Fighting the Good Fight

“It’s hard to imagine a better person to lead this organization than Lauren." Read about our new Executive Director.

Meet Columbia Riverkeeper’s New Executive Director, Lauren Goldberg

Photo: Modoc Stories.
Lauren Goldberg with her daughters, photo credit: Modoc Stories.

When Lauren Goldberg was eight years old, she penned the essay “Bag in the Water,” lamenting the trash she found in a river near her childhood home. The cheeky third grader was just getting warmed up. As a young teen, she was already writing letters, knocking on doors and speaking before government officials on behalf of her school’s environmental club and Amnesty International chapter. In high school, Goldberg and a classmate convinced school purchasing authorities to specify recycled paper and organized an online drive for other schools to do the same—an initiative that earned her an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and an invitation to the White House.

In August, Goldberg will apply her talents as the new executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, known for achieving David-vs.-Goliath success over multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel interests. In pursuit of its mission—to protect and restore the water quality of the Columbia River and all life connected to it—Columbia Riverkeeper has racked up significant, and some would say unexpected, victories. In the last decade, it has defeated every new fossil fuel project on the Columbia River, halting what would have been the world’s largest fracked-gas-to-methanol refinery at the Port of Kalama, the nation’s largest coal export terminal in Longview, the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, and the onslaught of rail traffic up and down the Columbia that would have accompanied them.

Goldberg led in many of those challenges as a Columbia Riverkeeper staff attorney and then as its legal and program director. In fact, she’s been part of the organization since 2006, when she first volunteered as a law clerk while earning her law degree at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.

“It was a treasure to have found Columbia Riverkeeper so early in my career,” says Goldberg. “I knew I wanted to work with a place-based group. I wanted to understand the Columbia, get to know its people and fight for its protection. It’s incredibly gratifying to make a difference in the place where you’re raising your kids and have built relationships with your neighboring communities and Tribal Nations.”

Goldberg takes over the executive director position from Brett VandenHeuvel, who has led the organization since 2009. “It’s hard to imagine a better person to lead this organization than Lauren,” VandenHeuvel remarks. “She’s a strategically brilliant lawyer and has designed some of our most successful campaigns over the years.”

A major 2022 win for clean water

One big victory came earlier this year at Bradford Island, on the Columbia River near Cascade Locks, Oregon. Beginning with the construction of the Bonneville Dam in the 1930s well into the 1970s, the island and surrounding waters were used as a dumping site for toxic chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Working closely with the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Goldberg and team lifted up the voices of Tribal members, neighboring communities, fishers and other river users. For three years, relentless political pressure from the ground up accomplished what no one had been able to do for decades: In March, EPA listed Bradford Island and surrounding waters as a Superfund site, giving it priority for funding and cleanup. And the new Superfund site victory is the latest in a string of successful efforts working in solidarity with Tribal Nations.

“Columbia Riverkeeper has built strong relationships throughout our region,” adds Don Sampson, executive director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation based in Pendleton. “Ten years ago, Lauren supported the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in pushing Oregon to pass the nation’s strongest limits on toxic pollution. Ever since she has been a trusted ally for protecting clean water, cleaning up nuclear waste and restoring salmon runs."

An upbringing of activism

The perils of toxic pollution have driven Goldberg for much of her life. Rattled by a cancer diagnosis in her family as a child, Goldberg began digging into the connections between cancer and chemicals in consumer products and the environment. In college, she spent two summers volunteering at a camp for children with cancer. “While I wasn’t called to the medical field, I saw a path to make a difference through environmental activism,” she says.

That path was a legal one—figuring out how to beat polluters in the courtroom. Some of her first accomplishments at Riverkeeper were strengthening laws to restrict toxic pollution and enforce the Clean Water Act. “We use the law to stop corporations from dumping dangerous chemicals into the Columbia River,” remarks Lauren. “What an amazing job.”

Her upbringing in a tight-knit Jewish family also instilled in her the confidence to stand up to power and authority. The stories of her great grandparents who emigrated from Poland and Russia resonated deeply. “The freedoms we have in America were never taken for granted by my family,” she explains. “I was taught that questioning, standing up for values, engaging and participating is the work we all have to do to keep our democracy alive.”

What lies ahead

There’s no shortage of work on the Columbia Riverkeeper docket and, in keeping with its resolute style, some sizable targets top the list: Defeat every fossil fuel infrastructure project on the Columbia River. Remove dams on the Lower Snake River to prevent salmon and orca extinction. Stop a pumped-storage hydroelectric project on sacred Tribal land near the John Day Dam, as well as an 800-acre industrial zoning expansion in the Columbia River estuary.

The organization will continue to work in close partnership with Tribal Nations on its many campaigns and continue to amplify Latinx voices across in Columbia River Gorge communities through Comunidades, an independent organization for environmental and social justice fiscally sponsored by Columbia Riverkeeper.

VandenHeuvel emphasizes that Goldberg will lead Columbia Riverkeeper’s efforts with the full support of its staff and board, which unanimously selected her as its next executive director. “It says a lot about Riverkeeper that we recognize the people who have put their blood, sweat and tears into this organization to make it what it is,” he says. “They should be and will be the ones to carry it forward.”

Newsletter Issue 2, 2022