It was with shock and sadness that I learned of the sudden and unexpected death of environmental activist Maureen Reilly who died in Toronto on Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at age 58.
As the news release I put together states, Reilly was known to readers as a “sludge activist” who tirelessly campaigned for higher treatment standards and better oversight of the disposal of municipal “biosolids” on farm lands, sometimes called “beneficial use” (industry terms of which Reilly did not approve, preferring to call it “sludging”). She also called attention to paper mill sludge, alarmed by its sometimes being deposited on sensitive land only to leak chemical inks and dyes.
Some of Reilly’s investigations into lax practices found their way into the pages of this magazine, either directly from her own commentary or via ideas suggested to editorial staff (namely me).
For 13 years she was administrator of SludgeWatch, which included a list serv and advocacy service for people and communities struggling with issues related to contamination from wastewater, sludge, and other industrial residuals. Many of the people she helped came to her funeral, which I also attended; as is the Quaker way, quite a few stood up and offered heartfelt recollections of this amazing woman. (Among my favorites was the recollection from one friend of the young Maureen Reilly of her often taking an inflatable raft via public transit down to the waterfront, then paddling around, chatting with boaters and inevitably being invited onto someone’s yacht to share a bottle of wine. She was very convivial unless you were on the wrong side of her sludge issue.)
I first encountered Reilly many years ago when she called to draw my attention to local sludge practices being conducted with poor oversight. Reilly said that while the rules looked good on paper, in the real world the practice fell between the cracks of rural municipalities with no power to regulate or control, and an overburdened provincial environment ministry with too few inspectors. My own investigations confirmed many of Reilly’s objections.
I once wrote a long expose at Reilly’s behest for which I found myself criss-crossing rural roads and farmlands across Ontario meeting beleaguered homeowners sick from sludge being sprayed around them, their water wells contaminated. It was a fun assignment and opened my eyes to the difference between what the “experts” thought was going on from their offices, and what was taking place out on the farms. Other articles and editorials followed.
When I first met Reilly, who was not a small woman, I was amused by her soft, almost child-like voice that reminded me of Marilyn Monroe when she sang Happy Birthday Mr. President for JFK. In fact, my wife at the time gave me a piercing look one time after she picked up the phone and passed it to me, suspicious as to why some twenty-something model was calling me.
That first time we met I recall Reilly and me sharing a bottle of wine at a restaurant near Yorkville in Toronto, and Reilly telling me the story of how she got into this area of activism after inheriting a rural house and finding herself one day surrounded with sludged fields.
We had both read the hilarious (and ironically titled) book Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry by intrepid journalists John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton — a book I continue to recommend for anyone interested in these issues, no matter which side of the sludge debate they stand (or sink) on.
Reilly was criticized by some professionals, sometimes legitimately debating her but often making ad hominem attacks, questioning her credibility because she wasn’t a scientist or engineer. I always found those comments specious; our society needs these kinds of relentless and eccentric gadflies poking about, keeping the authorities honest.
I had lost track of Reilly in the past year or so, some of her issues being a little off-spec for my magazines. I’m sorry that happened. The kind of work Reilly chose comes with little if any remuneration, and burn-out can catch up with a person constantly speaking truth to power. She was usually the person giving, always a bit amazed at how cynically certain parts of our economy operate. It’s not easy being single when the Christmas season approaches, either.
Perhaps the best way to honour Maureen Reilly’s memory is to reach out to the activists around us and help them out as much as we can. Even if they’re opposed to your project and you disagree with them, remember that they believe in what they’re fighting for, and we need them to hold our toes to the fire.
I don’t know who will take Maureen Reilly’s place — likely no one can. She will be missed.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com