addresses Channing F. Hayden, the director of the Navigation and
Security Board for the Port of Lake Charles, during a recent meeting at
the port’s administrative building.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 03, 2012 11:34 AM
SULPHUR — On April 24, Charlie Atherton attended the Calcasieu Estuary Environmental Task Force’s meeting in anticipation of hearing that the federal government was getting ready to clean up Bayou Verdine.
As far as he was concerned, the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to begin work in August was overdue. Representatives from the federal agency made a presentation, explaining how they would remove and store hazardous waste that had accumulated in the waterway over decades of misuse by industry and individuals.
Atherton listened. And when government regulators finished, he took a breath, gathered his thoughts and methodically asked questions about different aspects of the project that EPA laid out.
“I’m just trying to understand,” said Atherton.
It’s a statement he routinely uses, even when he already knows the answer.
Almost two months later, in a letter to the editor of the American Press, Atherton argued that industry should foot the bill for the Mossville water system. That system was set up in part to address concerns of groundwater contamination, which industry is partly responsible for.
“To our knowledge, industry has never been asked by the CPPJ (Calcasieu Parish Police Jury) to pay for the Mossville water system, sewer system, roads or loss of public assets and infrastructure to the public,” Atherton wrote.
“We believe the right thing for industry to do is pay off the Mossville water system and all the currently needed repairs so that the system is debt-free. We believe industry should pay for the loss of the Mossville sewer system and other infrastructure so that this same infrastructure can be reinvested in the Mossville community.”
Regardless of whether his idea is put into action, Atherton feels compelled to let the powers that be know somebody is watching their actions and taking note of decisions that affect real people.
Just want right to win out
Atherton does not consider himself as an activist. He recalled being tabbed with the label years ago by KPLC TV reporter Theresa Schmidt.
From his perspective, standing up and speaking out about important social and civic-related issues is a chore he does not relish, but accepts.
“All I have ever wanted was to do the right thing by the public. When I was young, I realized God gave me the ability to recognize a wrong. Then came the responsibility to do something about it,” he said.
On any given day, when he is not on the road visiting someone he is seeking public information from, Atherton can be found at his home scouring newspapers, magazines and the Internet. He likes to read the small print associated with topics most people veer away from, like the environment, local policy, state budgets, parish zoning and emergency preparedness.
Atherton has attended municipal meetings for years, bearing his brand of truth obtained from reading laws and talking to newsmakers.
Atherton is accustomed to receiving curt responses and sneering glares from elected officials, especially when his line of questioning takes on the “good ol’ boy” approach, heaped with a loaded information gun.
“I see people going to work, trying to make a living, and there is government trying to take their rights away or regulate it, which makes it difficult to survive sometimes,” he said. “You will find me in meeting minutes from the Sulphur City Council to the Port of Lake Charles dating back decades. Somebody has to say something for the people and try to get government officials to think different ways.”
Calcasieu Parish Police Juror Sandra Treme has viewed Atherton as a jewel who cares about the region.
“Even when things work out for the public, Charles is the first one to get up to the podium and say we did the right thing,” she said.
Treme knows that Atherton does get on some political officials’ nerves with his undaunted approach to trying to write a wrong or head off a perceived policy catastrophe.
“We need people that will throw flags up and ask questions and help us consider our decisions. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Charlie. He stretches your mind. He stretches your perspective. He keeps you grounded. I wish there were more people like him because they are the ones who make our lives better.”
What started Atherton on his road to involvement was a lack of outspokenness from people living on the west side of Calcasieu Parish.
“In my case, nobody west of the river (Calcasieu) would say anything about anything. The east side of the river was where the power structure was. I opened my mouth. For me the general issue back then — like it is today — was to hold elected officials accountable. To get their mental lights on because nobody was home. In fact, it is still that way today to a great extent.”
Attending public meetings and reading information freely floating is only part of the story with how Atherton keeps tabs on how government and the private sector interact.
He is also a big proponent of freedom of access laws.
Atherton writes official letters to government agencies asking for specific information.
Most of the time, his interest is piqued about a topic after an anonymous phone call.
“You would be amazed at how many people call me, without giving their name. Or folks stick information in my mailbox. Then I will send a letter for information based on what I was told,” he said.
Getting people to understand
At the age of 70, Atherton admits that aches and pains, along with caring for his wife, are forcing him to prioritize the issues he believes light need to be shed on.
He credits his family with allowing him to spend countless hours researching government documents in order to provide insightful comments on different issues.
A father of five sons, he has lived in Calcasieu Parish since 1944, when his parents moved here from Pine Bluff, Ark. He graduated from Sulphur High School in 1959.
Atherton married his wife, Lynda, in 1964.
“I have an understanding wife who has let me do my thing. I have had an understanding family overall,” he said.
In an attempt to gather information about governmental policies, Atherton has spent thousands of hours and lots of his own money.
“You have got to have a clue as to what is going on,” he said.
His first foray into learning the insides of governmental operations started in 1964, when he had questions about the parish budget.
Since then, he has been known to take extreme personal measures in an attempt to get voters and elected officials to understand aspects of their government.
He ran for the mayor’s office in Sulphur because, “I wanted to have a venue to show the City Council and voters how the home rule charter system is supposed to work.”
Atherton also campaigned to become sheriff of Calcasieu Parish.
“I got 10 percent of the vote and spent several thousand dollars. I ran to simply get people to understand what they had going on in law enforcement.”
Looking back over 50 years of being an alternative voice in the public venue, Atherton offers a self-analysis about his perceived influence on the political process.
“I really feel like a lot of times I run into stone walls. I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything,” he said.
A registered Democrat, Atherton is also disappointed that the volumes of information stored in his mind will not be passed on to somebody who is willing to be a grass roots public participant like himself.
As he puts it, “I am too old and too slow to keep the pace like I did in the past. I wish I had more money and time.”
When he looks at the overall political system, Atherton feels like it does not work correctly for the benefit of the people.
He puts equal blame on bureaucrats and elected officials for ineffective government.
Police Jury administrator Bryan Beam has shared many conversations with Atherton.
Most recently, parishwide sewer inspections was the hot topic that Atherton chimed in on.
“He works very hard on that issue. He brings things up, and we at the parish really look into the information. Charlie’s approach is to bring awareness,” Beam said.
Beam said Atherton is a good example of a person being an active citizen.
“I wish there were more people like him that do get involved. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we don’t agree. That is the nature of the democratic process.”
Until he is incapable of making meetings and writing letters, Atherton intends to remain politically active.
The environment is a focus of his attention because of his work in the petrochemical industry for most of his professional life.
Even while working at a local chemical plant, Atherton spoke out about the need for better monitoring of air releases and hazardous waste in the estuary and the need for industry and the government to assist area residents contending with illnesses due to chemical exposure.
Over the years, key government employees have spoken to him “off the record” about questionable decisions made by federal and state agencies monitoring the region.
“I have learned that not all government employees believe the government is always correct in its actions,” he said.
Atherton’s dedication to environmental activism can be observed in the way he spends his time working with organizations like the Calcasieu League for Environmental Action Now (CLEAN); the Nature Conservancy for Southwest Louisiana; as a member of the state Department of Health and Hospitals steering committee for Mossville; and as a steering committee member for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
He believes the environment is an area where science and common sense should interact constantly in order to protect nature and the public.
“That is what I try to bring on lots of issues: reasonableness with common sense. Let’s take politics out of everything. I want to see decisions on topics like the environment made based off of facts,” he said. “You have to ask the right questions and you hope people think logically and realistically.”