October 15, 2003

Dayton Daily News masthead

A victory for all the little guys

by Mary McCarty


We've seen Norma Rae, Erin Brokovich, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, all those feel-good movies in which the little guy takes on the Powers That Be and prevails.

There's part of us that has relegated these movies to the realm of fantasy, of entertainment. They're fun to watch, but this sort of thing rarely happens in real life.

And that's what makes the photograph on the front page of Tuesday's Dayton Daily News so astonishing. It shows a small group of citizens linking hands, arms upraised, sheer jubilation on their faces. It could be the perfect closing frame for a movie, but this is real life. A citizens group celebrating the news that the U.S. Army has canceled its contract with Perma-Fix to treat the neutralized VX nerve agent at the plant in the Jefferson Twp. community of Drexel.

"We didn't want to kill Goliath, we wanted Goliath to go in the middle of nowhere," said activist Willa Bronston. "Disposing of the nerve agent is an important job, but it shouldn't be done in such a populated area."

Drexel residents became outraged upon learning the Army had not performed the required environmental impact study on the site, even though people live across the street from the Perma-Fix plant (not to mention more than 2,000 residents in close proximity). The Army conducted two exhaustive environmetal impact studies on the effect of disposing the agent in rural Newport, Ind -- where the nearest resident is 2.6 miles away.

If Army officials figured that Drexel would be easy pickings, they figured wrong. In July, residents filed a federal lawsuit against the Army, claiming it failed to conduct the required environmental impact study.

"This shows if people get themselves organized and don't mind taking it to the hoop, they can win," said Ellis Jacobs, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Dayton and the lead attorney in the lawsuit.

The citizen activists invariably laugh when asked, "Are you the next Erin Brokovich?"

"There were many Erin Brockoviches," said activist Mary Johnson, referring to an extraordinarily broad-based coalition that transcended racial, geographic and political barriers.

If Hollywood does a casting call, Johnson knows which actress she'd pick to play herself: "Alfre Woodard. She has that nitty-gritty tenacious spirit."

It took a tremendous amount of tenacity for the core group of a dozen or so volunteers to defeat the proposal. [Willa] Bronston and Johnson, both retired, worked more than full-time during the past year. 'We'd have been into overtime,' Bronston noted. One day they worked from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., starting out with breakfast with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and ending at dinner with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the end, they persuaded some 36 governmental bodies and community groups to draft resolutions opposing the treatment of VX at Perma-Fix.

For the record, Hollywood hasn't called. But Jacobs knows what he'd call the movie if he were the producer: Anybody Can Do This. "people too often roll over for injustice, but they don't have to," he said.