Above: Joe Lyou (center) with retired California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols (left), and California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild (right) at the annual Sacramento legislative “Toast to Clearing the Air” event reception. (Photo courtesy Coalition for Clean Air)

While he was finishing up his dissertation in social psychology, Joe Lyou began interning at Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG), a nuclear policy nonprofit focusing on nuclear safety, waste disposal, proliferation, and disarmament. The organization was run by Daniel Hirsch, then director of the UC Santa Cruz Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy (now retired). 

Soon after, CBG learned of a proposal by the state of California to site a radioactive waste dump on sacred Native American land for five tribes in California’s Mojave Desert about 20 miles west of the Colorado River. 

“That was my introduction to the issue of environmental justice,” said Lyou. “Because that site was chosen precisely. At the time, those tribes had no money and no capacity to fight for their sacred land in Ward Valley.”

Working with a coalition including the tribes (Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, Quechan, and Colorado River), Lyou, CBG, and a large coalition of activists fought this proposal for over 10 years. The state’s private contractor—ironically named US Ecology—already operated leaking radioactive waste facilities in Illinois, Nevada, and Kentucky. 

Lyou at the California Clean Air kickoff press conference (photo courtesy Coalition for Clean Air)

When Lyou learned that a U.S. Geological Survey researcher had found leaked tritium hundreds of feet beneath that sister dump in Nevada, Lyou called the researcher and discovered that he had already released the data to US Ecology. 

“I knew I had him,” said Lyou. “I told him I was going to file a federal Freedom of Information Act requesting information, that he couldn’t share with US Ecology and withhold it from me. The information ended up in a front-page Los Angeles Times article, and that got us a long way toward killing off that radioactive waste dump.”

Since then, Lyou has spent 33 years fighting for environmental justice. As president and CEO of Coalition for Clean Air—the only nonprofit focusing specifically on air quality and climate change in California—he takes on powerful people and institutions to protect public health, improve air quality, and prevent climate change. He also serves on the California Transportation Commission, served on the South Coast Air Quality Management District Governing Board, founded the California Environmental Rights Alliance, and held management positions with the California League of Conservation Voters Education Fund and Committee to Bridge the Gap. 

“What you see in environmental justice situations time and again is that people’s rights have been taken away from them,” Lyou said. “They have not been able to exercise those rights, and they have not been afforded things like equal protection under the law. Usually, it’s done to allow some corporation to maximize their profits at the expense of the health of low-income communities of color. To me, that’s simply unacceptable.”

Knowing what Dan Hirsch’s mentorship meant to him, Lyou is excited about increasing his own mentoring work with future generations. 

His daughter, Maya Lyou (Merrill ’25, sociology/education, democracy, and justice double major), continuing the Slug family tradition, is a UCSC sophomore majoring in sociology and competing on the water polo team. 

He loves to swim, surfs occasionally, and dreams of learning to sail to the world’s most beautiful places, like the Greek islands and the Caribbean.

For now, though, Lyou dedicates most of his time and energy to the fight for environmental justice, with a focus on clean air for all. He asked: “Can you think of a more basic human right than the ability to breathe?”

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