"If not us, who? If not now, when?"
Expertise: Public health, epidemiology, records research and community organizing
Region: Southeast Ohio
Dick Wittberg experienced a profound professional shift when he left behind a career in the lumber industry to pursue a position in public health. It was a decision largely influenced by his experiences with and concern over the consequences of manganese exposure due to the emissions of Elkem Metals (now Eramet). Eramet, Washington County's second largest employer, refined manganese for use in the steel industry and was the source of odors that had plagued the community for decades. Dick wanted answers to questions about how manganese in his community's air might be affecting people, especially children, and he wasn't finding any. In 1999 with the help of the USEPA and the University of Quebec, he designed and conducted a rudimentary study comparing school children in Marietta with matched counterparts in nearby Athens, in terms of their cognition, balance and other indicators of possible exposure to manganese. His study showed Marietta students had significantly worse balance, visual contrast sensitivity, memory and academic performance. The study was always intended to be a pilot and was too small to stand on its own, but suggested that further scrutiny was desperately needed.
In 2005 when Washington county was reported by the Associated Press to have the worst health risk from air pollution in the nation, Dick learned of a local group working to address the issue and joined their cause. This small band of activists became Neighbors for Clean Air and in 2006 launched a formal good neighbor campaign with Ohio Citizen Action, directed at Eramet. Dick's ability to plow through and make sense of volumes of highly technical documents, his knowledge of human biology and epidemiology and his tenacity were key to the neighbor's victory in August, 2008 when Eramet announced plans to invest $150 million to improve environmental performance at the plant.
Dick is the Executive Director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, WV and lives in Marietta with his wife Dawn and their two children.