Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a five-part Friday series highlighting behind-the-scenes players who shape Great Lakes policy. Previously profiled: Joy Mulinex, David Ullrich, Derek Stack and Dave Naftzger.
The power plant official called the bespectacled grandmother of two a liar when she said his company had already admitted responsibility for 10 percent of the young fish killed in the Maumee River.
So Sandy Bihn started digging through the documents she brought with her to the public meeting a year ago with First Energy. Before the meeting ended, she pulled the company’s report citing the figure.
She asked for an apology and didn’t get it. But the incident swelled support for her and other activists in a room full of fisherman who until then had been skeptical whether there was even a problem.
Bihn is a master community organizer, says Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action. Buchanan has known her since 1983 when Bihn volunteered with the League of Women Voters.
“She’s just very creative in thinking about allies, and she has tremendous personal integrity,” Buchanan says.
Bihn served 20 years as finance director for Oregon, Ohio, a city of about 20,000 people just across the Maumee River from Toledo. She left the position in 2003. The next year, she started a local branch of Robert Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance for Western Lake Erie, which now has about 200 members.
She has been a member of the Oregon City Council since 2005. She serves as conservation chair of the Western Lake Erie Sierra Club, and on the boards of Ohio Citizen Action and the Duck and Otter Creek Watershed.
She established a grassroots organization to limit dumping of out-of-state hazardous waste to Lake Erie. And she presides over the Toledo Harbor Lighthouse Preservation Society, which boasts about 500 members.
“She’s been in and out of elected office and seen it from all these perspectives,” Buchanan says. “But in any position that she’s had, she’s been completely consistent on the issues.
“She runs for elected office as a way to further the interests of the community.”
It’s this meld of passionate advocacy and clear-headed policy realism that makes her an especially dangerous activist – one who has credibility with regular folks, as well as reporters and officials. She educates herself on issues, is doggedly persistent and digs hard to answer questions that agency and company officials won’t.
“She’s very diligent, very meticulous on public records. She knows the system. And she’s not naÃ¯ve,” says Tom Henry, veteran environmental reporter and columnist for the Toledo Blade. “She has a lot of good reporter instincts.”
When she smells a rat, she stays on its track, Henry says.
“She’s one of four or five people in northwest Ohio – and maybe the top one – that you say their name to an Ohio EPA bureaucrat and you can almost see the hair stand up on the back of their neck,” he says.
Henry calls the region “ground zero” for many of the environmental issues affecting the Great Lakes region.
Colleagues and associates credit Bihn with bringing attention to the Envirosafe hazardous waste dump, the Bay Shore power plant and issues like open dumping, dredging and algae blooms in Lake Erie.
If you had the view Bihn’s enjoyed since 1987 from the picture window in her family room, you’d see why she’s so motivated. Her house sits on Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay, next to Maumee Bay State Park. She sees fisherman catching walleye off the Michigan shoreline, and the Toledo Lighthouse. She sees little Turtle Island, and its now-crumbled lighthouse. And if she paddles out a bit, she can see West Sister Island.
She can also see Detroit Edison’s Monroe coal plant and Enrico Fermi nuclear plant.
“It’s not like this is some automaton who just decided to work on this,” Buchanan says. “She does it because she cares about the people who live on the lake. She cares about what happens to the lake and the ecosystem and the long-term future of the community.
“It’s a very, very rooted belief that she comes from.”
Bihn says she’s committed to the lake’s future.
“It scares me as to what the tipping point of the lake is before the fish start responding negatively and we make national news like the Cuyahoga River again, which none of us want,” she says.
She does her homework. Some months, Bihn will attend 15 meetings on environmental issues. By the time we spoke one recent afternoon, she had already held a press conference call to publicize another Bay Shore fish-kill hearing, attended a hearing on alternatives to open-lake dumping and had eaten perch at lunch with a congressional representative. She’s perpetually accessible via phone or e-mail.
Bihn often takes people out on the lake to illustrate her points, says Enid Nagel, Ohio chapter chair of the Sierra Club. (She’s also been known to carry around a 5-gallon bucket full of algae.)
“She’s willing to really show people, not just talk about it,” Nagel says.
She can also talk about it.
If you’ve met Bihn, you know that the Maumee River is the most biologically productive river, and that Lake Erie is the shallowest, fishiest part of the Great Lakes. You’re likely also to know that HUCs are the hydrological unit code numbers that identify watersheds, and that TMDL stands for total maximum daily load – the maximum amount of pollutants a waterbody can receive and still be considered safe by the EPA. You may even know that Lake Erie’s next TMDL is not scheduled until 2014.
Bihn is comfortable talking in numbers. She’ll tell you that few people realize that 80 percent of the water in Lake Erie is used – not consumed, but heated and altered – by power plants. She’ll easily rattle off the number of gallons each of the nearby power plants uses each day, and how many fish they kill.
But she also knows how to frame issues effectively to make them resonate with people.
“She knows what messages capture people and what will get them fired up,” says Kristy Meyer, director of agriculture and clean water programs for the Ohio Environmental Council.
Bihn is widely credited for stalling a $200 million plant on the Maumee River that would turn coal into coke, a key ingredient for steel making. She and others found problems with the mercury limits in the plant’s permit, which attracted the attention of regulators from Ohio, Michigan and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.
“Largely because of Sandy’s opposition … they succeeded in getting what easily was the most restrictive permit ever issued for a coke plant in the country,” Henry says.
The permit process has stalled the plant for five years, and FDS Coke Plant LLC. has yet to break ground. The plan isn’t dead, but it’s on life support.
“It appears on many levels that it’s not viable, but you just don’t know,” Bihn says. “Many of us just don’t want to see a dirty coal plant coming here.”
Bihn says activists can affect policy, but they have to do it carefully.
“We have to do it together. There has to be compromise. There has to be an ability to pick issues in spots where the issues are the most meaningful,” she says.
Sometimes people think they can just object to a factory farm or sue a company to stop it, she says. Instead, focusing on issues like nutrient levels can affect a factory farm, as well as other issues in the watershed.
“We have to pick issues that we can win, and hopefully help other issues,” she says.
But fighting isn’t the only way to affect environmental policy on the Great Lakes.
“I don’t think we celebrate the lakes enough,” she says. “There’s not enough singing, there’s not enough movies – just stuff to let people gain a greater understanding and enjoy it at the same time.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the view from Bihn’s house regarding the power plants.