Positive Solutions Interview With The Cookie Lobbyist
On January 9, 2014, in Charleston, West Virginia, one of the worst chemical water pollution spills in recent history, happened upriver from the city, and just like that, 300,000 people were left with undrinkable water and a lot of fear about what was happening. One of those people is Lori Magana, who decided to take a stand and became the Cookie Lobbyist. She makes homemade cookies and gives them out to legislators along with a plea for them to “Protect Our Water”. She also attends meetings, interacts with environmental groups and has testified as a concerned citizen.
Positive Solutions: So to start off, what would you like people to know about who you are and how did you get into this lobbying effort for clean and safe water?
The Cookie Lobbyist: I’m just an ordinary person. I was doing things like recycling and was very careful with water, but at that point in time, I didn’t know that we had to fight for our clean water. I’m a Physical Therapist, I work with children, and I teach yoga. I also have a dog who likes fresh clean water to drink daily. I live in West Virginia and I make cookies.
I didn’t know that we had to fight for our clean water.
Positive Solutions: Are you a native West Virginian?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Both my mom and dad were born in West Virginia, but I was born out West while my father was in the military. My parents wanted their children to know what it was like to grow up in a small town so we came back here when he left the service. I grew up in Southern West Virginia and I’ve lived in Charleston for almost 30 years.
Positive Solutions: Where were you and what were you doing when you found out that you had been exposed to polluted water during the Elk River Chemical Spill in 2014?
The Cookie Lobbyist: I had been working that day. Afterwards, I went out with a friend, to have an early dinner. We had been drinking lots of water, and sodas at the restaurant. While I was driving home, someone sent me an urgent text. I pulled over and the text said, “URGENT Don’t Drink The Water!” I then started sending the text to some of my friends. I didn’t know it was all over the news.
Since I’d been working all day and I hadn’t heard the news; it was quite upsetting to know that this had been happening all day and I was drinking the water. Even though I had some bottled water at home, I headed to Lowes to buy more bottled water. At that point I had no idea what was happening, but I wanted to be prepared. When I got to Lowes, all the shelved cases of bottled water had been bought out and the shelves were empty. Instead, I went to the refrigerator case and ended paying about 30 dollars for the last of the cold individual bottles of water.
At that moment, I was in shock but, when I went home it really hit me. I hadn’t watched the news all day, but while watching it later that night and during the emergency broadcasts, and reading Facebook posts, I realized that people had gotten sick from it . Everything was just crazy.
Then, I became a rain catcher. The next day, I immediately went out and bought a rain barrel. Thankfully, we had a few days of rain and I was able to catch lots of rainwater to use and that lasted for months.
I guess I got really mad. I’m not, normally, an angry person, but I am a passionate person. So it sent me on a journey that I never thought I’d be on.
Positive Solutions: In researching this story, there were some questions about why so many people were dependent on this particular river as their main water source and why the communities were using surface water as opposed to ground water. Do you have any insights about this?
The Cookie Lobbyist: No, not really, in all the training classes that have been offered, no one has mentioned anything that I am aware of about the use of surface water as opposed to ground water.
I think an important question is why was there an uninspected above ground storage tank holding a chemical right above the intake and because of the leakage, it most likely affected the groundwater, which I’m assuming feeds into the surface water. That was one of my concerns, even after the cleanup, was how much chemical is in the groundwater and in turn, how much would that continue to affect our drinking water.
Positive Solutions: What are you trying to do with your lobbying efforts and how are you having the time money and energy to do this? Do you have anyone helping you?
The Cookie Lobbyist: No, I don’t have, nor do I want anyone helping me at this point, it’s a very personal thing.
After the water crisis happened, there were groups forming trying to take a stand and organize local citizens to act. That’s when (CAPE) Citizens Actively Protecting the Environment formed. I worked with that group a lot that first year. This group was instrumental in helping me learn how to be a citizen lobbyist/water advocate and really helped me find my voice. It was a little intimidating at first but I found lots of encouragement and reinforcement from this group.
They offered training. One of the training classes was about citizen lobbying. I felt like that was the position that was calling me.
There was a retired environmental lobbyist and energy activist, Bill Howley, whom I was lucky enough to train with. He met us at the State Capital and taught us how to go about lobbying the State Legislature, basically telling us step by step on how to go about the process, the committees, rules, where to get a copy of a bill, etc. This is how you do this, this is what that means, and this is how you do that, that kind of thing.
They know me, or at least they know the cookie. I wear the same blue “water dress” each time I go to the capital to increase my likelihood of being recognized as someone who cares about water, and of course, who has great #protectourwater cookies.
Positive Solutions: Do you think that you are forging personal relationships with them when you see them and give them a cookie, so that when they are in those meetings they have been reminded that it is their job to protect our water?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Well, yes. Being a citizen lobbyist, I’m not like the environmental lobbyists who may help influence the drafting of the legislation. I’m just an everyday citizen, one of their constituents, in say a committee meeting, listening to them discuss a bill affecting our water and then watch them vote. After handing them a cookie, making eye to eye contact with them, with my hard to miss blue dress; I at least feel that they know someone is there that cares (along with my other water warriors I might add)
I know that however they vote, I was there in some way, with my cookie or presence, to let them know I care about our water and what they do that affects its safety.
It definitely has opened doors and I’m able to freely talk with most of the legislators and am able to discuss my support of water protective legislation. It’s nice to see a smile on their face when I hand them a cookie.
Most of the legislators have been supportive of my efforts, so I’m not intimidated now. And the staff of these legislators are also supportive of my efforts (sometimes they even ask for a cookie, or since the administrative staff helps me out in various ways, I always give them cookies too!
When I’m in the same room with the senators/delegates, I like to see them open the cookie, read the message on the front, and watch them bite into it. It’s very satisfying. There has been a lot of positive energy around my cookies and my efforts. I don’t know exactly what they are thinking, but I hope that they know that someone who cares is there watching what they do. I believe and know that there are many senators and delegates who support protecting our water. I’ve seen them in action.
Positive Solutions: Have you talked to groups like the Sierra Club and The Natural Resources Defense Council since this all started?
The Cookie Lobbyist: I actually talk more with West Virginia Rivers Coalition. I trust them to know what is going on with our water, and they know, and watch and may influence what legislation is being drafted during the legislative session. They keep us informed. They work closely with Evan Hanson, from Downstream Strategies. I’m also a donor supporting West Virginia Rivers Coalition and I have a positive relationship with them. I also maintain contact with West Virginia Citizen Action Group.
Both groups have given me encouragement to do what I do and that spurs me to keep on going. It takes a lot of energy to do this. Last year I made over 400 cookies and distributed them to various committees, and then the individual senators and delegates. Sometimes I dread when the legislature convenes, but once I get started and get over there, I feel at home.
This is something that I can’t not do. I have to do it!
Positive Solutions: One thing that strikes me when thinking about your lobbying technique is that instead of holding a protest sign, you’re handing them a cookie and that’s such a refreshing civilized approach to dealing with these kinds of issues.
The Cookie Lobbyist: Yes, I agree. You get more with sugar, than you do with salt!
Positive Solutions: Have you seen any changes in the legislation since you started doing this that was positive?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Well in 2014, just after the water crisis, after a lot of public support, they passed Senate Bill 373 . It gave us more protections; however, last year they rolled back the Above Ground Storage Tank Act. It definitely minimized the storage tank protections and regulations and weakened our water protections. The oil and gas industry are still trying to fight the standards that protect our water. Most recently, I was asked to testify at the Environmental Quality Board, as oil/gas industry were suing the DEP to attempt to weaken the standards further.
I think there have been positives and negatives in our fight.
Positive Solutions: So, it’s like 2 steps forward 1 step back, but you’ve still got a step in there?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Yes, and now during this legislative session, SB 625, which is critical to public’s ability to participate in local source water protection planning seems to have some momentum.
One thing I’m really concerned about and have heard some chatter about is changing West Virginia water designations from Category A, that currently applies to all or most of our West Virginia rivers and streams. This gives the waters the highest protection level. It is a big concern for me right now, because it potentially will weaken our water standards. I would like to state that West Virginia has an abundant source of rainfall; we have plenty of water! I just don’t understand why they don’t want to keep it as clean as possible. I understand who wants to weaken it, but from a humanity perspective, I don’t understand why.
Positive Solutions: Does this mean that waters used by municipalities would have more protection?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Category A designation controls the amount of pollution entering our water, so yes, a Category A designation does offer more protection. Currently all or most of our rivers and streams are Category A, and that protects our water that is currently used or may be used as drinking water in the future.
Positive Solutions: The next question is how do you protect yourself from this pollution? You’ve mentioned using a rain barrel installed and I’m assuming water filters? Do you keep an eye on the Health Department water tests? They should be testing on a monthly basis.
The Cookie Lobbyist: Well, I have a Berkey Filter, which is a world-class water filter, it is not hooked up into my intake, but is a stationary water tank that is on my counter and I fill up glass water bottles that I take with me everywhere I go.
The Berkey will remove chemicals like MCHM and many other harmful chemicals from my tap water. I think if I got a statement from the Health Department every month about their water quality tests, I might go crazy. I think about and talk about water enough, but I’m also trying to get over the residual emotions and feelings after being poisoned and assaulted from the chemical spill. I still wonder what the long term affects could be, but you have to get over a lot of that. I am trying to not live in fear. I’m trying to protect myself the best I can, by filtering my own drinking water with my Berkey.
I used my rain barrel for 3 months. I would take showers and wash my hair with my rainwater. Then one night, three months after the spill, when I was in a big hurry, I finally took a shower in my own house with my regular tap water.
West Virginia Rivers Coalition, I know I keep mentioning them, but I think they do the best job keeping an eye on our rivers. Right now they are looking for volunteers to do river monitoring, by taking water samples, which I can’t personally do right now. They also ask people to just keep their eyes, ears open and be alert for potential sources of pollution that can contaminate our water and if there are any noticeable changes in rivers and streams, to report it.
Positive Solutions: That’s good!
The Cookie Lobbyist: Even in my neighborhood, I keep an eye on potential sources of contaminants and practice protection strategies, such as picking up pet droppings, and watching and reporting pollution that has gone into the neighborhood storm drains (cigarette butts/fireplace ashes are some sources of pollution I’ve seen). It all affects our water quality. We can all have a part in keeping our water safe and protecting our drinking water.
Positive Solutions: You know it’s so sad that overnight a bad decision made by a company executive, and even some public officials can affect so many people. In this instance, it looks like there were a lot of people ignoring things that were going on because we’ve gotten to the point that we’ve been told that government regulators are supposed to be the bad guys, and are hurting business.
The Cookie Lobbyist: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to have looked at those tanks and have seen that there was a probably a problem, I mean I only saw some pictures of the tanks on the Freedom Industry site and it appeared that there was some corrosion, but the tanks had not been inspected for 25 years, I believe.
We didn’t have a state law to protect us (such as above ground storage tank, which is now not as robust as first intended), I think it was just a perfect storm, the whole thing was a perfect storm, even the aftermath of handling of the situation from all parties in charge.
With the changes in legislation and the water protection roll backs that have occurred since SB373 passed, it could appear that industry interests are more important to those in the majority who control our laws and regulations than the citizens and their drinking water.
There are so many problems that can happen that can affect safe drinking water. You have to be vigilant about what the state laws are, and how they will affect your drinking water and safety. I don’t know where the best protections are, just look at places like Michigan and Oklahoma, and what is going on there. I’d say that how a state protects its environment, its water and its people would be a major consideration, if I were to leave West Virginia.
The Cookie Lobbyist: No, not at this point, but I may be doing more in the future. I promise to let you know when and what I do.
Positive Solutions: You are trust but verify type of situation now. You’re letting the public officials know that you’re still here, and are not going to go away?
The Cookie Lobbyist: Yes, that is true; I just can’t let this go.
Positive Solutions: You know, I think that some of us were not built to stand back from a fight and live a quiet life and I think you’re one of them.
Thank you so much for your time and discussion of this cause that you have been so valiantly fighting for.