community

Feed the Barrel: A tale of how small actions can change the world

Crossposted from Environmental Justice in Action

By Lena Adams Kim

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he's pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he’s pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

It all started Thanksgiving Day 2013, with my daughters frantically yelling, “The basement is flooding!!!” A visit from the plumber, yards of ruined carpeting, and $900 later, it was clear that cooking oil clogging my kitchen drain was the culprit. And so I did what many do after experiencing the horrors of home damage – I complained to everyone who would listen.

My tale of woe reached Indah, a parent in my kids’ schoolyard. Indah, a journalist of Indonesian descent, mentioned how families in her immigrant Indonesian community in South Philadelphia were grappling with the same clogged pipes and costly repairs, yet unlike me, were often unaware of the cause.

She described how many had emigrated from rural areas of Indonesia, where every drop of precious oil is used, re-used, and then re-used again. Very little oil, if any, was discarded. And those first-world kitchen drains and sewer systems? Non-existent in the 17,000 largely undeveloped islands that comprise Indonesia. Those huge jugs of oil, available at low cost at grocery stores in the U.S.? Unheard of on smaller islands where budgets and resources are limited.

Yet things are far different in America, the land of plenty. Additionally, the cultural knowledge of what can and cannot, go down a drain is instilled in many of us from an early age. Not so obvious, however, to newcomers in a new homeland with new customs.

During my conversation with Indah, I realized there was a beautifully simple solution to this costly environmental issue of used fats, oils, and grease, also called “FOG”, which cause public health problems by entering the waste stream. Just last month, the New York Times reported on the impacts of food waste like oils entering waterways and landfills, ultimately decomposing to emit methane, a greenhouse gas. I wondered, “what if EPA worked with this community on proper oil disposal.” Could it make a difference?

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Today, two years after my basement flood, things are far different from the clogged pipes of the past. Thanks to connections made by Indah, this vibrant Indonesian community is now the first in the nation piloting a wildly successful residential oil collection program. Called Feed the Barrel, the program has gone far beyond just education on oil disposal. Now, they work with an oil recycler to collect and recycle used oil into biofuel, rich compost, and soap. The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community.

It would take pages to detail the unique ways this community tackled this environmental problem — how they insisted on using a local recycler, how they decided to empower children to help spread the word, and how they enlisted spiritual leadership to encourage neighbors in churches, temples, and mosques to become involved.

And it would be impossible for me to describe the pride I see in my neighbors in their newfound ability to spread environmental awareness — which they can give back to their new homeland that has given them so much opportunity.

News of their success in diverting more than 300 gallons of oil in the first year alone has traveled fast. They have been approached by communities throughout the greater Philadelphia area, and in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Media coverage has been powerful in spreading the word, as their efforts have been highlighted on National Public Radio, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the city’s respected Grid magazine.

Imagine — Feed the Barrel started from a schoolyard conversation about providing people with something as simple as information. While EPA’s goal of “meaningful involvement of all communities in environmental decisions” might seem broad, its simplicity allowed, in this case, room to develop a creative solution to a nagging problem.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that, “when people are made aware … they are empowered to act.” To learn more about the possibilities of oil recycling, or to follow pilot progress, visit www.facebook/feedthebarrel. And join the rallying cry: Feed the Barrel to Fuel America!

About the author: Lena Adams Kim is a member of EPA Region 3’s Asian Pacific American Council, as well as a communications specialist in the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Climate Justice: A Fight for Equal Opportunity

By Gina McCarthy and Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.

(Cross-posted from EPAConnect)

Fifty years ago, Americans facing racial injustice marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest discriminatory voting laws. It was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and forever redefining and improving our cherished values of freedom and fairness. February marks Black History Month—a time to reflect on past injustice, and refocus efforts on injustices that persist.

Today, too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and health risks. Those same communities are excessively vulnerable to the devastating floods, fires, storms, and heatwaves supercharged by climate change. To make matters worse, the carbon pollution fueling climate change comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local businesses and jobs. Power plants, our biggest source of carbon pollution, are often located in these areas, casting their shadow over communities already vulnerable to environmental health hazards.

Pollution and climate impacts are a barrier to economic opportunity, blocking the path to middle-class security. President Obama calls ensuring America’s promise of opportunity for all a defining challenge of our time; however, it’s impossible to climb any ladder of opportunity without clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to live on.

That’s why at the core of EPA’s mission is the unwavering pursuit of environmental justice. The Hip Hop Caucus joined the fight for Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that underscored communities facing risks from climate impacts: low-income families and people of color.

With President Obama’s leadership, EPA is ramping up efforts to cut air and water pollution, expanding public outreach, enforcing laws to defend public health, and holding polluters accountable. And through President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is taking historic action to fight the economic and public health risks of a changing climate by cutting carbon pollution from power plants.

Organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus are critical to climate progress by ensuring at-risk communities are a part of the conversation—and part of the solution. To balance the ledger of environmental disenfranchisement, we must confront today’s risks with a focus on communities that need it the most.

We’re moved by the words of Jibreel Khazan spoken in Greensboro, NC on the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro Four sitting down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store on February 1st, 1960:

“Climate change is young people’s ‘lunch counter moment’ for the 21st century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen.”

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America’s great civil rights leaders; it’s a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity. History proves even the most wrenching strains on justice can be unwound, with a committed, diverse, and vocal coalition of people calling for change. That’s why EPA, the Hip Hop Caucus, and organizations around the country are fighting for climate justice—so we can further fairness and opportunity for all.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Promoting Redevelopment in Communities

By Rafael DeLeon

As coach of my son’s youth soccer, baseball, and basketball teams, I not only get to spend time with my son, but I also get to give back to my community. When the teams gather on the courts and fields, I know that I’m providing a meaningful service for my community.
Watching my son, I also remember my own childhood growing up in New York City. While my son plays on grassy fields, my neighborhood playgrounds lacked adequate green space. My friends and I would play baseball on asphalt fields and scrape our jeans as we slid into home.

As the Deputy Office Director of the EPA’s Office of Site Remediation Enforcement, part of my job is to help communities clean up and redevelop contaminated lands by addressing liability concerns associated with redevelopment projects. Contaminated land shouldn’t be neglected or ignored. In fact, by putting land back into productive use, it can revitalize a community by adding jobs, renewing resources, supporting economic growth, and creating green space for recreational activities.

To assist parties involved in revitalizing a property, my office recently issued the Revitalizing Contaminated Lands: Addressing Liability Concerns (The Revitalization Handbook). This handbook is a great way to understand how the cleanup enforcement program can help facilitate and support revitalization.

The Revitalization Handbook discusses how formerly contaminated lands may be turned into recreational spaces for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. For example, in downtown Orlando, Florida, the Former Spellman Engineering Site was once largely vacant due to groundwater contamination. Through the use of an innovative property owner agreement, EPA and the City of Orlando were able to facilitate the cleanup and redevelopment of the site, on which much-needed sports fields and other community facilities were built.

The Former Spellman Engineering Site in downtown Orlando, Florida is now home to a sports fields and other community facilities.

 

The Former Spellman Engineering Site in downtown Orlando, Florida is now home to a sports fields and other community facilities.

The Former Spellman Engineering Site in downtown Orlando, Florida is now home to a sports fields and other community facilities.

The Revitalization Handbook also highlights our work with the Arlington Blending and Packaging Site in Arlington, Tennessee. In that case, EPA worked with the city to make sure the site had been cleaned up to a standard that would permit recreational use. Where there was once a Superfund site, there is now Mary Alice Park where children can play.

As a parent and coach, I know just how important these parks are and the role they play in a community. I’m proud of the Agency’s work to take blighted areas and make them into places neighborhoods and communities can enjoy.

About the author: Rafael DeLeon grew up in the Bronx and now is the  Deputy Office Director of the Office of Site Remediation Enforcement.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Nutrient Management: Always on My Mind

By James R. Mihelcic, PhD, BCEEM

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic

I am inspired to solve the complex problem of nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) management every day.  I think about solving this problem when I tend my winter garden of lettuce and peppers, around my neighborhood as I watch stormwater race from lawns to the Hillsborough River, in the classroom, and when I spend time outdoors enjoying our nation’s waters.

And I am in good company with my thoughts. You see, the National Academy of Engineering has identified managing the nitrogen cycle as one of their Grand Challenges.

I even started my New Year by canoeing in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and got to thinking about nutrients.  This was because some of the springs that feed the refuge have developed the tell-tale signs of nutrient pollution (green, slimy-looking plant growth) from on-site wastewater generation and lawn runoff from surrounding homes.  On that day we were also welcomed into the winter home of a group of manatees.  Manatees depend on sea grass for survival, and excessive nutrients cloud coastal waters, preventing sea grass growth. 

With support from an EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant, we established our Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management, which is transforming my daily thinking to everyday reality.  We are reimagining aging coastal urban infrastructure systems to consider nutrient recovery and management that contribute to sustainable and healthy communities.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Manatee at a U.S. Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I have great expectations for our Center research and demonstrations.  Our goals are to develop the science behind new technology and management innovations, and to develop a deep understanding of integrated systems.  We will demonstrate and assess innovations to provide new knowledge for students, community members, practitioners, and other stakeholders.

We are even transforming how we educate new engineers. For example, our new textbook, Environmental Engineering: Fundamentals, Sustainability, Design integrates sustainability and nutrient concepts into every chapter, and has the potential to reach over 10,000 undergraduate engineers every year.

Our research will benefit the public because poor water quality lowers the economic, social, and environmental value of our nation’s waters for current and future generations. 

In Florida, our springs, rivers, estuaries, coastal waters, and the Everglades all suffer because of nutrient pollution.  We have already come up with some ways to help manage nutrient pollution while also meeting the agricultural needs to provide national and global food security. For example, we have shown that 22% of the global demand for phosphorus could be met if we just recovered this valuable resource from domestic wastewater. We’ve also shown how wastewater infrastructure that serves a rapidly urbanizing world can be integrated with recovery of valuable water and nutrients to improve food security.

You can see why nutrients are always on my mind.  I hope they are now on yours.

About the author: EPA-grantee and guest blogger James R. Mihelcic is a Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and State of Florida 21st Century World Class Scholar at the University of South Florida (Tampa), where he directs the Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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It Doesn’t Take a Fireman to Spot a Fire: Fighting Pollution with Citizen Science

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Shameika Jackson. Velma White and Ronesha Johnson are active reporters
to the map from Shreveport, LA.

By Molly Brackin

We have a saying at the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB); “it doesn’t take a fireman to spot a fire.” Likewise, you don’t need to be a scientist to know something is wrong when you spot a black smoking flare that lasts an hour or you smell foul chemicals in the air. Since 2000, the Bucket Brigade has worked with communities and thousands of residents throughout Louisiana that neighbor oil refineries and chemical plants. Our mission is to support our communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.  To accomplish this, the Bucket Brigade model is to equip communities most impacted by pollution with easy-to-use tools that monitor their environment, inform residents, and can be used to improve industry accountability.

Untitled-1In early 2010 LABB introduced the iWitness Pollution Map to help Louisiana residents track pollution and associated health effects in their communities. Today there are over 11,000 reports of possible petrochemical pollution on the map.  The iWitness Pollution Map is an open-source online map that allows anyone with a phone to document and share their experience with pollution via voicemail, text, email or by using the online form.  Visitors of the map are able to see reports in real-time, identify possible pollution hotspots by viewing the geographic location of the reports, and sign up to get alerts.The map helps to validate a community’s experience with petrochemical pollution, but more importantly the map monitors incidents of the industry’s potential pollution impacts on the local community.

In a system that allows industry to self-report their emissions and accidents, citizens are extremely important watchdogs. There were over 1,200 citizen reports of pollution from the 17 oil refineries and two associated chemical plants in Louisiana in 2013 alone. Using the iWitness Pollution Map, citizens have reported smells, flaring events, roaring sounds coming from the facilities, and health effects among other things:

 “It’s extremely stinky outside right now, very chemically smelling.  I don’t know exactly what type of smell it is, but is very chemical and it seems to be coming from the plant off Scenic Highway.  I guess it is around 6pm in the evening.  It’s raining and no feel of anything but just definitely very smelly, very unnatural.  It’s thick outside.”– January 13th, 2013, Baton Rouge, LA

 “…That plant over there, that flare is going just like a train.   It been doing it all night long.  And I can hear it all on my porch on Broadway now.”-July 28th, 2013, Shreveport, LA 

“When I had gotten off of work at 2:30am there was a weird smell in the air. At 10am the smell woke me up it was all outside & inside my home, which brought on a migraine & nausea! I don’t know what the chemical is or if it’s even safe for us to be in our home right now. We live on the Westbank in Algiers. If someone could give us some information on this that would be fantastic. The news & fire departments are saying it’s a mystery & others say it’s coming from the Chalmette refinery.”– April 3, 2013, Algiers (New Orleans), LA

A mural painted by community members in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

A mural painted by residents in Baton Rouge reads: “Standard Heights: Clean Air is Our Right!”

From consistent citizen reporting to the iWitness Pollution Map, the results of the data we have gathered provides crucial statements of real life everyday experiences from residents, which counter the claims of some local industries that their chemical releases have resulted in “no offsite impact.”  LABB triangulates the reports to the map with other available information (i.e. air monitoring data, facility self reports) and shares the analysis with impacted communities, federal and state enforcement officials, first responders and the media.

Some communities in Louisiana are overburdened by industrial pollution on a daily basis, but if no one reports it, it’s as if nothing ever happened.  Thanks to these innovative tools, communities impacted by pollution have a visible, public platform to get their experiences documented and their voices heard!

Molly Brackin is an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, where she serves as the Monitoring & Evaluation Associate. She holds a Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of New Orleans, where she specialized in hazard mitigation and disaster planning.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Toxic Soil Busters: Who You Gonna Call?

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By Asa Needle

When I first joined Toxic Soil Busters I cared about environmental issues, but I saw them as enormous and complex problems that were too big for me to tackle. My perspective quickly changed when I learned about Worcester RootsToxic Soil Busters program, a youth-run cooperative that does remediation of soil contaminated with lead, sustainable urban landscaping, and environmental justice outreach. Before I started with the Toxic Soil Busters I considered environmental burdens, disparate health impacts, and a lack of opportunities for young people in our communities as separate issues. My experience in Toxic Soil Busters helped me understand how these problems are connected, and that any meaningful solution to these issues needs to address them holistically.

Perhaps the best way that I internalized these lessons was through our outreach to communities affected by lead paint. Before it was outlawed in 1978, cheaper lead paint was used in households and apartments. Even though most of this toxic paint has been painted over, the toxic metal still can find its way into the soil and remain there for hundreds of years. Young children playing in the mud of their backyards are especially vulnerable as their bodies are still growing. Lead can affect the heart, bones, intestines, and kidneys, as well as the brain, where it can manifest as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities.

TSBsummer2011-300x223Rather than just try to clean up this dirty soil, Toxic Soil Busters takes a different approach. We empower youth by giving them the skills to combat lead in their own communities. For example, we are currently researching new ways to remediate lead-filled yards. Phytoremediation uses perennial plants such as geraniums, which soak up the lead and are then safely disposed. Other solutions include dilution through extensive composting, or reducing bioavailibility by using elements like phosphate. Young residents are at the forefront of our work in each case where we are working in neighborhoods to contain or remediate toxic lead soil.

Inner-city kids – particular in the Worcester neighborhoods of Main South and Piedmont – often don’t have access to many opportunities, and are on the front lines of environmental threats. We build those opportunities, where they can learn job skills as they confront social justice issues. Additionally, as part of a movement of co-operatives, we support a local economy that can provide green, sustainable jobs to youth.

Since Toxic Soil Busters started in 2006, we have remediated the yards of over forty homes, preventing future lead exposure and helping families sleep easy. We have seen far greater awareness of healthy homes issues in Worcester through our outreach, leading to more funding going towards these initiatives. Through our outreach, we have talked to hundreds of people, and thousands have heard our message. Some thirty youth have passed through Toxic Soil Busters, many going on to college and careers they didn’t even dream of when they first joined.

There are many problems that are keeping opportunities out of reach for the youth in our communities. Worcester Roots has taught me how to aggressively approach these problems, and design holistic solutions to address them. I learned how to think like an entrepreneur and an activist, and the work I do for the rest of my life will be defined by my experience here.

About the author: Asa Needle is Coordinator of Outreach and Education of the Worcester Roots Project, a non-profit dedicated to co-operative development, youth empowerment, and making neighborhoods safer for living, working, and playing. Worcester Roots Project runs cooperative-style social entrepreneurship youth programs with an environmental justice focus, including the Toxic Soil Busters. He furthers their mission of a just and sustainable world through collaborations with the Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance, Co-op Power, and Stone Soup Community Center.

(Winning video submitted by Toxic Soil busters for EPA’s Faces of the Grassroots Video Contest for Student Informational Video)

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Justice is Served

By Erin Heaney

Every community has the right to know what they are being exposed to. That’s why at the Clean Air Coalition (CAC), our mission is to develop grassroots leaders who organize their communities to run and win environmental justice and public health campaigns.  We’ve seen over the years that when leaders and residents have good data, they are better able to become strong advocates for their neighborhoods.

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One example of this is our recent work to protect residents of Tonawanda, New York from dangerous air pollution. After CAC-led citizen science showed high levels of benzene in Tonawanda, New York originating from a foundry coke plant operated by Tonawanda Coke, residents mobilized to hold the plant accountable. They knocked on their neighbors’ doors, met with decision makers, and earned dozens of press hits. The public pressure generated by CAC members resulted in historic enforcement action against the plant.

In December of 2009, the US Department of Justice, the US EPA, NYS DEC and US Coast Guard executed a federal search warrant at Tonawanda Coke. Less than a week later the company’s environmental control manager was arrested.  On March 28th, 2013 a jury found Tonawanda Coke and the environmental contral manager guilty of violating the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the environmental control manager was also found guilty of obstructing justice. The company faces criminal fines in excess of $200 million and the company’s control manager faces up to 75 years in jail.

Now, we are working to ensure that the community has a voice in providing the court with project proposals from the community that may be funded in their community through a court ordered penalty. The Clean Air Coalition used a participatory budgeting process to identify potential projects for the court’s consideration Check out this short film on how the process worked!

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The Tonawanda Coke case is an amazing example of how citizen science, access to environmental data, combined with community mobilization and strong support from the federal government can result in tangible results for communities on the margins.

But it all starts with community awareness. One tool we used to build this awareness among residents in the fight against Tonawanda Coke was the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). The TRI online database was developed by EPA to give communities more information about what’s released by large industry in their backyards.  I originally wrote about our first TRI training for residents in the region last year. Now, we have learned a lot and we want to share the lessons we learned with other communities. We’ve turned them into a training guide  that people like you can use to educate and train your communities.

The guide is divided into two sections. The first hour explores the movement and history that advocated for TRI and the rules that govern the program. The second half gives folks hands-on practice using the database and exploring the releases in their neighborhood.

We hope other communities throughout the country will use our guide to share information with impacted residents, educate policy makers and continue to build a movement for the environment. Enjoy!

About the author: Erin Heaney is the Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, a grassroots organization that develops community leadership to win campaigns that advance public health and environmental justice. She has trained hundreds of grassroots leaders and won campaigns that have resulted in significant emissions reductions from some of the region’s largest polluters.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/71938803[/vimeo]

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Composting in Urban Areas

By Claudia Gutierrez

On a recent trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I purchased the latest Brooklyn Botanical Garden Guide for a Greener Planet titled, “Easy Compost.” For those of us who live in urban centers, with limited space, sometimes it’s challenging to compost. Composting, however, can play a large big role in reducing waste that is sent to landfills. Studies have shown that as much as 40% of our organic waste can be diverted from landfills if composted. New York City just recently passed legislation to begin a residential composting program. Check out the NYC Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling web site at: www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/composting_nyc.shtml.

While you’re at it, also check out the “Easy Compost” guide. The guide focuses on teaching the reader how to compost at home. It details the type of bins, worms, etc. that one should choose based on their needs. It is a very resourceful guide for urbanites who want to help mother earth in diverting organic waste from landfills. For more resources about gardening and composting, please visit www.bbg.org.

About the Author: Claudia Gutierrez is currently a Senior Advisor on Caribbean issues for the Regional Administrator since 2010. In this capacity, Claudia is working on different partnerships, including the White House Puerto Rico Task Force on Status, Vieques Sustainability Task Force and both the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Recycling Partnerships.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Helping Rural Guatemala… One Stove at a Time

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Ever wonder how you might be able to make a difference in another country? Recently, the environmental team at West Geauga High School had the same question. We had already helped our own community in many ways relating to the environment, like organizing a battery recycling program, hosting seminars about hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking,” and sponsoring “Go Green Nights” at our school, but wanted to make an impact in the wider world.  After making a few phone calls to several environmental organizations, our team finally decided on partnering with another group to help with our project. We contacted the Social Entrepreneur Corps, an organization focused on micro consignment in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Once our team settled on an organization and agreed on goals, we put our plan into action. Because our other projects focused on water and air issues, we wanted to keep the same theme in Guatemala. With previously won grant money, our team was able to sponsor the installation of water purification systems and distribution of cook stoves. Our water purification systems provided Guatemalan children access to clean, fresh water in their schools, which allows them to stay healthy and stay in school, receive an education and break the vicious cycle of poverty. The systems were sold to schools and community centers for a small fee, ensuring that the recipients’ dignity stays intact and also creates commerce in these villages. The water purification bucket has a ceramic element inside that removes common contaminants such as E-coli and silver. The filter removes 99.5% of E-Coli. The filtration device holds up to 8 liters of water and the rate at which the element filters the water is 2.5 to 3 liters per hour. Villagers who purchased our locally made cookstoves from the initial recipients made their investment back in the first two months at a reduced rate in which these cookstoves use firewood. The firewood efficiency of the stoves resulted in total savings of about $140, or the cost of corn for 9 months and 10 days for a family, 3 months of a child’s college fees, or 2 goats. Of paramount importance, the cookstoves reduced the amount of smoke inside of homes that the inhabitants would ordinarily inhale on a daily basis by 70%, benefitting the health of residents and substantially reducing CO2 emissions.  Our team helped rural Guatemala has become a cleaner, greener environment.  We received immense satisfaction from seeing our goals realized. 

Lilly  is a sophomore at West Geauga High School in Chesterland, Ohio. She has been an active member of her school’s environmental team, the West Geauga Environmental Discovery Project, for about three years now. Lilly enjoys helping and promoting sustainability in as many ways as she can.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Injecting Knowledge to Cure Injustice

By Dr. Sacoby Wilson

Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I had a fondness of the Big River and the love of the environment.  Unfortunately, I was aware that some communities did not enjoy the same level of environmental quality that others did.  I grew up near a concrete plant, waste water treatment plant, oil facility, and power plant in the background.  My father was a pipefitter who over the years worked at nuclear power plants, oil refineries, coal fired plants and was exposed to many contaminants.  These experiences, combined with my diagnosis at age 7 with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, really drove me to explore why some communities were burdened by hazards and unhealthy land uses and how exposure to environmental stressors can lead to negative health outcomes.

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I was inspired to use my interest in science and environmental health for environmental justice after meeting Drs. Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard in the early 1990s. These professors taught me the value of getting out of the ivory towers of academia and getting into communities to spread knowledge to push for positive change. Since then, I have been a passionate advocate for environmental justice working in partnership with community groups across the United States. Through this work, I have learned that the use of science to empower through education, paired with community organizing and civic engagement, is the key to alleviating environmental injustices.

One of those individuals who helped me understand the importance of getting communities into the research process was Omega Wilson.  Wilson’s Group, the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) has  fought against environmental injustice, infrastructure disparities, and the lack of basic amenities for the last twenty years.  WERA leaders have used a community-driven research approach known as community-owned and managed research (COMR) to address environmental injustice in their community.  COMR focuses on the collection of data for action, compliance, and social change.  In combination with EPA’s collaborative-problem-solving model, WERA’s work provides a blueprint for other communities to use partnerships, stakeholder engagement, action-oriented research, and legal tools to achieve environmental justice.

Untitled-2As a professor who learned through my mentors, I also firmly believe in inspiring the next generation of academics to take their tools and research into communities that need it the most. Currently, I am building a program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) at the University of Maryland-College Park. CEEJH is building off existing work of leaders in the DC Metropolitan region to address environmental justice and health issues at the grassroots level; we use community-university partnerships, capacity-building, and community empowerment to address environmental justice and health issues in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Following in the footsteps of WERA, I plan to inspire young people to be bold, courageous, and become advocates for environmental justice.

About the author: Dr. Wilson is an environmental health scientist with expertise in environmental justice and environmental health disparities. His primary research interests are related to issues that impact underserved, socially and economically disadvantaged, marginalized, environmental justice, and health disparity populations. He is building a Program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) to study and address health issues for environmental justice and health disparity populations through community-university partnerships and the use of CBPR in Maryland and beyond.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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