Doris McGuigan: 1929-2002

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Nov. 20, 2002

The Brooklyn-Curtis Bay community in South Baltimore lost an ardent environmental activist Nov. 10: Doris McGuigan, a gravel-voiced grandmother who ardently believed that chemical-laden air in South Baltimore was poisoning area residents. She died peacefully at home while taking a nap, the victim of an apparent heart attack.

“She was a real force to be reckoned with,” says Terry Harris, a local environmentalist and attorney who worked with McGuigan in many battles over the years. “She was absolutely convinced of environmental problems in her own part of the city, and wouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise–in some cases single-handedly keeping industry at bay down there.”

McGuigan, 72, first started fighting industrial pollution in the early 1970s, when her mother died after struggling with leukemia. Believing the sickness was due to chemical pollution in South Baltimore, she embarked on 30 years of activism that included battles against incinerators, for better emergency planning, and for relocating the residents of Wagner’s Point, a now abandoned and demolished neighborhood that sits amid industrial-tank farms on the Fairfield peninsula.

Even her adversaries held her in high regard. “You could not ignore Doris, and you could not ignore her point of view,” says Dave Mahler, environmental manager for Sasol North America (formerly Condea Vista Co.), which has a large facility in South Baltimore. “The chemical plants learned that you have to be pretty much open with Doris, and there was a fair level of trust between them and Doris that built up over the years as a result of being open and honest. If there was a problem, or an incident of some sort, it was always a good idea to discuss it with Doris.”

Mahler, who visited McGuigan at her Third Street home on several occasions, was sometimes on the receiving end of her gruffly stated worries about environmental impacts. “Her biggest issue was her concern about the mixtures of all these things in the air,” he says. “While we’ve all made significant emissions reductions over the years, she wanted to know how they reacted with one another once they were released. It’s a question that no one could really answer very well.” But, he continues, “I had a lot of fun with Doris over the years. I wouldn’t take any of it back.”

District Court Judge Timothy Murphy, who formerly represented South Baltimore on the City Council and in the state House of Delegates, respected McGuigan’s self-taught mastery of intricate environmental issues. “Actually, she was an educator,” Murphy says. “She taught herself so much about environmental problems and the impact of various chemicals, and, once she had mastered something, then she would bring it to us. And she had an interesting manner–competitive, without being confrontational–that left no negative impression, even on the industry folks. She wanted them to be good neighbors, and she was a good neighbor back.”

Joining McGuigan in fights over the years were four other Brooklyn-area women, known as “the Environmental Grandmas”: Delores Barnes, Mary Rosso, Jeannette Skrzecz, and Anna Bonenberger. Skrzecz and Bonenberger also have passed away over the last few years, and Barnes has relocated, so McGuigan’s death leaves only Rosso, who recently lost re-election to the state House. “Out of all of them,” Harris says, “Doris was the real leader.”

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