The Club You Never Want to Be In

Families need protections from cancer clusters now.

When you think of clubs, your mind takes you to sports, books, school, you name it. But the club I’m in is different. This club was forced upon me and other mothers in a similar position. Never in my life did I think I would be part of a club like this. We call it the “moms’ cancer club.” I never signed up for it. Just like I never signed up to be an activist. Most of us in this club never do.

And yet here I am. It’s been five years of fighting to make North Carolina acknowledge the cancer cluster that exists in my neighborhood, where coal plants dumped toxic ash for decades; coal ash that was left behind after years of burning coal for energy; coal ash that studies irrefutably show is linked to cancer. It’s been five years since my daughter’s cancer diagnosis. And it’s been five years of watching the health department, the department of environmental quality, politicians, and even some questionable academics do everything in their power to dismiss the coal ash mess industry left in my town, leaving my family and others living in a toxic jumble.

But I am just one of many in this club.

A mom I know has been working for six years to get support from her town in West Hills, California, to do something about the Santa Susana Lab, a former nuclear testing site. Her daughter and the neighbors were diagnosed with leukemia and other cancers in the surrounding area. That’s how she joined the club. To this day, nothing has been done and no health data has been collected for the community harmed by this site.

And in Idaho, another mom began fighting 19 years ago to find out why her son and many others around her were diagnosed with brain cancers. She fought like hell and took it all the way to Congress to get Trevor’s Law in the books, so that communities would get federal assistance and guidelines implemented by the Center for Disease Control when tracking and investigating cancer clusters. This law has not done much, unfortunately, because the government is not putting the resources needed on the table.

After all these years and after meeting countless moms like me, I’ve noticed a pattern. Our kids get cancer, along with our neighbors and classmates — one by one, quickly taking over and plaguing our lives as people start dying. We then spend tireless hours and years trying to get answers over the environmental catastrophes that industry is allowed to cause with impunity, and then fight to get common-sense clean ups. We fight with uncooperative health departments and officials who refuse to even use the words “cancer cluster,” and instead say terms like “significantly higher rates.” State regulators tell us nothing is wrong and that everything is being monitored. Politicians tell us they will help, with no action or follow through.

This must stop now, and the only way that will happen is if we put pressure on everyone at fault. Indeed, we must put pressure on agencies and officials that bend over backwards to protect refineries, power plants, chemical companies and countless other industries that pollute our homes and workplaces.

This is why I, with the help of Earthjustice and other groups, am organizing a protest set to take place in Washington, D.C., on September 20. The goal is to bring mothers, advocates, and scientists to the steps of Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency. The demand of our S.A.F.E Protest is simple: Families need protections from cancer clusters now.

So, if you are in Washington on September 20, please join us, or tell anyone you know that might be interested in joining this event. We can get things done if we work together. No one should be living in cancer clusters. No more moms should be joining my club.

Susan Wind is an environmental advocate from North Carolina who works to call attention to the health harms of coal ash.

Earthjustice’s Clean Energy Program uses the power of the law and the strength of partnership to accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy.

Susan Wind stands behind her daughter Taylor, who was diagnosed with cancer five years ago.
Susan Wind stands behind her daughter Taylor, who was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. (Courtesy of Susan Wind)