Chemist, environmental justice activist, grandmother, and educator—these are just a few of the many hats worn by Wilma Subra. Wilma currently resides in Louisiana, where she also grew up. Her father was a chemist and introduced her to her current passion in the field of environmental chemistry. She attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana (currently University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and received a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Microbiology in 1965. She obtained her master’s degree a year later. Upon exiting her studies, Wilma worked at the Gulf South Research Institute (currently known as the New Iberia Research Center) for 14 years. Although she gained valuable experience in environmental research, she ultimately became unenthused with the work there.

Wilma desired to have a bigger impact on marginalized communities that suffer from environmental health issues. In 1981, she founded the Subra Company to address this need and continues to work completely pro bono to this day. Wilma receives emails from all over the globe, but the majority of her work is located in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Louisiana. The state of Louisiana is also home to “Cancer Alley,” an industrial corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans where many concentrated cancer outbreaks have occurred.

In addition to her work at Subra Company, Wilma has served as a Vice-Chair of the Environmental Protection Agency National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT) for seven years, as a member of the Cumulative Risk and Impacts Working Group of the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), as a chair of the NEJAC Gulf Coast Hurricanes Work Group for a total of six years, and, as a member of the National Advisory Committee of the U.S. Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation for five years. Additionally, Wilma was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award from the MacArthur Foundation in 1999 and was nominated as one of Lifetime’s “Remarkable Women” in 2011.

Identifying the Problem

Wilma’s work in the Subra Company chiefly involves responding to cries of help from communities who have been affected by environmental injustice. She often receives messages of concern citing health problems (e.g. cancer clusters), reduced quality of life, and/or new development or destruction in the area. Very frequently, there is a serious concern for the children of the community. Wilma then travels to sites of interest and evaluates the situation. This involves defining the nature of exposure—whether it be industrial, operational, or related to extraction, waste disposal, and/or groundwater contamination. Secondly, this involves compiling existing environmental data and identifying the gaps in this knowledge. Frequently, Wilma may take physical samples from the water, air, or ground, and send them to a lab to be tested for various chemical toxins. At times, she also administers health surveys to the affected population in order to identify the major concerns of the community as well as the potential sources of contamination. Her investigation into the issue is a holistic analysis that involves gathering information from agencies, community members, as well as the environment itself.

Wilma also identified the large increase in natural gas mining as one of the pressing issues she is currently facing. This process, commonly known as “fracking”, is a type of mining that uses a specific cocktail of chemicals to exert immense amounts of hydraulic pressure on shale deposits located underground. This pressure fractures the deposits, releasing natural gas (methane) that was previously trapped in the shale. The major environmental concerns associated with this industry are mostly related to the cocktail of chemicals used.

 

Once Wilma has identified and explored the nature of the problem itself, she then works in various ways to address it. At times, this may involve direct attempts to ameliorate environmental and human health concerns. In communities where the bioaccumulation of toxins has occurred, new implementations may be put in place to physically remove those chemicals from the environment. Additionally, in communities where bioaccumulation has also affected food sources, recommendations for safe consumption may also be issued. For example, in a St. Louis bay community whose waters had been polluted by Dupont dioxin, official recommendations were forced to limit daily crab consumption to a safe recommended amount. In these instances, environmental and human health issues are directly addressed through initiating policy change. However, such methods may not be available to all communities; this type of action firstly requires that the dangers of pollution be formally recognized by government agencies, and secondly, that some concrete response be made following.

Empowering the Community

As such, the core focus of Wilma’s work is to address environmental health concerns through empowering local communities. In this model, community members are taught to be advocates for their own cause; they are taught about the issue at hand and given the tools to communicate with industry and government agencies directly. Wilma’s primary goal is that “citizen-monitoring” will be effective in holding the responsible institutions accountable, and will demand that the pollution affecting their community be recognized, continuously regulated, and ultimately improved. Education is key to this process of engaging communities, and Wilma seeks to provide community members with essential knowledge. She works to make existing data regarding environmental toxins more accessible and transparent, and may disseminate educational materials such as pamphlets and handouts. She often holds workshops and conferences, which may be instructional, or discussion-based (between community members). At times, she organizes field trips to relevant sites so that the destructive environmental processes at hand can be made more tangible and concrete. Throughout her discussion, Wilma emphasized a focus on long-term rather than short-term solutions through educating the community members to advocate for themselves to equip them with experiences and expertise.

Wilma cited the activism of the Rubbertown community as a model example for this type of effective citizen monitoring. This community, located in Lousiville, Kentucky, had been heavily exposed to airborne toxic chemicals from multiple heavy industrial facilities. In fact, the community was exposed to 18 different toxins, at levels up to 100 times higher than those recommended as safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In Rubbertown, Wilma worked to make existing information transparent and accessible to the community; air-monitoring data had been taken but was filed away without public knowledge. Wilma’s data analysis, including ongoing data, gave a face and a voice to the issue at hand. It gave the community the ability to monitor the progress being made in their community, and to push for regulatory programs. As a result, the Mayor created the Strategic Toxic Air Reduction (STAR) program in 2004. The EPA acknowledged in writing effectiveness of Wilma’s work, and described STAR as an impressive collaboration between district, community and industry—and as a model to other communities.

Throughout her discussion of the community-based model, Wilma emphasized the need to involve all “stakeholders”: all individuals with a vested interest in the issue at hand, including members of government, industry, and regulatory agencies. Wilma is cognizant that environment health issues are not only an area of interest but also an area of debate and, often, of opposition. As such she is careful to invite not only those community members with grave concerns but also those who may be more resistant to her efforts. Wilma stated that the involvement of certain groups may increase or decrease over time, especially depending on personal involvement. She shared that she often received “those calls” from individuals who previously attempted to discredit her, asking for her assistance once the issues at hand affect them or their families personally. There is a need to be confident, non-exclusionary, and to “turn the other cheek.”

Challenges 

Despite her ability to succeed under opposition, Wilma often faces many difficult challenges in her work. This involves issues of staffing and resources, as she typically works alone, pro bono, and is actively engaged with multiple communities across the country. In some cases, there is also challenge to procure and to share data concerning the issues at hand, as local agencies have done limited research and have poor communication. Another challenge that Wilma faces is that community members may often divided allegiances; affecting change involves not only environmental issues but also the personal and professional lives of those involved. For example, she cited one case in which a shrimping community in Louisiana would not testify about the effect an oil spill on their industry (i.e., the pollution of local aquatic life), because many of their friends and family members worked for the oil company.

Challenges may also include the aforementioned opposition from those who actively fight against her cause. Often times, while identifying the level of a particular toxin is straightforward, determining at what levels that toxin is harmful is a subject of debate. Opponents may argue that environmental pollutants do not exist at significant levels and are not the true cause of human health issues in the community. In some cases, it is very difficult to effect immediate and significant change as the forces of opposition often include large agencies and corporations.  These institutions have extensive legal and financial resources, often avoiding court through settlements that include a gag order (the issue can never again be discussed).  In addition, they may exert powerful local control, for example, through campaign donations to local officials, which impedes the implantation of regulatory framework. As her work often involves such strong competing interests and contentious issues, Wilma has even been subject to harassment and to threats of violence. It is a testament to her strengths and abilities and she is able to enact real change under these conditions.  It is also for these reasons that Wilma maintains a strong commitment to community education and empowerment rather than solely legal action or political initiatives.

Ultimately, despite the challenges of her work, Wilma maintains a confident and optimistic outlook. She believes in the power of education and self-advocacy to improve the environmental and human health issues caused by pollution, and in the power of local communities to hold responsible parties accountable for their actions. Thus she believes that while we cannot undo instances of environmental injustice, we can strive to identify, investigate, and ultimately remediate these issues and let communities take control of their own future. Her mission is to prevent the “sins of the future” from becoming the “sins of the past.”

Transduction

There are two major forms of transduction that manifest in Wilma’s work: social transduction and chemical transduction. The former is the major focus of her work and will be the major component of this discussion. Wilma, in essence, is a transducer by trade. She works to translate to the community the problems that it is facing, in a comprehensible manner. This work is initiated through dialogue with the industrial companies that are responsible for chemical pollution. During this process, Wilma does not simply act a liaison between the community and the company; rather, she works alongside community members to teach them how to facilitate this discussion themselves. It is her goal that the community be able to represent its own interests long after she has gone.

In fact, Wilma’s ability to “teach others how to fish” is one of her most exceptional qualities as a social transducer. Not only is she able act as a translator between the different verbiage of the community and industry; she is able to transmit data in such a way that community members can effectively incorporate the information into their knowledge, speech, and action. By doing so, Subra aims to equip the community to handle future problems. She hopes that this engagement will create an informed and engaged public, capable of alleviating the “sins of the future” through self-advocacy. This process of social transduction is key to Wilma’s role at Subra Company and is one reason that she is a unique asset to the communities that she assists.

The aspect of chemical transduction in Wilma’s work stems from the human health issues that occur within affected communities. Illness itself serves as a signal to indicate the presence of an environmental toxin; in this way, illness is an instance of transduction. In fact, Wilma explained that health issues tend to decrease as the individual’s distance from the site of pollution increases. This is a familiar concept, common to many forms of chemical transduction; however, in this instance, the relationship occurs on a significantly larger scale. The presence of illness in a specific geographic or temporal pattern could also serve as a monitoring device, signaling to health agencies that some environmental toxin is impacting the community. In fact, close health-monitoring of communities could provide unique information that would allow government, community, and others to address an instance of pollution before it becomes extremely hazardous. This is why Wilma encourages affected communities to keep health logs.

Our class explored the interdisciplinary nature of these ideas by drawing comparisons between Wilma Subra, Ram Eisenberg, and Dr. Roseanne Ford. Wilma and Ram are notable figures in environmental science and architecture, respectively, and are both powerful social transducers.  Both Ram and Wilma work as teachers and as translators within communities. They traduce information by examining the ideas and concerns of the community and molding these into dialogue and concrete action. Over time, both Wilma and Ram work to empower communities by providing the essential tools needed to communicate with government, industry, and other institutions of authority. Put simply, Wilma and Ram both engineer a system in which control over the community is placed back into the hands of its members.

By contrast, the similarities between Wilma and Dr. Ford’s research are based on chemical transduction. We link the relationship between chemical toxins and health, discussed above, to the chemical-bacteria relationship that is characteristic of bacterial movement. As Dr. Ford discussed, motile bacteria move for a certain amount of time before they “tumble”, essentially allowing the bacteria to realign itself in a new, random direction. As an “attractive” chemical concentration increases, the bacteria travel in the direction of higher concentration for a longer period resulting in a directional movement. Simply put, the bacteria respond to the gradient of a chemical concentration and respond to it appropriately. The same phenomenon is seen with humans and chemical toxins in the environment; as chemical toxins build up in the environment, they elicit illness and calls of help, to which Wilma is drawn to respond to. The overall response is broader and more complex, may occur over different spatial and temporal scales, and may be more aversive (i.e. to human health). However, the underlying commonalities remain. Not only does the theme of chemical transduction transcend fields; there are clear responses that are preserved from single-celled prokaryotes to trillion-celled mammals.

More Information

Mapping Connections

Subra Map

Subra Reception

View from Reception in the Odum Room, Clark Hall following Graham/Page Barbour Lecture.

Report by Andrew Jones, Nicholas Lee, and Meaghan Taylor.