of a Citizens Advisory Commission, appointed by the governor, which Ross is still a member of. “Our Citizens Advisory Commission voted initially 4-4 – tied, incineration versus using new technology. Then a very alert citizen in the audience jumped up – the chairman had voted for incineration – and ‘point of order’, she said, ‘unless there’s a tie the chairman shouldn’t be voting’.” The chairman had to withdraw his vote and “we won 4-3. We got them to change the technology they were going to use. Nobody thought that when we started we’d be able to do that.”
In a nutshell, this technology is hydrolysis followed by biotreatment.
“Mustard agent - which is the only agent we have here fortunately – reacts very quickly with water. If you warm it up it reacts even faster and then it breaks down. In essence, add water and stir became the technology instead of burn and distribute,” Ross said, “but now they want to introduce explosive detonation [technology] which is a sort of incineration on steroids. They love to blow things up.”
No Nuclear Plant Here
Ranking right up there with the chemical weapons technology change was stopping a proposed nuclear power plant in eastern Pueblo County in 2011.
“We got significant help from the Chapter -- notably Joan Seeman and Becky English. We built an incredible coalition of activists that included, for example, one of the key local Tea Party leaders. It was the first major organizing effort here where social media played a major role in getting people activated and we had the largest turnout ever for two nights of public hearing before the County Commissioners, who voted 3-0 to deny the Special Use Permit that the promoters had asked for,” Ross said.
Cleaning the Crud from the Creek
Ross Vincent on the steps of the Pueblo
County Courthouse, where EPA was
announcing a grant for an air toxics
education program. Photo courtesy of
Colorado Springs has been using Fountain Creek, which runs through downtown Pueblo, as “the dumping ground for its sewage. It came to a head when there was a major spill, in 2003 to ‘04, that dumped a huge amount of sewage into the creek. When we went back and looked at the history, it turns out that over seven years they had dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into this little creek.
“So the Club sued them, as did our district attorney [DA]. In fact, we were getting ready to sue them and the DA called and asked, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ We [SC] suggested he file a citizen’s suit under the Clean Water Act. We both ended up suing through the federal courts which lasted for about three years. They still haven’t cleaned it up but it’s a lot better than it was.”
Thoughts on the Future
“It’s been a long time since the Club has been able to win major battles on its own. It is about developing enough of a consensus to convince political leaders that they need to move in a direction different than one they would otherwise take and that takes a lot of people. We need a lot of help from other organizations and not just environmental organizations, but from a whole lot of people who believe in us. When we’re trying to convince people of the righteous nature of what we’re trying to accomplish we don’t do that simply with intellectual arguments. People don’t respond to ideas as much as they respond to people. And so I believe it’s very important for the Sierra Club not just to talk about the issues, not just to be right on the issues, but to show the rest of the world, certainly our membership, who we are,” Ross said.
“Trees and wildlife don’t vote – people do, and the policies that effect the environment are made by people … often those who get elected, and so if we want to make a difference we’ve got to make sure that those who ultimately get to make the decisions understand there are a lot of other people standing behind us and they will do that only if they know who we [Sierra Club] are.”
Reflecting on what is most rewarding to him, Ross said it was “watching other people learn how to fend for themselves in these complex public policy arenas because when that happens, they take off and they do things and they make things happen. And that’s how we win, that’s how we win battles. If it was just up to the SC, and even worse, just up to me, we’d lose every time. The only way we win major victories -and we’ve won quite a few - is by convincing other people to step up and take responsibility. When I see that happening that’s where the real reward comes.”
If you would like to be part of what the Sangre de Christo Group is up to, contact Ross Vincent.
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