Lois Gibbs on Thursday told former Bethlehem Steel workers who say they've been beset with plant-related illnesses that they must fight smarter and more strategically if they are to stoke the ire of the nation the same way her ailing Niagara Falls neighbors did 30 years ago.
The former president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association was in town to share strategy with members of the Bethlehem Steel Action Group and about 500 others who showed up in the Martin Road Senior Center in Lackawanna.
"I wish I could tell you that it's a [justice] thing and that all you have to do is be right and it will change, but the truth of the matter is it's not. It's a political fight," said Gibbs, who is now the executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
The Bethlehem Steel Action Group has been pursuing federal legislation that seeks compensation for former Bethlehem Steel employees who worked with atomic materials and later got radiation-related cancer. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a year ago said he planned to reintroduce the Ed Walker Memorial Act, named in honor of a former Bethlehem Steel bricklayer and founder of the Bethlehem Steel Action Group, who died in 2008 at age 74.
Gibbs said she related to the plight of the Bethlehem Steel workers.
"My daddy was a bricklayer [at Bethlehem Steel]," she said, "and he, too, was laid off when everybody else was laid off."
Gibbs said the struggles of the workers are similar to those faced by her Love Canal neighbors in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"Some of the lessons of Love Canal, I think, are important to convey to you," Gibbs told those attending Thursday night's meeting.
"At Love Canal, [government officials] kept comparing us [to other communities], and we thought all we needed to do was to use the science. So we engaged in the scientific arguments . . . about risk, and all of a sudden we were pointing at our neighbors and saying, well, she was at risk, but she wasn't. That's what they want you to do. They want to divide you. They want you to feel guilty about what happened, and they want to tell you there's no answer," she added.
Gibbs said going the legal route failed her neighbors, too. They had to think bigger, she said.
She urged those in attendance to pressure their federal representatives to take their issue to the floor of Congress and even get President Obama involved.
"One of the things I would suggest you do is invite the president of the United States here. Why not?" Gibbs asked.
"We got President Jimmy Carter to stand on our stage and give us everything. He was a good president, but he wasn't about change. He was about moving things along," she said.
"There is absolutely no reason Obama can't come here."