Mighty acorns grow! BVHP environmental justice leaders meet with high-ranking EPA officials

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said his immediate priorities for the agency are restoring the role of science in developing rules and rebuilding morale. – Photo: Caroline Brehman

by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD

“Mighty oaks – from little acorns grow” is a 14th century English proverb that inspires us to never give up and to always remember that great things do indeed come from very small beginnings.

An adorable 8-year-old named Mari Copeny, crowned “Little Miss Flint,” wrote an endearing letter to an American president in March of 2016 from her home in Flint, Mich., requesting to meet with him about the public health crisis in her community.

President Barack Obama shared a truly adorable moment with Mari Copeny, aka Little Miss Flint, the 8-year-old girl who wrote him a letter asking to meet in person, when she travelled to Washington, D.C., to attend the congressional hearings on Gov. Rick Snyder’s failure to declare an emergency when lead leached from water pipes exposed thousands of residents – including Mari. This is directly parallel to the severe contamination in southeast San Francisco, where community-minded people like Arieann Harrison, Dr. Sumchai, Malik Washington and more constantly demand change. Out here, leaders do not listen. Keep making noise! – Photo: Pete Souza

April 25, 2016, marked the second anniversary of the Flint water crisis that began when the city drinking water source was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost saving measure. That ill-fated decision led to lead and bacterial contamination leaching into the faucets of homes and, five years later, nine charges of involuntary manslaughter.

A September 2015 research study conducted by pediatrician and public health expert Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha found the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels doubled citywide and tripled among those at highest risk of lead exposure. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Public Health countered by claiming blood lead levels had remained steady for children under the age of 16 since the city switched to Flint River.

Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha was the doctor who noticed elevation of lead-levels in children’s bodies following Flint’s switch from Lake Huron water to polluted Flint River water to cut costs – instead costing the health and well-being of up to 6,000 Flint residents. Results of the study were delivered to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling and City Administrator Natasha Henderson on Sept. 24, 2015. – Portrait: Robert Shetterly

Dr. Attisha and Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, president and CEO of Mott Children’s Center, met with Public Works Director Howard Croft on Sept. 21, 2015, and were told it would bankrupt the city to return to a clean drinking water source from Lake Huron.

Based on a database of blood tests collected from over 150 doctors and health care providers, Dr. Attisha’s research study recommended the city declare a public health emergency to secure additional federal government resources.

On Sept. 24, 2015, a coalition of health professionals representing the county Medical Society, Greater Flint Michigan Health Coalition and Community Health Network held a news conference in support of a public health advisory calling for a reconnection with Lake Huron as Flint’s water source.

Michigan Live reports, The doctors said they are issuing their recommendations, including an end to the use of the Flint River as a water source, because the city has so far failed to act.”

On April 25, 2016, President Barack Obama wrote back to Little Miss Flint, announcing he would be coming to town on May 4 to hear firsthand from vulnerable residents like Mari Copeny and receive briefings on federal efforts in place to respond to the needs of the people of Flint and speak directly with members of the Flint, Mich., community.

In 2019, at 11 years old, Mari Copeny received a Shorty Award for her activism in gaining national attention for the Flint water crisis – a crisis we must remember plagues Black communities all over the world. – Photo: Noam Galai

The Flint water crisis continues to inspire us as “little acorns grow.” A fairness hearing over the proposed partial settlement of $641 million in civil lawsuits filed by 150 Flint residents has been scheduled by a federal judge to be heard in July of 2021.

On Earth Day 2021 in San Francisco, Hunters Point community leaders, including Democratic County elected representative Gloria Berry, SF Bay View reporter Malik Washington and Marie Harrison Community Foundation founder Arieann Harrison, joined a broad coalition of environmental activists, doctors and lawyers on the steps of City Hall to call for a local public health emergency under California law applied to “any situation where urgent and immediate action is required to mitigate or prevent an adverse situation that threatens public health, property and the environment.”

As reported in the SF Bay View newspaper article “Why I am calling for a Local Health Emergency in San Francisco,” California Health and Safety Code Section 10108 includes a regulation enacted to facilitate immediate response to hazardous materials and spills and has been expanded to include ANY “imminent and proximate threat of the introduction of ANY contagious, infectious or communicable disease, chemical agent, noncommunicable biologic agent, toxin or radioactive element.”

The April 22, 2021, community led declaration of a local public health emergency declaration mirrors the Sept. 24, 2015, call by Flint residents, doctors and health officials for a public health advisory “to secure additional federal funding and resources … because the city has so far failed to act.”

Urinary toxic exposure screenings conducted by HP Biomonitoring on Hunters Point and Treasure Island residents offer proof of exposure and associated health effects when combined with geospatial mappings of clusters of environmentally linked cancers and diseases.

The April 22, 2021, community led declaration of a local public health emergency declaration mirrors the Sept. 24, 2015, call by Flint residents, doctors and health officials for a public health advisory “to secure additional federal funding and resources … because the city has so far failed to act.”

Urinary toxic exposure screenings conducted on Hunters Point and Treasure Island residents and workers offer ever expanding proof of exposure and associated health effects. Pin colors correspond to cancers documented to be linked to ionizing radiation, including: red, breast cancer; green, thyroid cancer and nodules; yellow, brain cancer and brain tumors; blue, cancers of the larynx, airways and lungs; white, leukemia, lymphoma and hematopoietic cancers; gold, cancers of the colon and reproductive organs – including uterine corpus and prostate; silver, basal cell carcinoma of skin; black, canine cancer deaths and canine fibrosarcoma. – Photo: Dr. Ahimsa Sumchai

The Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program mapping of documented cancer cases clustered around the Hunters Point Shipyard shows the greatest number of confirmed cases in the region of the shipyard’s historic entry at Third Street and Palou and along the western border of the chemical and radiation contaminated Parcel E shoreline. 

“I am requesting the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the findings of the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program that document three distinct clusters of human exposure and associated health effects in residents and workers within a one-mile radius of the federal Superfund system at the Hunters Point Shipyard including the Parcel E-2 landfill, Yosemite Slough and the joint naval base at Treasure Island. 

“These clusters identify the Superfund system to be the source of exposure and soil contaminants documented by the EPA to be present in shipyard soils are being detected in urinary toxic exposure screenings conducted on residents and workers beginning in 2019,” wrote Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, medical director and principal investigator in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and copied to EPA Region 9 Administrator Enrique Manzanilla on March 26, 2021.

On Thursday, May 5, 2021, a letter sent to Biden administration EPA Administrator Michael Regan requesting a meeting with federal EPA officials to present mounting evidence of community wide exposure to toxic dust generated by excavations being conducted on properties meeting federal Superfund criteria at Hunters Point, Yosemite Slough and Treasure Island was granted.

“At EPA, we know it’s not just about the cleanup. We’re leading with the mentality that environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive.” – Michael S. Regan, EPA administrator

Convened by Barry Breen, principal deputy assistant EPA administrator of the Office of Land and Emergency Management, the virtual meeting was attended by 15 high ranking federal and Region 9 EPA officials including Matthew Tejada, director of the Office of Environmental Justice, Greg Gervais, director of the Federal Facilities Restoration and Reuse and John Chestnut and Yolanda Sanchez of the Region 9 EPA.

The EPA Office of Land and Emergency Management provides policy, guidance and direction for the agency’s emergency response and toxic waste programs. OLEM governs the Office of Superfund Remediation and is charged with supporting local governments in redeveloping and reusing contaminated sites and responding to active hazardous waste sites and chemical releases through the Superfund program.

“At EPA, we know it’s not just about the cleanup. We’re leading with the mentality that environmental protection and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive.” – Michael S. Regan, EPA administrator

On Tuesday, May 3, 2021, Michael Regan made his first official trip to a Superfund site – this one in Des Moines, Iowa, the nation’s largest ethanol and biodiesel producer. On Friday, May 14, 2021, Regan cited failures to properly operate pollution controls and violations of the Clean Air Act in the decision to shut down an oil refinery in the US Virgin Islands for 60 days “due to multiple improperly conducted operations that present an imminent risk to public health.

EPA Director Michael Regan announced, These repeated incidents at the refinery have been and remain totally unacceptable … residents in St. Croix are already overburdened by pollution and other environmental harms.”

SF Bay View Health and Environmental Science Editor Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, MD, PD, founder and principal investigator for the Hunters Point Community Biomonitoring Program, founding chair of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard Restoration Advisory Board’s Radiological Subcommittee and contributor to the 2005 Draft Historical Radiological Assessment, can be reached at AhimsaPorterSumchaiMD@Comcast.net. Dr. Sumchai is medical director of Golden State MD Health & Wellness, a UCSF and Stanford trained author and researcher, and a member of the UCSF Medical Alumni Association Board of Directors.