Clean Water 50 Stories: Brent Baeslack
How did you become interested in environmental advocacy?
The starting point was a community effort here in Haverhill to stop the construction of a solid waste incinerator in 1988; that was really my awakening. Having always believed that clean air and water were a fundamental right, it didn’t seem right that government might permit a polluting incinerator on the banks of the Merrimack River. That was when I became acquainted with Clean Water Action, through the group’s facilitation of our organizing work to oppose the permitting. I was impressed that Clean Water wants to collaborate and hear what the goals and ideas are from the residents impacted in any [local] environmental pursuit it gets involved with.
What inspires you to work in the environmental movement?
I am always in awe of the people I’ve had the opportunity to work with, who give so much of their time, skills, and talent in protecting their communities and neighborhoods. I feel very fortunate to join with them because of the caliber of talents brought to the table and the successes that have resulted on both the local and state level. I've always been inspired and felt really honored to be with the others who unite in the shared effort of trying to protect their communities’ clean water and air. It takes a lot of hands on the oars and I've been really fortunate to be able to participate and contribute in campaigns that have had a positive impact.
What have you learned from the work you’ve done on the Advisory Board and Board of Directors?
The aspect of collaboration in Clean Water Action’s work is so important. I met people that I never would have met under normal circumstances: doctors and professors engaged in public health education and conducting research on how environmental regulations can be structured to lead to good health outcomes. It is important for any campaign to be grounded on fact-based science. The Advisory Board is composed of citizen group leaders and individuals who share knowledge and unique perspectives. The different communities, interests, and perspectives all contribute to decision-making guiding campaigns, directing resources, and forming goals that come from Clean Water’s collaborative nature.
What unique aspect of yourself do you especially enjoy contributing to Clean Water’s boards?
I would hope that my employment in local municipal environmental regulation and land protection allows me to offer a slightly different actual on-the-ground perspective. Protecting streams, wetlands, and forests seems just what the doctor ordered for a group called Clean Water Action. I believe my role is to offer experience from the natural ecosystem perspective. I'm always advocating for people to get out and take a walk in the woods. “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ― John Muir.
Could you tell us about some of the successes from your work with the Haverhill Environmental League?
It seems to me that the best thing the Haverhill Environmental League ever did for the city and the Merrimack Valley was defeat the signed contract to burn sewage sludge. Haverhill Environmental League members did advocacy and outreach that led to the defeat of a proposal to mix sewage sludge with trash to be burned in the incinerator and later the creation of a curbside recycling program. We realized that the next best thing to shutting down the incinerator in Haverhill was to starve the incinerator of fuel. After that we continued with community organizing focused on the incinerator for many years.
Working on different levels, local, state, and national, is there one you consider to be the most influential or impactful?
One of the things I learned from our community work opposing waste incineration locally, is that the fight is not just here at the community/neighborhood level. The national regulations provide a minimum starting point for the state regulations. Work at the state level is important if protections are going to encompass all cities and towns; otherwise the polluters will just target the next community. And once you get to the neighborhood level, you can put nuances in to protect and provide for the community. You want an overarching umbrella of protection, but once you get into the state and local level, you can start getting into what specifics are needed to protect that which is unique to your community.
What advice do you have for young adults looking to join the environmental movement?
This would be coming from someone whose initial involvement seemed more like pure chance. And yet it sure seems like I’ve learned and grown closer to so many due to the shared desire to protect the environment of my community. So here goes: listen to the voice within yourself and to those around you, when a community issue that would impact your neighborhood in a negative environmental way comes along. Be open to the possibility of giving your time and effort to making a difference, because like John Muir commented about a walk in nature, you may get more out of your community involvement than you put in.
50 Years of Action for Clean Water is Worth Celebrating! Share your Clean Water Story here. Join us at Clean Water Action's 50th celebration in Massachusetts on October 6th here and our national virtual anniversary celebration and wine tasting on October 19th here.