Interview with Regna Merritt, Oregon PSR, 2019 Visionary Leaders Award Recipient October 17, 2019

This year at the 2019 PSR Visionary Leaders Awards, we are delighted to honor several  outstanding advocates who are working to abolish nuclear weapons and to address environmental hazards to health, including the climate crisis.

Regna Merritt, Oregon PSR advisory board member and former Healthy Climate Program Director, is recognized for her outstanding coalition work, community engagement, and grassroots organizing at Oregon PSR to address environmental hazards to health, including the climate crisis.

PSR asked Merritt about how she came to do this work, what inspires her, and her advice for young people just starting to get involved in advocacy.

Q: What first drew you to this type of work?

As a retired Physician Assistant, I worked at Oregon Wild for nearly 20 years to protect endangered species and the cleanest sources of water in Oregon and throughout the nation. With partners and volunteers, we defended forested municipal watersheds in Oregon and federal Roadless Areas, while securing permanent federal protections for the largest drinking water source in the state and new Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers. One year after retirement from Oregon Wild, I came to grips with the realization that local and national victories would be ephemeral due to impending climate catastrophe. At risk: the health of our children and grandchildren and the precious biodiversity that supports us. When the Sierra Club offered support for a new position at Oregon PSR in 2012, I jumped at the opportunity to join talented staff and to bring the health voice to the regional Power Past Coal Coalition (PPC).

Q: How have the health impacts of climate change-related policies informed your work?

My understanding of health impacts, environmental injustice and the power of fossil fuel corporations has grown dramatically in the past 12 years. We originally learned from [PSR board member] Dr. Alan Lockwood the threats associated with the burning of coal and the dearth of policies that truly protect our climate and communities. We learned more from Whatcom Docs, an informal group that identified multiple health risks associated with a proposed coal export facility in Washington. Oregon PSR and PPC then raised concerns about the myriad of health and safety risks to communities (especially low-income and communities of color) and tribal nations along rail lines and near all proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific NW. Our concerns were later confirmed through multiple agency permit denials of each and every coal export project, including the largest proposed coal export facility in the nation.

With the Stand Up to Oil coalition, we learned more about specific transportation and storage risks associated with oil. We mourned those who lost their lives at Lac Megantic, Quebec and witnessed an oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon. Amplifying the potential deadly impacts contributed to success in securing permit denials for the largest oil-by-rail facility in the nation in Vancouver, WA. This year we helped pass Oregon legislation, improving policy and increasing training for oil train disaster response.

The Power Past Fracked Gas coalition has benefited from documentation of the shocking impacts of methane and fracked gas in compendiums produced by PSR and NY Health Professionals. Together, we support current efforts to prevent a massive LNG pipeline and export facility in Oregon. Information we provided about health impacts contributed to a 5-year moratorium on fracking established by the state legislature in 2019.

Oregon PSR volunteers and board members, who work in concert with effective coalitions and with Washington PSR, have been invaluable in producing substantive, evidence-based recommendations to the governors of Oregon and Washington. They’ve provided critical information to community members about health impacts of toxic pollutants and have prevented environmental injustice through multiple agency denials of proposed coal, oil and gas projects. They also work proactively in support of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a frontline community-led project and a national model for a local Green New Deal. Their work informs policy and inspires me every day.

Q: What would be your advice to a young person just starting to get involved in this type of work?

We need you, your courage, creativity, discipline and perspective now more than ever.

Enjoy working across disciplines, organizations and coalitions to share expertise and resources. There is no time left for organizational  “turf protection” and traditional single-issue organizing. Most importantly, identify and cultivate opportunities to support front-line leadership.

Q: When it comes to changes or advances in climate policies, what is your greatest hope for the coming year?

My greatest hope for 2020 is that we win elections and begin to reverse damage to our climate and communities. While celebrating many local, state and regional victories in the Pacific NW, we need federal elected officials and agencies who will work urgently to end the power of corporations which threaten our climate. Countless federal laws and policies that protect public health must be re-instated, and attempts to gut them must be ended.

Another big hope I have for local policy – successful implementation of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a beautiful example of a Green New Deal at a local level.

Q: Who are your greatest inspirations to do the work that you do?

My earliest inspirations were Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rachel Carson, and Mardy Murie. I’ve always been inspired by those who defend and protect nature. Inspiration also came from my parents: Glenn Merritt, advocate for excellence in public education, and Justine Merritt, anti-nuclear activist and founder of The Ribbon. She inspired tens of thousands to create “works of art and heart” by drawing, painting and embroidering what they most cherish and could lose in a nuclear war. The Ribbon was wrapped around the Pentagon and White House in 1985.

In recent years, tireless co-workers in our Healthy Climate Action Team and dedicated colleagues who connect informal and formal coalitions, including Power Past Coal, Stand Up to Oil, Power Past Fracked Gas, Sunrise Movement and Portland Clean Energy Fund have inspired me. And, as ever, my family inspires me.

PSR is grateful to have benefited from the incredible contributions of Regna Merritt through her work for the Oregon PSR chapter.

Inspired? Don’t miss the chance to attend the Visionary Leaders Awards on November 7 as we honor Regna Merritt alongside our other amazing VLA recipients. Learn more and reserve your tickets today.

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