Environmental Movement Loses Staunch Advocate

VPIRG is mourning the loss of a true environmental champion – Joan Mulhern. Joan passed away on Tuesday of this week at the Georgetown University Medical Center after a long illness. She was just 51 years old.

Many Vermonters became familiar with Joan during her years as an advocate for VPIRG during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, she was hired by VPIRG in 1985 to run our first summer canvass. It was the success of that first door-to-door outreach program that paved the way for this past summer’s record-breaking canvass in which VPIRG staff knocked on more than 70,000 doors across the state.

Joan served as development director for a year, took a year off, and then came back as VPIRG’s associate director in May of 1987. For the next seven years or so, Joan became the most tenacious defender of Vermont’s environment and public health that VPIRG – and perhaps Vermont – has ever known.

She was appointed by VPIRG’s Board to serve as acting executive director for a time in 1993, but she spent most of her time as legislative or program director, leading campaigns with a fierce determination that inspired respect, admiration, and in some cases, fear in others.

Joan was smart, direct and persistent. She knew her issues inside and out, and when it came to standing up to powerful interests who threatened our environment, she operated on a seemingly endless reservoir of courage. As VPIRG’s advocate, she took aim at ozone depleting chemicals, industrial releases of toxic pollution, golf course pesticides, trash incineration and much, much more.

It wasn’t just the polluters who fell under Joan’s scrutiny. She was not about to let state regulators off the hook for failing to do their jobs. Here’s one example from VPIRG’s Summer 1993 newsletter:

“There are far too many violations and far too few prosecutions for the state’s enforcement efforts to create a credible deterrent to breaking the law,” said Mulhern. “If it is cheaper for companies to ignore our environmental laws than it is to abide by the laws, there is an economic incentive to ignore the laws. Unfortunately, that’s what is happening.”

After leaving VPIRG, Joan attended law school and later became Senior Legislative Counsel with Earthjustice. At Earthjustice, she led the organization’s efforts to save Appalachian waters and communities by ending the disastrous practice of mountaintop removal mining. My last conversation with Joan was several months ago and it concerned her campaign to stop mountaintop removal mining. Though she faced long odds in Congress, her voice and spirit were as determined as ever.

She never lost sight of Vermont either. I was happy to connect with her several times a year – whenever issues of common interest came up or she needed the real scoop on what was happening in her beloved Vermont.

To say that Joan will be missed would not do justice to the magnitude of this loss. She was a genuine environmental hero. She was and will remain an inspiration.