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Activist Assists Wedgewood Families' Fight Against Polluted Landfills

Gloria Horning

Environmental activist Joy Towels Ezell, founder of Help Our Polluted Environment (HOPE) is in Pensacola this week. During her visit, Ezell will share her experiences with Wedgewood area residents, who are fighting to clean up or shut down several polluted landfills in their communities.

The public talk will be held at the Marie Young Community Center , 6405 Wagner Road, beginning at 6 p.m.

Like many others on the front lines of the battle for environmental justice, Ezell has a personal story to tell. It all began more than 60 years ago, when she was just a little girl.

“When I was seven years old, my daddy and my granddaddy and I drove over the Fenholloway River” Ezell said, speaking of the river near her hometown of Perry, Florida, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee. “Up until that time it had been crystal clear. The boys dove for pennies in the river; it was such as beautiful river.”

But, on that day in 1954, she saw a very something very disturbing. “When we crossed that river that day, in 1954, the river was black. There were just dead fish everywhere.”

They discovered that the river had been tainted by an accidental spill from the huge pulp plant, built by Proctor & Gamble.

Ezell says her father and grandfather were upset by what happened, and it left her scarred, too.

“I got to say that I think with the sight of that, with the dead fish and the black water, really affected me in my whole lifetime now,” she said. “It’s really a memory I can’t erase.”

She says there was never a thought that she could do anything about cleaning up the river until her own young son suggested it. “Mama, you just got to make them clean this up,” is what Ezell recalled her son saying as they drove over the Fenholloway River Bridge. “He’s the one that really got me started at this.”

That son died in a car accident in 1991, when he was just 23 years old.  By that time, she had started her effort to clean up the river and continues to do the work today in his memory.

Ezell says she conducting the research and finding someone to talk to about it was difficult in those early pre-internet days in the 1980s.

She found that the Fenholloway River was contaminated with dioxin, and notes that the gravity of her environmental activism really came into focus in 1986 when she discovered that one of the chemicals found in the river was also found in Agent Orange.

She started talking to officials at every level of government, from her local city and county to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about the situation to try to get them to do something about it.

“There are a lot of sick people there,” Ezell said. “People needed help there. They were drinking contaminated water, eating contaminated fish, breathing contaminated air. Our soil was contaminated. We’ve got a real mess over there.”

In 1989, Ezell and 30 other people formed Help Our Polluted Environment (HOPE). She also ran a newspaper ad seeking residents to join in a class action suit against the plant. Two days later the Tallahassee Democrat began publishing a scathing series about the condition of the river, which was just the kind of media attention Ezell needed to spark a larger discussion.

Her efforts today are focused on stopping an effluent pipeline from the long-existing paper mill there to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ezell says she was honored to be featured in the book Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century by Leslie Kemp Poole from Rollins College. The book highlights many of the women in Florida who worked for years to try to save the environment where they lived.

Also featured in the book is Margaret Williams, founder of Citizens Against Toxic Exposure (CATE). The organization was established to mount an organized fight to clean up two Superfund Sites in Pensacola.  The former Escambia Wood Treating Company Superfund site became known as Mt. Dioxin.

“I came over here with the Mt. Dioxin hearings and the meetings at the church,” said Ezell. “I remember when they put crosses up in the neighborhood for all the people that had died…I was so proud of them. They did good work.”

During her visit to Pensacola, Ezell will talk to UWF classes taught by Dr. Gloria Horning, who is also an environmental activist and has been working to help residents in the Wedgewood area. The communities are surrounded by eight landfills, including the Rolling Hills C & D Landfill, that are filling the air and covering yards and parks with the very toxic gas hydrogen sulfide. Ezell plans to attend today’s Escambia County Commission meeting and then she will speak with families of the Wedgewood area neighborhoods. Her message to them:  “stay the course.”

“You have to take a stand and decide that you’re gonna stay in it and see it through,” she said, pointing out that pushing for cleanup of environmental pollution that’s making people sick is not easy. “You’re gonna think that you’re defeated many times, but you know what? Nope. You gotta find a way to keep going with it; stay dedicated to it, and see it through. You gotta find justice for your community.”

Ezell’s talk will be held at the Marie Young Community Center (6405 Wagner Street) beginning at 6 p.m. It is open to the public.