Letter to the editor: Naugatuck’s environmental pioneer

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In 1981, my wife and I went to our first Naugatuck town meeting at a local school. On the stage of a jam-packed auditorium was a woman explaining the dangers of the Laurel Park landfill to the environment and the community. The Mayor constantly interrupted her. Her almost every word was being jeered by a clearly organized group in the back of the audience. She persisted to present the dangers of the carcinogens, like benzene and toluene, that were leaching out of the landfill, poisoning the soil and waters, leaving the landfill and making there way to the Naugatuck River.

I was amazed at her steadfastness, calm, informed presentation and courage. That woman was Mary Lou Sharon.

When first arriving in Naugatuck, I was warned about this same woman. I was told, “Don’t have anything to do with Mary Lou Sharon.” It reminded me of the old cowboy movies where the common people were warned about the looming threat of the bad guys. It was years later that I learned whisper campaigns were the stock and trade of Mayor William Rado.

In 1985, my wife and I were fortunate to go on a retreat to the White Mountains with Mary Lou and another member of the Pollution Extermination Group (PEG). (One of the many things Mary Lou taught us was to put your objective in the name of the group). There we heard stories of the constant harassment, like having garbage thrown on her lawn, like having their homes under surveillance, that the environmentalists, Mary Lou and others, faced in trying to explain environmental concerns to the community.

Mayor Rado called the PEG environmental group an example of “do-gooders who are no good.” (That is on film if anyone should have doubts.) Why did he take this tact? The mayor was frustrated. He was left with casting general aspersions. It was an attempt to divert from the main issue of the toxic landfill. He failed.

A question to ask ourselves is, would there have been a Naugatuck River Revival Group, a Committee For A Cultural/Environmental Center – Gunntown Road or the Naugatuck Land Trust and other environmental groups without PEG and the leadership of Mary Lou Sharon?

Maybe, but probably not with the same timing, and possibly the battles these groups engaged would have been more drawn out and certainly more difficult without the pioneering work of Mary Lou Sharon.

Another question we should ask ourselves today is why so long? Why has it taken so long to recognize Mary Lou and, in a sense, environmentalism here? Easy. What’s involved is extraordinary effort with no monetary self-interest. In a sense it’s a systemic problem. The system recognizes fame and fortune. It recognizes self-aggrandizement and conspicuous consumption.

Why is it that a Donald Trump has such a recognizable name versus David Brower, the man who led the movement to save the Grand Canyon? Or Lois Gibbs, probably the most apt name to mention along with Mary Lou’s. Gibbs worked regionally and nationally to expose the toxic danger of the Love Canal landfill in New York state.

These were leaders, who not only put personal gain aside, but also brought pressures from powerful people, politicians and the wealthy on them to serve. To serve whom? The community and the environment. They put people and nature before personal gain. The system doesn’t recognize that well—only in flashes.

If there are lessons here for politicians and all of us, it’s that those who serve the environment, serve the community. Mary Lou Sharon is the quintessential example of this. She made the toxins in the landfill well known; she secured clean water for her neighborhood and pushed for the eventual superfund designation for the Laurel Park Landfill. The environment benefitted and the community benefitted.

Mary Lou Sharon’s name doesn’t have the commercial cachet of the Kardashian sisters or the Trumps of this world. What she does have is the dignity and friendships the rich and famous can never have. It’s a credit to the Mezzo administration in Naugatuck that the historical ship is beginning to be righted. Ms. Sharon, being proclaimed Earth Day Mayor of the Day on April 21, is a start in recognizing Mary Lou’s leadership as pioneer of the environmental movement here. Naugatuck be proud.

Mary Lou taught us, like the song “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree, “You gotta be strong. You gotta be tough. You gotta be wiser.”

Thank you Mary Lou Sharon

Len Yannielli

Community Outreach Director

Committee For A Cultural/Environmental Center – Gunntown Road