Wilma Subra: Chemist helping communities find justice in toxic environment
by Vicki Wolf, February 2009
Wilma Subra started Subra Company, a chemistry lab and environmental consulting firm, in 1981. Her goal was to help citizens and communities understand exposure and health effects of toxins in their environment. “No one was looking out for community groups,” Subra says about the early days of her company. Located in New Iberia, Louisiana, Subra Company offers technical assistance and provides the science. These services are needed for communities to get the attention of the industries responsible for the pollution, as well as the agencies responsible for protecting public health and the environment.
“I’ve never had to turn anybody down,” Subra says. “They may have to wait a few days, but if they ask, I will do what I can to help them.” Subra and her husband try to carve out time for lunch together a couple of times during the week. On the day of this interview, while she was taking a lunch break, Subra received a call from Mr. Woody in False River. He lives near a meander of the Mississippi River and talks to Subra about the inappropriate sewage discharge in the river. Another call comes in from a woman who lives in Iberia Parish. She tells Subra that she and her neighbor are the only ones in her community who haven’t been diagnosed with cancer.
“The community comes to me when they are desperate to find out what is happening to them,” Subra says. “I can help them find out what the cause of the problem is and how to improve their quality of life.”
When results from an investigation are in, Subra briefs the industry and government on what is happening. “The community starts to shine light back on the industry and lets them know how they are impacting the community.”
Subra holds degrees in Microbiology and Chemistry from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. She has received the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award from the MacArthur Foundation for helping ordinary citizens understand, cope with and combat environmental issues in their communities. She also was one of three finalists in the Environmental Category of the 2004 Volvo for Life Award.
After seventh grade, Wilma Subra worked in her father’s office replacing each person when they went on vacation. She learned that she liked chemistry while replacing the chemist.
In college she took every biology, microbiology and chemistry course the university offered. Next, she learned computer programming. With the tools she had garnered from school, she participated in a summer program modeling common Staph infections in hospitals. By modeling variations of chemical characteristics of the Staph bacteria, investigators were able to trace what the hospitals had in common to identify the cause of the infection.
Subra’s first community work was in Lafayette, Louisiana. She helped the community get a rendering plant to stop dumping dead cows into the river and polluting the water.
Before starting her own company, Subra worked for Gulf South Institute for 14 years. The company had contracts with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They conducted cancer studies and environmental impact studies. They also developed mechanisms and protocol for national programs.
Subra decided to start her own company after working with the EPA on the Love Canal neighborhood case involving a toxic waste site. “We were doing quick response to locate swales of toxins under homes in Love Canal,” Subra recalls. They had discovered that the highest incidences of illness related to toxins were in homes located over the swales. Subra became frustrated when they were not allowed to tell residents about their findings. “All data had to go to the EPA, which they provided in code to the citizens in a summary that concluded ‘no additional risk,’” she says. “It is still basically going on now, but there are more people working on behalf of the community now.”
Representing the community, Subra has served seven years as vice-chair of the EPA National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT), a five year term on the National Advisory Committee of the U. S. Representative to the Commission for Environmental Cooperation and a six year term on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) where she served as a member of the Cumulative Risk and Impacts Working Group of the NEJAC Council, and chaired the NEJAC Gulf Coast Hurricanes Work Group. Subra says, “Serving on the advisory committees gives you an opportunity to bring issues in front of D.C. and interconnect with others around us with similar issues to see it is not just a problem in one community.”
Subra is the technical advisor for Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) and the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. She regularly reports on environmental issues affecting the area. Recently she published a retrospective of the natural, man-made and technology-based disasters that occurred in the Mississippi River Basin in 2008(www.leanweb.org). As she put it, “It was an eventful year!” Her report included spring flooding, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, an oil barge spill and two hurricanes.
She also is called on to do hurricane damage assessment and testing for toxins left behind after a storm. Subra recently conducted testing for toxins in the sediment washed into Galveston from the bay after Hurricane Ike. A report on those results will be presented to the community soon. She says she and her husband never evacuate during a hurricane. “As soon as we cut our way out of the house and make sure the family is okay, I’m out collecting names and helping people get supplies.”
Subra says as long as people need her help, she will keep doing this work. “ I keep doing it because I have the ability to understand what is going on, and they can keep up the fight,” she says. “You give them the information and they do the work. I’m only a small part of the work.”
Subra lives with her husband, Clint, in Iberia, Louisiana. She says her five grandchildren are her hobby. One grandson was born last year when Hurricane Ike was hitting New Orleans.
Click here for an update and see what Subra is doing now!