Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Members: Pamela Miller, Vi Waghiyi, Samarys Seguinot-Medina
About Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) is a statewide environmental health and justice organization established in 1997.
ACAT believes everyone has the right to clean air, clean water, and toxic-free food. Driven by a core belief in environmental justice, ACAT empowers communities to eliminate exposure to toxics through collaborative research, shared science, education, organizing, and advocacy.
Our work with the Coming Clean Network
ACAT has been involved with Coming Clean from the beginning, and had the opportunity to be involved in some of the organizing around the showing of the film Trade Secrets. They were also involved in the development of the original Louisville Charter for Safer Chemicals.
Since then ACAT has worked in partnership with Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), building close alliances with other Environmental Justice (EJ) communities.
"So many of our communities are in imminent danger. Here in the north, in the Arctic, we're faced with the fact that the climate is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. We have to not only address climate change head on and stop the production and use of chemicals that contribute to climate warming, but we have to hold the fossil fuel industry as well as the chemical industry — which is really one in the same — accountable. And to hold them not only accountable, but get justice for the damage that they've done."
— Pamela Miller
Vi: My name is Vi Waghiyi. I'm the daughter of the late John and Della Waghiyi. I'm calling in from Anchorage on the unceded territories of the Dena’ina people. I am from Savoonga located on Sivuqaq, also known as St. Lawrence Island. I am the youngest of six siblings. I have been in Anchorage since October 1991. I'm a mother of four sons; my husband, sons, and grandchildren all live here in Anchorage.
The majority of the work I do is in partnership with our leadership and communities on the Protecting Future Generations Project. I have been with Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) for 18 years, and we have had a community based project on Sivuqaq since 2000, addressing our concerns due to military toxics that were abandoned and buried after the Cold War from two formerly used defense sites (FUDS). I'm a Native Village of Savoonga Tribal citizen, and an Environmental Health and Justice Program Director with ACAT. I am passionate for this work because I’m a mother and grandmother who wants to work for our future generations.
Pam: I'm Pam Miller. I'm the Executive Director with Alaska Community Action on Toxics. I helped found the organization in 1997 in response to the many communities around Alaska who have been affected by military contamination, mining, oil and gas and other sources of pollution. We have over 700 formerly used defense sites here in Alaska, as well as the industrial contamination from military, mining, and oil and gas operations: Alaska has been a resource colony also for the oil, gas, and mining industries. So we've worked to stand with and assist, advocate for and do community based research with communities around Alaska faced with these environmental health and justice issues.
We are an environmental health and justice organization that does community-based participatory research. We work to change policy so that our laws are protective of our health and the environment for everyone. We work from a local to international level because of our place in the north and in the Arctic where chemical pollutants from all over the hemisphere move into this area on wind and ocean currents and accumulate in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and people — which is really the ultimate injustice, that in many cases, we're far from the production facilities of these major chemicals, but they all end up in the Arctic.
Pam: For me, what Coming Clean means is great solidarity, great sharing of information, working in concert with groups that share the same spirit and interest in holding the chemical industry accountable, and ending the production and use of chemicals that we know are very harmful to our communities, our health, and wellbeing.
One highlight that I remember was in 2009, when we brought a delegation of leaders from Sivuqaq, St. Lawrence Island, to Washington, DC. Coming Clean really helped us organize, helped with lodging, helped create some meeting spaces where the Yupik leaders from the island could share their stories and get that information out to agencies and members of Congress.
Vi: I began this work in October 2002, with no experience or background in this field, but took the position I was offered as Assistant Coordinator. It is very personal to me, as the two formerly used defense sites on our island have resulted in health disparities never seen before in our people. I had to challenge myself to learn as much as I could, because it's been very difficult to hold the military accountable. The contaminants that they buried and abandoned are resulting in health disparities never seen before, including a cancer crisis.
My parents and siblings, we were a family of eight: Both my parents had cancer, my eldest brother got cancer, and I'm also a cancer survivor. Even though he and I are both cancer-free, my brother has been fighting for his life as chemo and radiation treatment is so hard on the body. It zaps our body's immune system, and his body is still trying to recover.
There needs to be systemic-wide changes to hold polluters accountable, including the military and the multinational corporations that produce over a hundred thousand chemicals. All of us on the planet are being exposed without our consent in our homes, work places, and environments, and especially in communities like mine and through our subsistence foods due to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
To me it's so unethical that the multinational corporations who produce these toxic chemicals are driven by greed and profit and do not take public health into account. Our Yupik people come from humble beginnings, living off the land and ocean like we have for many generations. My people feel the military turned their back on us, and it’s been very difficult to hold them accountable for the military toxics which they abandoned and buried on our island. The two FUDSs have never been properly characterized or remediated.
But it's organizations like Coming Clean, which ACAT has been a part of from its beginning, that have helped to get our story out in our fight to hold the military accountable for the harms to our environment, our traditional foods, and our Yupik People. So these connections with Coming Clean and others have provided many opportunities to be interviewed, to share our story. Most people have no idea that the military is one of the largest polluters on the planet, and that the Arctic has become a hemispheric sink for these persistent organic pollutants (POPs), contaminants we can't see, smell, or taste, like PCBs, but we're finding them four to ten times higher in the blood of my people. We are some of the most highly contaminated populations on the planet, but these are burdens we didn’t create.
Coming Clean has contributed toward opportunities to do some research. Also under the umbrella of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, which has monthly calls that I join, there are opportunities to hear about other work that people are doing throughout the nation — communities like mine working on the ground to make meaningful change to protect the health and wellbeing of their families, their bodies, and communities. There are communities like in Mossville, Louisiana, for example, where we’ve made a north-south connection with Christine and Delma Bennett. In Mossville, there are 14 or 16 chemical facilities spewing toxic pollution in their community and harming their health. This is a predominantly African American community who is fighting the same fight as we are here in the north. What is harming their health ends up here in the Arctic. So it's an opportunity to share and network and help each other as we’re all working to make meaningful change throughout the nation.
Opportunities have come up because of these networks, including both through Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance. In my appointment with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), I was invited by key people that were involved from the beginning, including Dr. Cecilia Martinez who called me directly to invite me to be on the WHEJAC. We have allies and friends like Richard Moore and Michele Roberts and others who have talked about our issues in DC. These connections have presented opportunities that not only help us, but also help others, as we work together to make these broken and outdated chemical laws better to hold polluters accountable. When we work together, that is when things change. Change is slow; however, it can be done. At ACAT we are dedicated to our mission that everyone has the right to clean air, clean water, and toxic-free food.
Pam: I feel optimistic that with this new administration, we do have the opportunity for transformative change that means something, and that will bring health, justice, and human rights to people on the ground who have suffered for so long — and I don't mean just the past four years, but for decades where they were exposed to toxic chemicals that harm communities and that infringe on the health of present as well as future generations. So I'm optimistic that we can achieve some of those changes. I'm optimistic that we can transform the system of law that we have that we know is not protective, that we can hold industrial and military polluters accountable, that we can we can truly achieve environmental justice for the communities that we stand in solidarity with all over the country — and also around the world, because we're involved in the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). We really hope that the work that we do here also lifts up communities faced with similar injustices throughout the world.
I think the work of ACAT is uniquely situated because of our place in the north. Vi talked about how the north and the Arctic is a hemispheric sink for these chemical contaminants. I think of the connections that we have made over so many years with Coming Clean friends and fenceline communities — because really the Arctic is the ultimate fence line — those friendships and those relationships that we've built are strong, and they will lead us to transformative change. I really do believe that.
Sometimes we feel here in Alaska that we're somewhat isolated, but Coming Clean makes us feel that we're part of a family that cares, supports, and stands together to create this change. And it's going to take all of us.
Vi: It’s been an important opportunity to go before the WHEJAC and share our knowledge, our experiences, and our struggles with folks on the ground from EJ communities from throughout the nation who have also been appointed to the WHEJAC. I chose to focus my efforts in the Climate and Economic Work Group along with allies I've gotten to know through Coming Clean and EJHA — these are people from grassroots communities doing the work on the ground to make meaningful change. This is the first time ever I felt that we were being heard, because we have had so many broken promises.
I don't know how many times throughout my years doing this work I’ve met with EPA, the State Department, military officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for the cleanup and site characterization on our island, and the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) who are tasked to do health assessments in some of the most vulnerable communities throughout the nation. It's very disheartening to learn that these federal agencies, like with the ATSDR who our tribe petitioned to do a health assessment, have basically let the polluters off the hook.
On our island the military polluted our once pristine lands and waters. There's so much work to be done, in communities like mine on Sivuqaq who are on the receiving end of pollution from throughout the globe and wherever EJ communities — including those of People of Color, low income, Latino, fenceline communities, people whose lives are in danger — know that if there's ever an explosion at a chemical plant or a refinery, we are the most vulnerable. These industries and chemical plants are built around some of the most disenfranchised, the most poor, people of color communities in the nation, including in Native American and Alaska Native communities.
That's why we are doing what we do. I know help is not coming fast enough for my generation; I do this work for my children, and my grandchildren who have a human right to food and subsistence, a human right to health, their basic human rights: Their dignity to continue to live as Sivuqaq Yupik people who have lived since time immemorial with the utmost respect for our lands and waters that have sustained our people for centuries. We have a right to live in a toxic free world so we can pass on our languages, our culture and traditions. These toxic chemicals can affect our children's ability to learn. How can we pass on our languages? Our creation stories? And our way of life and traditions, including our local Indigenous Knowledge on how to predict the weather? The Bering Sea can be very unforgiving, and due to climate change and global warming, weather patterns and climate are changing so fast that knowledge passed on for centuries is not working anymore.
Pam: So many of our communities are in imminent danger. Here in the north, in the Arctic, we're faced with the fact that the climate is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. A lot of people don't realize that climate warming, and chemicals production and use, and plastics production and use are all interconnected. In fact, the importance of the chemical industry and plastics industry toward climate warming is not fully appreciated even in the climate justice movement. We have to not only address climate change head on and stop the production and use of chemicals that contribute to climate warming, but we have to hold the fossil fuel industry as well as the chemical industry — which is really one in the same — accountable. And to hold them not only accountable, but get justice for the damage that they've done.
I think we're all seeking a just transition toward that future that is safe and healthy for everyone. We do have particular concerns about protecting the health of future generations because these chemicals have multi-generational effects, and I think we are aware of that. So we have to not only be mindful of what we're doing to benefit our communities now, but look ahead several generations.
Vi: My people, our ancestors and our elders gone before us — we honor our elders and our children in our culture. Historically, there used to be 10,000 of us in 32 communities on my island. Ten thousand, and some of our elders think up to twenty thousand of us. Now we have two communities left: Gambell has about 800 people, and where I'm from in Savoonga we have about 900 people.
This is the result of Western contact: The epidemics and the influx from whalers, archeologists, colonizers, and settlers who came to our shores, including the missionaries who brought religion...generational historical trauma — these colonizers almost wiped us out. In my immediate family we are one of the very few original Sivuqaq Island clans who survived. 99.9% of our people have ties to our relatives in Siberia. We have relatives there who speak the same dialect we do and have the same way of life, but during the Cold War our ties were cut. Because of what we faced — the influx from Western contact, the diseases that were brought, all the traumas our people experienced — our people almost got wiped out. However, we're still here.
I had never heard of environmental racism; I never heard of environmental violence. These are very real challenges we are fighting today. Environmental racism includes threats we hear from our leadership that there are concerns about the Bering Sea — which our elders call our farm. My people continue to hunt bowhead whale and walrus and seal, including 4 species of ice seals. We have some of the rarest sea birds migrate to our island and so many species of fish. 90% of our food comes from our farm, the ocean, our lands and waters. It is a way of life that we have lived for centuries.
Threats from sea ice melting are causing food insecurity. As the ice melts from the warming of the planet, it affects the availability of our subsistence foods. Our hunters have to go hunting further since the marine mammals are ice dependent too. Ice is forming from the shore and it is not stable, which makes it more dangerous to hunt. And the ice is coming in later, and we are having more and more super storms in the fall that result in erosion. Over 30 communities are falling into the Bering Sea in my region and there is no federal aid to relocate. When there are natural disasters in the lower 48, they get immediate aid. We get no help.
It is so important that we continue to protect our way of life that has been passed on for centuries, a way of life that I would like to pass on to my grandchildren. I would like to see our people thrive as our creator intended. We have lived a way of life taking only what we need. We have been stewards of our lands and waters, protecting the most sacred so that my being as a Yupik Grandmother can continue in the way of our ancestors, our elders and those gone before us who have helped me so that I can do this work.
I now know that this is where I'm supposed to be. I have to be at my utmost best — I come from humble beginnings and humble people -- in our fight for our children, our health and wellbeing, for our environment, our way of life and future generations. We are fighting against environmental racism and environmental violence. We're being contaminated without our consent, whether it's from PCBs, pesticides, heavy metals, or solvents that the military abandoned and buried on our island. My grandson has a higher body burden of flame retardants in his small, developing body than adults in his household. This is why I do this work as his grandmother.
These industries need to be held accountable. Our women's ability to conceive and men’s and women’s reproductive systems can be altered and changed from these chemicals that we bring into our homes, not knowing the harm they cause. Industries test only a handful of these toxic chemicals and are driven by greed and profits over human health. To me, that is so unethical. I want my grandchildren to continue to know the history of my people, to learn the language, to continue to eat the neqipik that our farm, the Bering Sea, provides for my family.
Even though I live here in Anchorage, I have brothers that live on Sivuqaq. We have to be fierce advocates and warriors for our people, for my grandson. I have a five-month-old granddaughter. My elder granddaughters live in Shageluk. I just got my oldest granddaughter a fishing pole, and she is learning how to trap, how to cut up fish and help her Apa, her grandfather, set a net. She loves living there, even though she was born here. She is learning her mother’s language. It’s our human right to live the way our creator intended. It's unfortunate that we have to learn how to read labels on products that we buy and bring into our homes. Because of these broken environmental and chemical laws, we have to learn how to protect the health and wellbeing of ourselves, our bodies, and our children.
Vi: It's been difficult to hold polluters accountable. It's going to take an Act of Congress. For regulatory agencies, there needs to be investigations into why they're not doing what they're supposed to do, to protect the most vulnerable. They’re not doing what they're charged to do; they're issuing permits to develop in our lands and waters adjacent to our communities, and harming our hunting, fishing, and food gathering locations. We need to continue our work at the national and international level to strengthen the chemical and environmental laws that are so broken.
The divide between the rich and poor is only getting larger. I’ve heard Juan Parras (of T.E.J.A.S. in Houston) talk about how the rail systems have become parking lots for the toxic chemicals that these trains are transporting, and if there's ever an explosion, there will be so many lives lost. There's a need for a just transition away from these fossil fuel industries, chemicals and plastics. We need renewable energy. Alaska has so much potential. Yet only 12% of my people work. 12%. There's no jobs. And the average income in my community is less than $20,000.
One of the things that I heard from our leadership is that when there is a natural disaster in the lower 48, they get immediate aid; and we have never gotten any aid. With these shipping lanes expanding into the Arctic — because the ice is melting — there's more shipping and tourism coming through our island. There's a big concern about how these trawlers are coming in disturbing the bottom of the ocean. Everything is connected and the pollution left behind goes up the food chain, and my people are at the top of the food chain. The food security issue is not that the walrus or the seal numbers are declining; they are ice-dependent and it is becoming more dangerous for our hunters because the ice is retreating. This is resulting in low seal and walrus harvests, which is our food during our long winters. When there are crashes in commercial fishing industries, those fishermen get aid — monetary aid. But when we have a low walrus and seal harvest, our freezers are empty. We have no food during the long winter. We don't get aid. Yes, we're a community of maybe 2,000; however, what is wrong with this picture? There's no equality.
So that's what I’d like to see: A future for my grandchildren to continue living as an Inupiaq Sivuqaq Yupiks. This evening my family and I are getting ready to go native food dinner with other family members and go Eskimo dancing. I'm really looking forward to it. My grandson loves to hear Eskimo dancing, and his dad, my son, is a dancer and drummer. This is what we do: We gather. We have family gatherings to help lift up our spirits. With the changes we are faced with today, it's been very challenging, however we still get together. We come from close knit families. It's an opportunity to talk in our language, and share laughter, dance, and to share our neqipik to fulfill our bodies and our spirit.
"I do this work for my children, and my grandchildren who have a human right to food and subsistence, a human right to health, their basic human rights: The dignity to continue to live as Sivuqaq Yupik people who have lived since time immemorial with the utmost respect for our lands and waters that have sustained our people for centuries. We have a right to live in a toxic free world so we can pass on our languages and our culture and traditions."
— Vi Waghiyi