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Eco-Activists Have Full Agenda This Semester

by Alyson Dame

It's easy to become cynical about activism at Oberlin, where tables in Wilder Bowl are as much a part of the scenery as any brick building on campus. The petitions, education and activities of the environmental activists on campus, however, are having impacts and creating change on the local, national and state level. This is largely due to the work of OPIRG and Oberlin's Sierra Student Coalition.

"We have environmental groups that cover the whole range of the environmental movement," said senior and Vice Board Chair of Ohio PIRG Ellen Montgomery.

"The environment has always been one of the most vocal issues on campus," junior Dave Karpf said. Karpf was national coordinator of SSC last year, but is not officially involved on campus this semester.

Montgomery mentioned other small factions of environmentally oriented groups on campus such as Earth First, the recycling assistants, and a branch of Hillel called Jews for Social Justice. "There are so many groups on campus," she said, "and other groups are really supportive."

OPIRG and the SSC are working on local, state and national campaigns in their crusade to protect the environment.

OPIRG and SSC "fill two very different niches," Karpf said. "I'm happy with the relationship between the two groups. I think we're working for a lot of the same things," he said, adding, "SSC tends to be a little sillier, and OPIRG is better at getting big numbers. It's important to be able to get in people's faces but it's also important to be able to have a place for people who don't want to. Both niches are very valuable."

According to Karpf, the Oberlin bubble does affect environmental attitudes on campus. "We play a different role than, say, when I was in high school and we were fighting for areas because it was where we lived. At Oberlin, we tend to work more towards national issues," he said.

The SSC is the student-led branch of the Sierra Club. SSC spent its time and energy this fall on educating people about the issues in the upcoming presidential campaign. The Sierra Club has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, but Karpf pointed out that their organization was not campaigning for Gore, but "educating people about the differences." The group will shift gears after Election Day, but has stressed voting drives because, Karpf said, "everything our organization does depends on the election next week."

Other national campaigns include protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and adopting a piece of land in Southern Utah, which the group will explore over spring break. Becky Johnson, co-founder of Oberlin SSC and national co-coordinator for SSC's global warming campaign, will return to campus next semester and launch that campaign on campus.

OPIRG is working on the national level to protect woodless areas and national forests. OPIRG gathered and handed in over one million public comments and is now creating a huge "Forest Quilt," to be sent to Washington, which will include a sheet of Oberlin signatures. "We're also trying to attract media attention and basically keep this issue at the forefront of the environmental agenda," Montgomery said.

In Ohio, OPIRG is collaborating with their professional office in Cleveland to clean up waterways in the state. The group is focusing on stopping state legislation that "would turnover control of water permits for factory farms, and take it away from [the] Ohio EPA and give it to the Department of Agriculture," Montgomery said. "There is no regulation now but turning any regulatory power over to the Department of Agriculture would be really ridiculous because they're not trained to deal with water permits, they don't know anything about acceptable levels of toxins."

Closer to home, both groups are acting locally. SSC plans to investigate water quality and development sprawl in Lorain County. OPIRG is continuing to work on a toxics campaign in Marion, OH where a middle and high school were built on a military waste dump. "[The waste] was left by the Army Corps of Engineers who sold the land to the school district for a dollar," Montgomery said. "The leukemia rate of graduates is, I think, 200 percent the expected rate."

Last year, OPIRG convinced Ohio Senator Mike DeWine to "push through federal funding to build a new school," Montgomery said. "But the new school won't be ready for three years, so our goal for this semester is to get those students evacuated."

On campus, SSC is planning to "see what things we should be doing at Oberlin to improve environmentally," Karpf said. "Like what is coming out of that smokestack [on top of the service building] and what should be."

Karpf believes that "we're having a huge impact. This work is incredibly important, even if it doesn't seem glamorous. One hundred hand-written letters doesn't seem that important, but it's what makes us win and creates real concrete change," he said, adding, "Concrete's probably not the best word to use there."

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Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 129, Number 7, November 3, 2000

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