Thursday, June 20, 2013
Pat Costner, one of the founders of anti-SWEPCO high-voltage transmission line group Save The Ozarks (STO), has paid a big price for her deep commitment to preserving the environment and the health of people. That doesn’t just include investing $25,000 in a solar system that produces enough electricity to power her homestead in the woods north of Eureka Springs where she has lived for 40 years. Costner’s first home on her 135-acre property was burned down by arsonists 1991 while she was in the middle of contentious work as Research Director for Greenpeace US opposing incineration of waste that can cause some of the most harmful and long-lived pollutants known to exist.
Costner is considered one of the top scientific authorities in the world on sources of dioxins, which are some of the most potent persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that can cause illness and death. For the past seven years, Costner has represented the global environmental communities as a scientist in the Stockholm Convention’s Expert Group that completed an extensive revision of the Dioxin Toolkit, the protocol used by participating countries in preparing their national inventories of dioxin sources and releases.
In late April, Costner took a break from strings of 18-hour days working to organize STO’s opposition to the SWEPCO power lines to travel to Geneva and attend the Extraordinary Conference of Parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, attended by almost 2,000 delegates from some 160 countries, where the revised Dioxin Toolkit was formally adopted.
While in Geneva, Costner was honored by the International POPs Elimination Network that presented her with a plaque saying, “IPEN honors and thanks Pat Costner for her commitment, passion and activism which have inspired, guided and strengthened a global movement for a toxics-free future.”
Costner grew up in Northeast Arkansas on a cotton farm, getting an early immersion into spending a lot of time outdoors.
“I still to this day feel such a deep comfort when I hear the crickets and the frogs and the birds, and know that living close to nature is fundamental to my soul,” she said.
Costner graduated with honors with a B.S. in chemistry and mathematics and a master’s degree in organic chemistry and mathematics from Texas Women’s University. She worked toward a doctorate in physical organic chemistry at Rice University in Houston before taking a job with Shell Oil in Houston, and then as a research associate for the Dept. of Chemistry at the University of Colorado. She later transitioned to a job as a research chemist with Arapahoe Chemicals in Boulder, Colo.
“I decided I didn’t want to raise my children in an urban environment,” she said. “I wanted them to have a closer connection to nature. So I quit my research lab job in Boulder in 1974 and moved to this piece of land. My children were 3, 5, and 11. We lived in a tent, and I hired a hippie carpenter to build the shell of a house for $2,000. The children and I worked to finish it out.”
At first they had no running water, bathed in the creek, and she carried water in buckets to the house. When they had a well drilled, it was “the height of luxury.”
At that point Costner had established an analytical laboratory in Northeast Arkansas that carried out water and wastewater analysis for municipalities and industries. During that time, there was great interest in Eureka Springs in the water quality of the springs, which were polluted by sewage leaks. Friends, including Barbara Harmony, asked her to help.
“At first I was very reluctant because I didn’t like meetings,” Costner said. “I didn’t move to woods to go to meetings, but to enjoy a little solitude. But I got involved with Barbara, Jackie Froelich, Doug Stowe, Glenna Booth and a number of people who came together to form the National Water Center. We had some remarkable success here. People in Eureka Springs united behind our work, the objective of cleaning up the springs, in a way that is very reminiscent of the way the whole county has unified on stopping SWEPCO.”
A good plan was developed to address sewage contamination, and there were successes such as a tracing study that identified every spring in town and mapped the city’s entire wastewater collection system. The group prevented the proposal by the engineering company to put the new wastewater treatment system near the Lake Leatherwood dam.
“We had a good plan to decentralize the sewage system and make a gradual transition to appropriate on-site treatment such as composting toilets and gray water systems,” Costner said. “Unfortunately, there was strong opposition by the engineering company and reluctance by state agencies so there was no real progress. More than 30 years later, my friend Barbara Harmony is still working to restore and protect Eureka’s springs.”
Costner went on to work on regional environmental issues, quickly gaining respect for her ability to look at complex data and reports and distill their meaning. She also gained a reputation for being able to navigate complicated government regulations that are often industry friendly.
Greenpeace took notice of her work and, in 1987 the director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign recruited her.
“At that time my children were flying out of the nest, so I agreed to go to Washington, D.C., for a year,” Costner said. “When that director returned from sabbatical, the executive director of Greenpeace asked me to stay on. We decided on a new title, Research Director for the Greenpeace U.S. Toxics Campaign, and I came back home. My primary area of focus for Greenpeace was incineration. We were quite successful in opposing a number of waste incineration proposals all across the country.”
Costner held that job from 1988 to 1994 when she became senior scientist for the Science Unit of Greenpeace International where she focused on gathering and analyzing information related to the sources, fate and effect of pollutants, particularly POPS. She spent the next 15 years working internationally, traveling extensively working with national and regional non-government organizations (NGOs) all over the world. She represented Greenpeace in international conventions negotiating and implementing various global treaties.
“My work has been the source of many amazing and wonderful experiences,” Costner said. “I have traveled all across Russia several times, to India multiple times, all over Europe, all over South America, and to China, Japan, Australia and Samoa. The only continent I haven’t been on is Antarctica. I worked on hazardous chemicals with an emphasis with POPs, particularly dioxins. It was taking part in drafting and negotiating a global treaty that provided such insight into the enormous complexities of reaching agreement on issues of common concern.”
For example, the global treaty on POPS is needed because these chemicals are in global circulation and gradually accumulate in colder latitudes where they reach their highest levels in the food chain.
“The people who are most at risk, those most threatened by POPs, are people who have little or no voice in their own countries, much less on a global scale,” Costner said. “Inuit women have some of the highest levels of some POPs in their bloodstream. Inuit children are born with measurable deficits associated with POPs exposure. Their lifestyle depends on local and regional animals as food sources. Their choice is to continue to live according to their traditions and watch their children and grandchildren become more impaired, or surrender their cultural identity and buy the kind of foods that rest of us eat that are very expensive because of high costs for transportation.”
Costner was part of the ad hoc committee of the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety that was mandated to prepare the draft text that, through several years of negotiations, became the Stockholm Convention on POPs. In that process, she and Greenpeace colleague, Jack Weinberg, represented environmental groups who met with representatives from a variety of international agencies and with representatives of the chemical industry to draft the proposed text.
“As you can imagine, there were some very spirited discussions, especially between Jack and me and the representatives from the chemical industry,” Costner said. “We were amazed and surprised when dioxins were included in the treaty. We had not been optimistic that any of the unintentionally produced POPs would be covered by this treaty.”
She wasn’t as successful in getting the early versions of the Dioxin Toolkit the way she thought it should be should be, due in no small part to industry opposition. She feels the most recent Dioxin Toolkit she helped prepare is far from perfect, but is greatly improved. In some ways, it is the culmination of a lifetime of her work.
A colleague while she was at Greenpeace, Charlie Cray, said Costner’s “ability to deconstruct industry bullshit and communicate clearly and effectively guided the Toxics Campaign’s thinking and strategy for over a dozen years. Pat’s soft tone underlies her hard, uncompromising views. She was very effective in public presentations to communities and Tribes, essentially killing numerous incinerator proposals.
“As a result, she took serious heat. For example, the very day she went over to the post office to mail discs with the final proof/manuscript of her brilliant critique of hazardous waste incineration (Playing With Fire, co-authored with Joe Thornton), her house was torched to the ground, destroying just about every possession she had. She rebuilt her house and library, and the rest of her life on the same site, the same property that is now threatened by SWEPCO.”
After the fire, Greenpeace hired an investigator and arson experts who determined her office had burned at temperatures several times that of a normal house fire. She noticed the day after the fire that all the file drawers in her office were open, apparently an effort to make sure one of the most comprehensive libraries about incineration in the country thoroughly burned.
“The detective hired by Greenpeace talked to people in town who had been approached by men who were looking for me, trying to find out where I lived,” Costner said. “While Greenpeace advertised a big reward for a year for information to identify the arsonists they were never identified.”
Of course, the loss of her collections of scientific studies on incineration and PVC manufacture was a huge blow, as was the financial loss from a home not insured for fire. But the most painful thing was losing all her family photographs. “My children’s childhood photos were all lost,” she said. “That hurts me to this day. Our photographs are our memories.”
After retiring from Greenpeace, Costner continued working as an environmental consultant until earlier this year when she retired again. Two weeks later she received a notice from SWEPCO of its intention to take her property for a high-voltage power line. There are six routes proposed for the line, and four go through her property.
“There was a two-week period between the time the revised Dioxin Toolkit was adopted and delivery of the letter from SWEPCO,” Costner said. “I had two weeks of retirement. I was picking up sticks and moving rocks in the yard, talking to the grandkids on Skype, and planning to spend more time kayaking. I was thinking, this is my life now. It is wonderful. Then I got the letter from SWEPCO. And when I saw that, I knew what it meant. I knew it wasn’t just me. It was all my neighbors. It was many of my friends.
“I had a relatively clear notion of what would be involved if the people who were affected – not just those traversed, but the whole region – had any hope of stopping this. They have to be together and be unified. That was the concept behind launching Save the Ozarks to inform and share information with everyone affected. As much as possible offer, STO offers people the option of having a voice in the decision making process. We have worked very hard to try to do those things.”
Costner has been a lead organizer and strategist for STO, bringing those decades of experience to bear. And while she has been pleased with how Carroll County has come together with a unified voice to oppose the project, she suspects many people still don’t realize this is not just another power line. It is a high-voltage transmission line that will tower over even the tallest trees creating a huge visual and environmental blight.
“Many people still have no idea what a monopole 150 feet tall looks like,” Costner said. “A typical wooden pole like the one in my yard stands 34 feet above ground. These towers are almost five times that. They will indeed tower over everything. But to my mind, one of the more horrendous aspects is what will happen during the construction of this line, and the ongoing maintenance. Last night I was searching for reports on construction of transmission lines. If they hit bedrock, they dynamite. Explosive are quite commonly used in this processes. They bore holes for the foundations for the poles that are seven to ten feet wide and 30 to 40 feet deep. Drilling and blasting like that would be devastating in this karst terrain.
“My neighbor has a sizeable cave. When you walk in, you see roots dangling from the roof of the cave. How many caves will be collapsed? How many springs, streams and private water wells will be destroyed if they are allowed to proceed with this? And the reality is that Carroll County doesn’t need the power. The population of Carroll County has grown slowly over the last decade and essentially not at all during the past couple of years. Meanwhile you have people like me generating their own power.”
Costner has spent the past 40 years of her life as an advocacy scientist, and it has been her goal to try to walk the talk by having a small footprint on the planet. Now she faces the possibility of her land being taken, dynamited and destroyed.
Does she feel like the arsonists are back?
“No, I don’t see that parallel,” she said. “I think we just happen to be poor, sparse and rural. We’re just collateral damage in the way of SWEPCO’s desire to make bigger profits. But we can stop them. A lot of people oppose this and are working hard to stop it. I’m spending somewhere approaching 18 hours a day on this issue. I go to bed late, wake up in the middle of night, and wake up early, and stopping SWEPCO is what is on my mind.”
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