American Heroes - Kathy Hadley

Protecting her kids from toxic dumps

  • Carolyn Duckworth
  • Aug 01, 1997
Three miles upstream from the roar of Niagara Falls in New York lies a quiet island where Kathy Hadley grew up and fished and hunted with her brothers. She became a biologist, married, had a child and led a quiet life until 1977. In that year, her son Erik and her sister´s children developed seizures, blood disease and liver-damage symptoms, all typical signs of exposure to toxic chemicals. Long-forgotten buried toxic wastes were seeping into her sister´s house--where Erik spent his days while his parents worked--and onto the playground in the Niagara Falls neighborhood called Love Canal.

Scared and alarmed, Kathy worked with her sister, Lois Gibbs, and other Love Canal victims to get the federal government and the polluters to accept responsibility for the damage done to their children. This citizen effort at Love Canal led to passage of the 1980 federal law known as Superfund, which places responsibility for abandoned toxic wastes directly on polluters.

In 1979, Hadley and her husband Wayne decided to move to Montana for a quieter, safer life--or so they thought. In the years that followed, the couple had another son, Liam, and settled into the community of Deer Lodge, near the Clark Fork River.

There, to her horror, Hadley discovered that she and her family had moved into the middle of another toxic-waste mess. Upstream in the city of Butte lies one of the largest Superfund sites in the country. Part of the site is a four-square-mile area of ponds, containing 19 million cubic yards of mine waste and located at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River. Another Superfund site exists near Missoula, some 120 miles downstream, where contaminated river silt has collected behind a dam. The silt is so toxic that the EPA has recommended the sediment not be disturbed.

"The river corridor in-between was not made a Superfund site," says Hadley, "even though there had been massive river changes and degradations from 100 years of dumping mining wastes. That seemed bizarre to me."

Bizarre--and maybe dangerous to her family. Hadley began meeting with EPA officials in Montana, trying to get them to include the river as part of the Superfund sites. When those officials decided not to pursue the issue, Hadley called her sister, who had become an outspoken activist on behalf of communities exposed to toxic waste. Within days, Lois Gibbs arranged a meeting between herself, Hadley and William Hedeman, the EPA official in charge of Superfund.

At that pivotal 1985 meeting in Washington, D.C., the stage was set for the EPA to eventually include the Clark Fork River as part of the country´s largest Superfund site--120 miles of river corridor from the Clark Fork´s headwaters beginning near Deer Lodge down to the dam near Missoula. It took Hadley, working with other local citizens, another 12 years to obtain a Citizen´s Technical Assistance Grant from EPA. This grant enables the community to hire experts to help residents evaluate proposed cleanup plans for the site. Now, Hadley is organizing meetings so that citizens can identify their concerns.

"Our success," says Mike Morris, a Butte resident, "depends on how persistent citizens and local people are--and Kathy is incredibly persistent. She also knows the kind of push that can make a difference."

A few years ago, Hadley returned to full-time work as an administrator at the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte. She also continued to camp, hike, fish and hunt with her family. Increasingly aware of conflicts between landowners and sportsmen, she helped organize the Montana Landowner/Sportsmen´s Conference in 1986. This event brought together landowners, sportsmen, government agencies and outfitters to develop solutions to the conflicts.

In 1990, Hadley was elected as the first woman president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate. Currently, she serves as a vice president for the group. "Kathy has been the mainstay of the Montana Wildlife Federation for a decade," says Rich Day, director of NWF´s Northern Rockies Project Office in Missoula. "Her efforts have benefited every citizen in the state."

These days, Hadley is spending much of her time rallying support for proper cleanup of her beloved Clark Fork River. She constantly reminds herself of her family´s days in New York when Erik and his cousins became so sick, and how that inspired her to take action. "I´ll be dead in 20 or 30 years, but my kids won´t," she says. "This is all about really trying to take care of things for their future."

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