Joan Mulhern: Clean Water Loses A Champion

Joan Mulhern, my friend, a fellow clean water advocate, and a mentor, passed away on Tuesday.  I hope everyone will read the touching tribute that her Earthjustice colleague, Marty Hayden, wrote.  Our community has suffered a tremendous loss, not just for the things we liked about Joan – like her wry humor and shameless Red Sox boosterism – but for the things that made us uncomfortable – like when she was telling us that we weren’t taking a strong enough stance on a given issue. 

Perhaps the easiest way of describing the role that Joan played in the world of national clean water policy is the reaction that several of us had yesterday when we met to commiserate over the heartbreaking death of our colleague; we said, “now, one of us has to be the tough one.” (Actually, we used a little saltier language.)  Joan was uncompromising in defense of clean water, and didn’t shy away from a fight for clean water protections, even in the face of daunting and well-funded opposition and powerful but intransigent politicians.  I rarely saw Joan talk about the Clean Water Act without reminding people that its first goal – which many people today now treat as a quaint antiquity of a simpler 1972 Congress – was “that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985”.

Joan was in many ways our community’s conscience, and did not withhold judgment when she thought we were making a mistake.  Just take a look at the blog she posted in October, not long before she became ill, eviscerating the sewage treatment industry and even some of her environmental colleagues about how to deal with sewage systems that periodically overflow during rainstorms. 

I disagreed with her often, and enjoyed -- to a point! -- our often long debates (read, Joan telling me why I was wrong).  But Joan’s consistent and insistent approach was critical to our movement; even when we had a difference of opinion, I always benefitted from the searching review of my position that came from talking to Joan.  But don’t get me wrong – Joan was no naïve idealist.  She was also a Capitol Hill-savvy pragmatist.  She knew how to pull together a coalition to get things done and to persuade often-skeptical members of Congress that voting for clean water was good for their constituents, no matter what the well-heeled lobbyists on the polluters’ side were telling them.

As many people have noted, including her friends at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Joan was extra-tireless (please permit the oxymoron – if you knew Joan, I think you’ll agree it’s appropriate) in fighting mountaintop removal coal mining.  Joan was the coal companies’ worst enemy in Washington, and the people of Appalachia’s best friend.  No matter how tough the political landscape, Joan kept at administration officials and members of Congress constantly, forcing them to learn about the water pollution and community devastation that practice brings.  She and her partners deserve credit for achieving improved scrutiny of these mines, even though she’d rightfully say that our leaders have not done nearly enough to stop this outrage.  Joan now joins Larry Gibson (whose passing Joan wrote poignantly about) and Judy Bonds as mountaintop removal fighters to pass away too young in the last two years.  All three of them would want – demand – that people keep fighting to stop it.

When I remember Joan, which I will often, I think I’ll remember most what she frequently implored our community to do – talk about clean water.  Not about this rule or that, but fishing holes and clean beaches, and safe and sufficient water to supply our drinking water providers.  And, I’ll remember the couple of bright April days we went out to the ballpark to watch the Red Sox play and the innumerable conversations we had about our hometown team.

Godspeed, Joan.  Thank you.