The story of last year’s passage of the first major piece of new environmental legislation in 20 years, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, is much like the story of almost any new legislation. Among advocates, we saw courageous risk taking, smart strategizing, and deep solidarity as well as strained relationships, crossed signals, and institutional infighting. Yes, the sausage making is always messy, and no one escapes the process without at least some gunk on their shoes.
Improving Our Game
But the question at the end of the day is always whether the gains outweigh the costs. Our foundations—the Forsythia Foundation, the John Merck Fund, the Marisla Foundation, the Passport Foundation, and the Fine Fund—joined together to evaluate years of funding and advocacy work leading up to the new law. We wanted to identify lessons that could improve all our work going forward. The Health and Environmental Funders Network organized and framed the evaluation and Tom Novick of M+R conducted it.
Just one of the findings that emerged from the dozens of interviews conducted for the evaluation was that even some of the law’s harshest critics concede that EPA’s enhanced authority to review chemicals, requirements to consider disproportionately exposed and disproportionately vulnerable populations, and legally enforceable deadlines represent a meaningful improvement over existing law.
Winning the Win
At a time when progress in Washington is measured in inches rather than miles, we and our funding partners congratulate the committed and tireless advocates who won this decade-long battle to finally give our toxics laws some bite. How much bite will depend on how effectively we all work to implement the law, which brings us back to the fallout from the sausage making: Recognizing that the coming regulatory battles will be determinative, we’ve already begun to see the environmental health advocacy community repair strained relationships, improve communications and coordination, and build on the momentum of this victory.
But in an administration that’s eviscerating public health and environmental protections, advocates and funders need to work harder and smarter and be more strategic and united than the other side. We need to continue to mobilize the broad grassroots and grasstops coalition that produced the law, marshal our best and brightest minds (particularly legal minds to enlist the courts), and communicate more effectively.
Urgency of Now
As funders and advocates, we need to do even more to recommit to working closely together—even when we don’t see eye to eye. The toxics advocacy community possesses extraordinary political and strategic resources—after all, it forced one of the world’s most powerful industries to the negotiating table and extracted meaningful concessions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In our experience, that strategic brilliance shines brightest when our small community works together identifying collective goals, sharing intelligence, marshalling supporters, and pooling contacts and relationships.
The new toxics law could be an effective tool for future administrations to protect the public from toxic chemicals. Whether those administrations will have that tool depends on what we do now.
Herbert “Beto” Bedolfe, Executive Director of the Marisla Foundation, was one of Oceana’s founders and led the organization from 2002 until 2008. Under his leadership, Oceana’s efforts led to many victories for the oceans including the protection of over 640 million acres of ocean habitat from destructive bottom trawling.
Carolyn Fine Friedman is Chair of the Fine Fund, which supports organizations using complementary strategies to eliminate toxic chemicals from humans and the ecosystem. Carolyn is a steering committee member of the Health and Environmental Funders Network and a member of Rachel’s Network, which supports women using philanthropy to enhance their environmental activism.
Shelley Hearne is Forsythia Foundation’s Executive Director. She has a wealth of experience in building the environmental health and public health advocacy fields. She is also a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the senior advisor to the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents the leaders of America’s largest urban health departments.
Ruth Hennig, Executive Director of the John Merck Fund, has worked in the environmental field for more than 25 years. Ruth’s philanthropic contributions include working in management roles at the Health and Environment Funders Network, the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity.
Janet Maughan is a veteran philanthropic executive and advisor with the Passport Foundation. In her work with philanthropies, she has concentrated on global environmental, sustainability and development issues, as well as public health and poverty.