Roxanne Phelps laughs when people compare her to Erin Brockovich, though she's flattered by the comparison. "I get that a lot," admits the 39-year-old public health officer for the town of Clarendon. Actually, the similarities are remarkable -- even if Phelps hasn't been the subject of a movie starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich is the now-famous legal crusader who helped the cancer-plagued residents of Hinckley, California, win the largest-ever class-action settlement against a U.S. corporation.
Like her, Phelps is a straight-talking single mother with no prior education or experience in public health or environmental law. She's holding down five jobs, attending college part-time and raising five children ages 3 to 19, including a cousin's 4-year-old she just took in. She coaches basketball six days a week and chairs the local recreation department. And Phelps still finds the time and energy to talk to local residents at all hours of the day and night about their health troubles.
Phelps has another thing in common with Brockovich: When it comes to protecting the wellbeing of people in her community, many of whom are children and low-income residents, she doesn't give up.
"I have heart," she says. "I care for people. But I never want to come across what [Brockovich] came across as far as illnesses." That's a very real concern in a community that's been plagued by unexplained illnesses and deaths, including the revelation in 2003 that the Vermont Department of Health was investigating a possible cancer cluster in the area.
Phelps first earned her reputation as a tireless champion of public health with her efforts to improve the living conditions in the Whispering Pines Mobile Home Park in North Clarendon. For the last 20 years, this modest trailer park with 23 residents has been beset by persistent health and safety issues: smelly and sediment-laden tap water, malfunctioning septic systems, foul gases permeating the homes, dangerous tree limbs and exposed electrical wires, to name a few.
Many of these problems haven't escaped the notice of state and local officials, the media or J.P. Carrara and Sons, Inc., who own the park. In 1990, underground petroleum tanks nearby were discovered to be leaking and contaminating the aquifer with benzene and MTBE, a carcinogenic fuel additive. Since then, the state has been providing the residents with free bottled water, though it's never declared the water supply unsafe to drink.
In fact, public records dating to the mid-1990s show that the state has long been aware of problems in the area, many of which residents blame on a neighboring rock quarry, which is also owned by the Carrara family. But despite years of residents' complaints and numerous reports in the media, the state did little, if anything, to correct these problems.
That is, until Phelps arrived on the scene. Her interest in the park was first piqued in 2003, shortly after the Clarendon Selectboard appointed her as town health officer. Phelps says she began hearing reports of children in the park having respiratory problems such as lung infections, asthma and persistent colds. The stories hit home for Phelps, who grew up in the area and whose own 15-year-old daughter suffers from serious allergies and two pulmonary diseases, for which she receives weekly shots.
Then, about a year ago, Phelps was contacted by Carol and Kevin Callahan, who have lived in Whispering Pines with their two children for eight years. Six months after they moved in, the family began experiencing problems with their water and septic systems, including raw sewage surfacing in their front yard and backing up into their house. Like other residents of the park, the Callahans have had constant problems with foul odors, low water pressure and sediment in their water, which wreaks havoc on their washing machine and hot water tank.
According to Carol Callahan, it wasn't until Phelps got involved that conditions in the park began to improve. In August, she and fellow health officer Chuck Davis inspected the park and identified 12 health and safety violations, some of which Phelps describes as "life-threatening." Within 48 hours, she had arranged a meeting with the park's owners, the tenants and the Department of Environmental Conservation to get the problems fixed.
During that meeting, residents were again told that their water was safe to drink. Unconvinced, Phelps handed the Carraras' attorney a glass of water that had been poured from the Callahans' tap, and asked him to drink it. He refused. "I said, 'Then what makes you think these people should drink it?'" Phelps recalls. To the residents of Whispering Pines who have been complaining for years about water quality, it was like a scene right out of the film Erin Brockovich.
"For all of us in the park, she's been a godsend," Callahan says. "For whatever reason, she has been the only person in the state of Vermont that can actually get anything done."
Annette Smith agrees. As founder of the grassroots environmental group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Smith has been closely following the decades-long saga of Whispering Pines. In fact, when Seven Days reached Smith by phone, she was reviewing the Carrara quarry case files -- the company has applied for a permit to deepen the rock quarry by another 105 feet. According to Smith, documents from the Agency of Natural Resources from 1994 show that ANR experts suspected Whispering Pines' water problems might be due to the neighboring quarry's operations.
"This case is a great example of the failure of the regulatory system from beginning to end," says Smith. "The bright light in this whole thing has been Roxanne Phelps. I work with communities throughout Vermont, and I have never seen a health officer step up to the plate the way Roxanne has and actually bring about change."
Tim Ashe, a Burlington City Councilor who works with the Mobile Home Project of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, shares Smith's assessment. "To put it plainly, we need more Roxanne Phelpses in this state," he says. "People who take the law for what it is, as a set of protections for residents to ensure they have an acceptable standard of living. It's pretty inspirational."
Town health officers in Vermont actually have a significant amount of power. They can write violations that result in stiff fines, condemn unsafe buildings, and even order search warrants. However, most health officers rarely exercise that authority.
Phelps is an exception. In her short tenure on the job, she's obtained a search warrant to identify an illegal septic system that may have been contaminating a Clarendon stream. She's condemned a rental property and helped the woman living there find new housing. Last summer, when Vermont was experiencing high winds and some residents of Whispering Pines were worried about dangerous overhanging tree limbs -- one pierced the roof of a mobile home -- Phelps told the Carraras to bring in arborists to cut them down.
How has a part-time health officer gotten the job done when others in the past could not? "I wouldn't let up until I got results," she says. "I wouldn't call once or twice a day. I'd call them 10 times a day until I got someone on the phone and said, 'What are you going to do about this?'"
If Phelps' persistence has ruffled some feathers, she hasn't heard any complaints or felt any repercussions. And, she adds, the selectboard has supported her efforts "200 percent."
So, what's next for Phelps when her term as health officer expires in 2007? "Getting some sleep!" she says. She's earned it.