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Local Environmental Battles Are Her Home Turf

Mary Burns took a grass-roots path to activism -- through neighborhood issues.

July 14, 2006|Michelle Keller | Times Staff Writer

Mary Burns was running door to door setting up neighborhood meetings to block the construction of a garbage-burning plant in Ontario in 1986 when a woman asked how long she'd been an activist.

The fiery organizer had been called many things, but never that.

"I was shocked," said the Mira Loma resident, 60. "I've been organizing my entire life, ever since I was a Girl Scout. But an activist?"

From the time she successfully blocked a planned 2,400-home development next to her neighborhood in the 1970s, Burns has been on a tear. In the 1980s, she helped thwart a proposed tire-burning facility in Rialto and organized community opposition to an automobile-reconditioning plant proposed for Mira Loma.

Burns may sound like she has a doctorate when she rattles off the dangers of pesticides and other pollutants, but it wasn't until after she'd been elected to the school board that she earned her high school diploma.

The lack of that document never stopped her, though, much to the dismay of the developers and businesses she took on.

Burns is also executive director of the Jurupa Mountains Cultural Center, a nonprofit educational museum focused on archeology and geology.

"Mary's like a pit bull," said Melba Dunlap, 75, a former Riverside County supervisor and a close friend. "When she gets her teeth into something, she is not going to let it go."

Since Burns' election to the school board in 1989, she has fought hard against the use of pesticides on school grounds and to get school buses that run on natural gas, rather than diesel, to improve local air quality.

But her hard-charging personality has sometimes clashed with others. John Chavez, who has served on the Jurupa school board since 1975 and been at odds with Burns over the years, said he has found it difficult to break into the circle of supporters she has built within the district.

"She forms her own team if she can," Chavez said.

Although her board colleagues admire her passion for the environment, some think she has pushed that agenda too far on school matters.

"Mary is an advocate for environmental concerns, and I believe that sometimes that takes precedence over good education," said board President Carl Harris, a trustee since December 2004. "I know that her intentions are good and that she cares, but sometimes we disagree."

Burns was born in Petersburg, Alaska, a small town on Mitkof Island. Her father, a roofer and a musician, fought in World War II and moved the family to Southern California upon his return, when Burns was 2.

By the time she was 10, her parents had divorced, and she moved around for the rest of her childhood as her mother remarried several times. She attended five high schools but was 10 credits short of graduating in 1964.

Dropping out at 17, Burns went to work as a custodian, then shifted through several electronics-assembly jobs. At 21, she met the love of her life: John Burns, a freshly minted Air Force man. They married two years later.

The couple first moved to Pomona and bought a property in Mira Loma in 1974. It was a fateful purchase -- and the one that would spin Burns into the heart of environmental activism.

Soon after the Burnses settled into their new home, a developer made plans to build 2,400 homes near their neighborhood.

She and her neighbors saw a variety of problems having to do with the site, including inadequate research on flood control and the potential exposure to toxic compounds from an asphalt manufacturing operation nearby.

So Burns did her homework. She learned about planning commissions. She learned about zoning.

"You can't play a game of Monopoly without reading the rules on the inside of the box," she said.

Armed and ready, Burns arrived on the steps of the Riverside County Administrative Center with more than 30 housewives and many posters.

Minutes before the Planning Commission meeting to discuss the project was to begin, the developer told the women it had been postponed a week and urged them to go home. Everyone left but Burns, she recounted.

It was fortunate she did, because the meeting, it turned out, was still on for that day.

A member of the Planning Commission insisted that Burns, who had a fear of public speaking, present her information herself. It took much bravery and many tears, but she spoke.

Two years and many fights later, the project was scrapped.

"The fight is always on with Mary," said Marcia Schmuck-Wakefield of the Concerned Citizens of the Inland Empire, an activist group. "When there are issues, you'll hear from her."

One of Burns' triumphs was stopping a planned tire incineration unit in Rialto that would have further degraded air quality in an already smog-choked area.

"Did you know that there are 10 gallons of oil in each tire?" she asked. "Along with a slew of chemicals, from benzene to toluene; and when you burn them, the oil oozes out into the ground."

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