Pollution Prevention

What will you rethink?

by Jaclyn McIlwain


rethinkI love rocking a brand new pair of shoes, feeling fresh as I walk through Rittenhouse Square on my way to lunch at a hip restaurant. But, wait. Don’t I already have a pair of blue suede shoes? Didn’t I just go grocery shopping last night?

If you’re lucky enough to have the luxury of dining out and shopping in Center City, do you ever stop and think about where all of these products are coming from? The exotic food, the jeans you’re wearing. What went into these goods? Answer: natural resources, materials, and energy. In fact, 42% of carbon pollution emissions in the U.S. are associated with the energy used to produce, process, transport, and dispose of the food we eat and the goods we use. To build a more sustainable future, we almost certainly will need to rethink how we source, consume, and dispose of goods.

Don’t be disheartened! There are a million ways to rethink your daily practices. By simply reexamining the choices you make day-to-day, you have the power to affect change and work toward a sustainable future: from shopping (“Could I borrow this from someone instead? Can I reuse something I already have in my home?”) to your daily routine (washing clothes in cold water and turning off the tap when brushing your teeth) to how you dispose of products and materials that you just can’t use any more (think: recycling and composting!) There’s no better time than Pollution Prevention Week to commit to actions that improve your health, help the planet and save money.

EPA is highlighting steps you can take toward sustainability during Philadelphia’s 2014 Park(ing) Day. Park(ing) Day is a national event held on the third Friday in September, where mundane metered parking spaces are converted into temporary miniature parks throughout the city. Park(ing) Day re-imagines the possibilities of 170 square feet of public space, celebrates parks and public spaces nationwide, and raises awareness of the need for more pedestrian-friendly spaces in urban areas.

Visit EPA’s temporary park and explore how you can save water, reduce waste, prevent pollution, and act on climate. There are a few more sustainability surprises waiting for you this Friday, September 19 at 18th and Sansom Streets, but I won’t give it all away. You’ll have to come see (and learn) for yourself!

What if we could transform the city for just one day? What if we could transform the way we make our purchases, for good? We can, and we are.

What will you rethink?


About the author: Jaclyn McIlwain has worked at EPA since 2010 in the Water Protection Division. A Philadelphia native, Jaclyn studied environmental science and is a graduate of the 2012 Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program. When not in the office, she can be found hiking, camping, or practicing yoga.



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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Port Arthur Texas – Climate Justice Hits Home


By Hilton Kelley

Texas is considered the “Energy State.” In 2013 it was the leading crude oil-producing state in the nation; its 27 refineries exceeding even the production levels of off-shore production. That year Texas was also the leading natural gas producer in the country. Port Arthur, Texas, my home, sits on the Louisiana-Texas border on the Gulf Coast, right in the heart of this Texas energy hub. Port Arthur also is home to four major oil refineries, four chemical plants, one petroleum coke plant, and an international chemical waste incineration facility.

Many residents of Port Arthur, particularly those in the low income community of color, in the city’s Historic west side, have been and continue to be disproportionately negatively impacted by carbon emissions, volatile organic compounds, and known carcinogens from these facilities. Based on a local door-to-door community survey, one out of every five households here has someone who suffers from chronic respiratory illnesses, many of whom are children. According data compiled by the Texas Cancer Registry, the county’s cancer incidence rate is 25% higher than the state average. We have a large number of people in our community who have been diagnosed with cancer and liver and kidney disease. A separate study by the University of Texas Medical Branch found that the residents of Port Arthur are four times more likely than people who live 100 miles away to suffer from heart and respiratory problems, nervous and skin disorders, and other illnesses. The health problems endured by my friend Paula and her family are examples of the devastating impacts pollution is having in my community.

Smoke rises from Deepwater Horizon

The question of how much pollution one community can bear takes on a whole new meaning when talking about climate change. The ferocity of recent hurricanes has been unexpected, bringing in storm surges that reached to the top of the 100-year levee. Due to rising sea levels, a portion of Highway 87 leading to Galveston along the Gulf Coast has not been open for years because large sections have been washed out. Vast amounts of coastal marshlands and wetlands, which serve as natural sponges that trap and slowly release storm waters, are contaminated largely due to oil spills, big ones like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, as well as smaller ones too. There is a massive sinkhole in the Louisiana wetlands which is possibly leaking chemical waste from a very large underground injection well.

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

The emergence of serious storms and other significant weather changes only exacerbates the problems we are dealing with. Like the Murphy Oil flooding following Hurricane Katrina, storm surges will wash chemicals from their confinement into our neighborhoods. It’s not just the major storms that wreak environmental havoc on coastal areas like ours that are home to oil and gas production facilities. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike (a Category 2 storm) caused hundreds of releases of oil, gasoline, and dozens of other substances into our air and water, facilities were damaged causing explosions and other catastrophes that only compound the suffering of my friends, neighbors and future generations.

The time to deal with climate change and related issues like chemical safety, chemical reduction, and community resiliency is now — people are dying because of over-exposure to dangerous substances. Human and wildlife habitats are being lost. Just as important, we are losing the culture and way of life of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast. We must do more to get local, regional, and State governments involved in the fight to reduce and combat climate change. Time is of the essence.

This must happen! Not next year, not next month, but right now.

About the author: Hilton Kelley is the Executive Director and Founder of Community In-power and Development Association Inc. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his efforts on environmental justice.

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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Cobbler Cure – Doctor’s Orders

By Thomas O’Donnell It might seem odd to get excited over apple or strawberry cobbler, but this batch touched a special chord. I work in EPA’s Philadelphia office on sustainability and food waste issues. I’ve been trying to find new ways to avoid throwing good food into landfills as part of the agency’s Food Recovery Challenge. The National Resources Defense Council reported that fruits and vegetables make up the largest type of food going to waste from retail stores, 22 percent, in fact. That could easily be more than 14 million pounds of fresh fruit in Philadelphia alone.

Picture of two chefs working in the kitchen

I brought one of the challenge participants, the produce team from Brown’s Parkside Shop-Rite supermarket in Philadelphia, together with Drexel University’s Culinary School. The school’s culinary director and a student were anxious to help and try something new. The school’s mantra in situations where food is heading out the back door is to transform it into healthy, delicious meals. After we got to the store and talked about food recovery options, the folks from Shop-Rite took us to the produce section where they pulled some fruit that had minor imperfections that shoppers were not likely to purchase. A couple of cartons of strawberries and apples went back to the culinary school where the students worked on the challenge of turning what might have been trash into treasure. The next morning, I had six recipes in my email inbox, with the pictures of the cobbler you see included in this blog. (The Shop-Rite folks were the lucky ones who got to enjoy this special treat.)

Picture of a cobbler in a pan.

It’s just cobbler, right? True, but Drexel and Shop-Rite launched a successful experiment in food research that took slightly bruised or not perfectly shaped fruit that was destined for a compost pile, or a trash compactor and transformed it into delicious cobblers. They also created half-a-dozen recipes for things like applesauce and jam. How many times could this be done by someone who wants to make fresh meals for local food pantries or shelters? Could this be a new opportunity for a local business? The experiment has social and environmental benefits – great food for those in need and less food-waste sent to landfills where it becomes methane, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change. Fruits and vegetables are among the most difficult foods to repurpose to feeding needy people – a goal near the top of EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. This small experiment showed how to create delicious alternatives to disposal, and it was quick and fun. Being part of this little experiment was a blast. And, be assured that we’re going to do more research. Stay tuned!

Cooked cobbler on a plate.

About the author: Thomas O’Donnell (NAHE) is a Sustainability Coordinator with the Mid-Atlantic Region of the USEPA specializing in the Food Recovery Challenge Program. He received a PhD in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia. Tom was one of the originators of the Urban Model for Surplus Food recovery, which is piloting in west Philadelphia. He also teaches at Philadelphia University while developing open, online courses on food systems and sustainability.

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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Breathe Easier This Mother’s Day

By Tonya Winders

Untitled-1I still remember my first Mother’s Day. It was 1999 and my firstborn son Kaleb was eight months old when I learned I was three months pregnant with our second child, Kaylee. Little did I know that 15 years later I would be the mother of five children, four of whom have asthma and/or allergies.

I soon learned I was not alone.

Untitled-2More than 26 million Americans – including 7 million children – have asthma, a chronic and potentially serious disease marked by airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. Asthma is often made worse by exposure to pollutant “triggers” like vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, tobacco smoke, and pollen. Often, urban environments have high levels of outdoor pollution and poor housing conditions, which frequently are associated with increased levels of indoor pollution. Disproportionate numbers of people of color and people from low income households live in these areas, and thus may be exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution, both indoors and outside.

Surprisingly, most people don’t know every day in America:

  • 44,000 people have an asthma attack.
  • 36,000 kids miss school due to asthma.
  • 27,000 adults miss work because of asthma.
  • 1,200 people are admitted to the hospital due to ashtma.
  • 9 people die because of asthma.

Even more alarming is the fact that roughly two to three times as many African Americans as Caucasians die from asthma each year. Although it is a disease that can be managed, often low income, single mothers and hard working parents don’t have the time to get the information that they need to manage the asthma problems of their family members and possibly prevent unnecessary deaths.

Yet we have tools available to help patients keep symptoms under control. Early on, Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA) understood the key ingredient for asthma control usually begins with mothers. AANMA emphasized the importance of providing practical tools, information and inspiration.

Untitled-3As moms, most of us place our children’s health over our own, but asthma must be a priority for all women, including mothers. AANMA recently launched a new program designed specifically for women with asthma: Women Breathe Free. This will offer four telephone counseling sessions based on motivational interviews and national asthma guidelines to better equip women with effective self-management skills. One key aspect of the program helps women identify asthma triggers in their environment and implement targeted control measures to reduce exposures to pollens, dust, mold, smoke and other irritants. AANMA will incorporate its Indoor AIRepair kit, developed in coordination with EPA, to provide helpful, practical and inexpensive tips on reducing exposures at home, school and play.

May 1, 2014, in observance of Asthma Awareness Month, AANMA launched another new initiative to help families — a prescription assistance program open to the public. This will allow families to save up to 75 percent off all of their medications, including those that play a critical role in their comprehensive management of asthma, which is especially important for low-income families who sometimes may have to make trade-offs between medication and other essentials.

I am so proud to work for AANMA, which is an amazing and essential organization dedicated to ending needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions through education, outreach and advocacy. Since 1985, we have helped hundred of thousands of patients and families breathe better together.

Untitled-2As a mother, I am grateful for organizations like AANMA that are committed to medically accurate, patient-friendly educational materials and advocacy. I also understand there are many mothers out there that are working incredibly hard to provide for their families and don’t have enough time to find out about all of the available information and resources to help them protect their children. This information has helped me to be a better mother, and I hope it reaches these mothers and helps them breathe a little easier this Mother’s Day.

About the author: Tonya Winders. MBA is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics, the leading patient advocacy organization dedicated to ending the needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions. Tonya has over 16 years of experience in leadership roles within the allergy and asthma industry. From sales and marketing leadership to managed markets access, she has worked tirelessly to ensure patients have access to effective diagnostic and treatment tools.

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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Chemical Spill in West Virginia Offers Opportunity to Learn About and Improve Chemical Safety in America

By Maya Nye

On the early morning of January 9, a citizen complaining of a strong “black licorice” smell alerted officials to a chemical leak at the Freedom Industries site that seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River a mile and a half upstream of the state’s largest water intake.  It wasn’t until hours later that a ban was placed on water use for over 300,000 people across nine West Virginia counties.  Schools shut down. Hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries.  Restaurants were forced to close leaving many people out of work.  The local economy nearly ground to a halt.

Untitled-1The chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries site, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used in the processing of coal-fired energy production.  It is one of 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), many of which can pose serious consequences for human health.

This is not a new issue in West Virginia: chemical contamination has been a concern in this area for a long time.  This 25-mile stretch of West Virginia’s Untitled-2Kanawha River has been nicknamed “chemical valley” for its chemical manufacturing industry.  In fact, many incidents in this valley over the years have served as the focal point for reform to national chemical safety and security policy, including a 1985 aldicarb oxime leak that led to national Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Laws and the implementation of the United States Chemical Safety Board.  In the wake of this latest spill, the communities around the Elk River in West Virginia also have an opportunity to spur action on chemical safety.

In response to the incident, the West Virginia State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks in zones surrounding drinking water intakes, as well as requiring updated source water protection plans.  This is a good start towards improving the safety and security of drinking water supplies.

However, this incident could provide the basis for further action at the national level. That’s why in February, I travelled with my colleague Stephanie Tyree with the West Virginia Community Development Hub to Denver to join our Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform partners at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Conference to seek national support for our home state of West Virginia.  As a result of our testimonies, the NEJAC responded to our request and agreed to advocate on our behalf for a listening session of the President’s Executive Order 13650 to be held in Charleston, West Virginia.

Untitled-3The public has a right to know what dangers exist in their communities in order to make informed decisions about their individual health and the health of their families. It is now mid-April, more than 90 days since the spill, and the crisis is still not over.  The odor is still faintly detected in some homes.  Schools have recently gone back to serving tap water to the dismay of many parents, and most people are not bathing in or drinking the water for fear of unknown health risks. We hope that the West Virginia incident will better inform chemical safety and security laws across the country and ensure that they protect families and workers in all communities.

Maya Nye is the President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), a 501c4 non-profit community organization active in community affairs for over 30 years dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.  

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 to Protect the Communities of Port Arthur, Texas

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

By Cynthia Giles

Pollution can affect us all, but communities in Port Arthur, Texas, a major hub for America’s energy and chemical facilities, are especially overburdened. Anyone who lives close to chemical plants knows all too well that breathing in dangerous air pollution can cause a variety of health impacts, including asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. It can also be a barrier to economic opportunity and middle class security, often gaps that affect low income and disadvantaged communities.

Advances in pollution controls and information technology used in our enforcement cases can stem these impacts and help those who need it most.

This week’s settlement with Flint Hills Resources of Port Arthur, a major chemical company, is the most recent example. The agreement requires the company to significantly reduce emissions, be transparent about pollution issues, and conduct projects to improve the local environment.

Flint Hills worked with EPA to develop and will implement state-of-the-art technology to reduce pollution from industrial flares. Improper flaring can send hundreds of tons of hazardous pollutants into the air. EPA wants companies to flare less, and when they do flare, to fully burn the harmful chemicals found in the waste gas. In addition, the company will take steps to reduce “fugitive” emissions, which refers to pollution that can leak from valves, pumps, and other equipment, by monitoring more frequently, installing “low emission” valves, and other measures.

A fence-line air monitor

For the past several years, Flint Hills has operated a system to monitor the ambient levels of the hazardous air pollutants benzene and 1,3 butadiene at the boundaries of the facility, also known as the “fence line.” As part of this settlement, they are now taking a step further by agreeing to make this data available online to the public every week. In addition, twice a year, the company will post a report that summarizes the data collected, plus any required corrective actions for pollution above threshold levels. This information will provide critical information to the community on the state of environmental conditions where they live.

Flint Hills has also agreed to spend $2 million dollars on diesel retrofits for vehicles owned by the City of Port Arthur, a project that will reduce pollution over the next 15 years. It will also spend $350,000 on technologies to reduce energy demand in low income homes.

Once fully implemented, EPA estimates that the settlement will reduce harmful emissions of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants by an estimated 1,880 tons per year, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 69,000 tons per year. I know that this settlement won’t fix all of the problems in Port Arthur, but it’s an important step to clean the air and to ensure companies operate responsibly in overburdened communities.

About the author: Cynthia Giles is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, where she leads EPA’s efforts to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and advance environmental justice. Giles has more than 30 years of service in the public, private and non-profit sectors. She received a BA from Cornell University, a JD from the University of California at Berkeley and an MPA from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.

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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Protecting Those That Need it Most

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Cynthia Giles

CynthiaGiles2x3.21The American public depends on us to pursue serious violators of environmental laws and protect clean air, water and land on which we all depend. Nowhere is this more important than in the minority, low-income, and tribal communities overburdened by pollution. That’s why – as the Assistant Administrator with the honor of overseeing EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice – I’m proud to mark the close of Environmental Justice Month with some reflections on how enforcement has advanced the cause of justice for those most vulnerable to pollution.

Pursuing justice for overburdened communities is an essential part of our enforcement work – from the problems we select for enforcement attention, the violating facilities we address, the way we design relief to remedy violations and past harms, and our engagement with affected communities. We’ve developed methods to screen for potential environmental justice concerns and to determine how necessary enforcement actions can benefit communities.

Here are a few examples to help illustrate this:

  • Sewage discharges are a public health threat often impacting urban residents, so we’re working with city mayors to tackle the shared challenges these pollution problems present. Together, we make sure that settlements prioritize remedial action in overburdened communities and promote green infrastructure projects to help increase the resilience of cities to climate change, while reducing storm water runoff and discharges of raw sewage that degrade water quality.
  • The impacts of petroleum refineries and power plants on air quality in surrounding neighborhoods have been a challenge for decades. When negotiating settlements, we require the polluter to make reforms and develop solutions that reduce pollution, clean up the environment and achieve a variety of community benefits. A recent settlement with Shell Deer Park embodies this through reforms to reduce air pollution from flaring, mitigation projects to reduce air toxics, a project to install and operate fence-line monitoring stations to keep the community informed about pollution that can affect them, and retrofitting old, diesel-emitting public vehicles in the area.
  • When pursuing criminal cases, we’ve seen a strong deterrent impact from traditional sanctions like imprisonment and fines for crimes that threaten the health and safety of overburdened communities. We’re also looking for ways to provide greater protection to affected communities through restitution or community service. For example, as part of the plea agreement with the Pelican Refining Company, Pelican will pay $2 million in community service payments to environmental projects and air monitoring in Louisiana.

These examples of progress are important, but our work is far from done. The next 20 years will require staying out in front of pollution problems and empowering affected communities to take action. Tools like advanced monitoring and electronic reporting, when paired with information technology, can ensure the public receives faster and more accurate information on where to find violations and what to do about them. I am proud of what we have achieved over the last 20 years and I am confident that if we continue to listen to communities, share our work and use the latest technological advances, we will sustain our progress on environmental justice for decades to come.

About the author: Cynthia Giles is the current Assistant Administrator  for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, where she leads EPA’s efforts to enforce our nation’s environmental laws and advance environmental justice.

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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Quilting to Give a Community a Voice

“We would like to dedicate this blog in memory of the four Lake Apopka farmworkers, community leaders, and long-time Farmworker Association of Florida members – strong and dedicated women leaders and agricultural workers – who we lost in 2013.  In memory of Angela Tanner, Willie Mae Williams, Betty Woods, and Louise Seay.  With gratitude and remembrance from the community.  We will miss you.”

By Jeannie Economos

When I first started working for the Farmworker Association of Florida in 1996, they told me part of my job was to work on the issue of Lake Apopka.  Little did I know at the time that Lake Apopka would become my life’s work for the next 17 years. And, it would become personal…as I came to know and love the community of people I worked with – the farmworkers who fed America for generations.

Untitled-2Lake Apopka is Florida’s most contaminated large lake.  On the north shore, 20,000 acres of farmland were carved out of what was once the bottom of Lake Apopka.  Farmworkers farmed that land – they call it muck –for decades beginning in the 1940s during World War II until the farms were bought out by the state and shut down in 1998 for the purpose of trying to restore the lake’s natural wetlands.

Alligator studies in the 1980s and the tragic death of over 1,000 aquatic birds on Lake Apopka in 1998-99 were linked to toxic organochlorine pesticides that had been used on the farms prior to their being banned in the 1970s. Farmworkers were exposed to these same chemicals, but nobody was looking at their health problems from chronic occupational pesticide exposure on the farmlands. Millions were spent to study alligators, and later the birds, and to try to restore the ‘dead’ lake. But no money was ever spent to address the health concerns of the farmworkers, who were acutely exposed to these pesticides for years.

The community would not accept this, especially when they saw their friends and family members getting sick and even dying.  Thus, was born the idea of the Lake Apopka Farmworker Memorial Quilt Project.  With a lot of hard work and commitment from former Lake Apopka farmworkers from Apopka and Indiantown, it has become a reality. The quilts were created to honor the lives of the farmworkers who have been exposed to the pesticides and to keep alive their history. The artwork of each individual square weaves the personal stories, tragedies, and small victories together to speak about the environmental injustices at Lake Apopka. The Lake Apopka farmworker leaders continue to use the quilts to both raise awareness among student and church groups about environmental justice and their community, and as a tool to press their case with state and local decision makers to address the health and environmental problems facing their community members.


2013 MLK Day Parade in Florida

Today, the quilts have been viewed by thousands of Floridians and exhibited all across the state, including in Orlando City Hall, the Orange County Public Library, the Alachua County Public Library and the African American Museum of Art. This has helped spread awareness of the injustices the farmworkers face, and has helped build attention from the state legislature, which has been working to propose legislation which would provide long-term health care services for the affected residents surrounding the lake.

Is there still a need to address health care for the farmworkers on Lake Apopka?  Yes, but the creation of the quilts has given the community a voice and a message that they didn’t have before.  And, it has been a way for members to turn their pain into folk art that memorializes the ones they love.  Validation is what the community wants.  The quilts are one way to validate their lives and their contributions to our society.  

About the author: Jeannie has worked for over 20 years on issues of the environment, environmental justice, indigenous and immigrants’ rights, labor, peace, and social justice. From 1996-2001, she worked for the Farmworker Association of Florida as the Lake Apopka Project Coordinator, addressing the issues of job loss, displacement, and health problems of the farmworkers who worked on the farm lands on Lake Apopka prior to the closing of the farms in 1998. After the bird mortality in 1998-99, her focus turned to the pesticide-related health problems of the former Lake Apopka farmworkers, who were exposed to the same damaging organochlorine pesticides that were implicated in the bird deaths.

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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Sustainability for All

By Deeohn Ferris

Untitled-2In many of our communities, if sustainability is going to be sustainable, our nation’s green economy and the investments that flow from those policies must reflect the undeniable fact that all communities are not at the same starting point.  In far too many of our neighborhoods, people who are raising families and working hard to make ends meet face a combination of environmental, social and economic challenges that result in grave hardship.  If the race to sustainability is a race to the top, some of our communities can take the elevator.  Others only have stairs, and some of them have asthma too!

Regarding what’s going on locally and on-the-ground, equitable development is the central point from where the hard issues within sustainability must be dealt with up front.   The real on-ramp to sustainability means recognizing and addressing the inter-relationship of the challenges in our communities. Negative environmental impacts, disproportionate impacts, vacant properties, brownfields, health disparities, blight — these conditions are ubiquitous in neighborhoods where people of color and people with low incomes and less wealth live, work, learn, worship, and play.  Achieving equitable and sustainable development means thoroughly rebuilding our communities – not just the bricks and mortar – but really rebuilding the country’s social and economic fabric.

Untitled-2Thus, to make a fairer starting line for all in our country, we need to recognize opportunities to support the communities that have the greatest proportion of pollution and public health problems. For example, minimizing health disparities by deliberately providing fairer access for health care in low income and minority communities would save these residents billions of dollars in averted medical costs and gained productivity. Ameliorating such persistent inequities is critical for bringing about stability in communities—increasing fair access to housing choices, better schools, better jobs, sustained economic growth – and thus improving their overall ability to achieve community sustainability.

All across the country, dedicated folks are working to address these disparities.  But people of color and low-and-moderate income populations are still struggling for opportunity. Reversing this unfortunate trend necessitates a national transition to sustainability and the emerging green economy, which provides important new ways to tackle community revitalization as well as opportunities to do so in an equitable manner. Some examples of green economy priorities and tools that could address these disparities include:

  • Ensuring the right to a clean, safe environment for everyone.
  • Establishing inclusive decision making structures that provide resources and facilitate community engagement in planning and investments.
  • Making certain that decision-making is democratic, transparent and fair.
  • Distributing the economic and health benefits of energy conservation through green housing and retrofits.
  • Creating jobs that are safe, green and upwardly mobile.
  • Emphasizing workforce preparedness, development, and training.
  • Providing financial and other incentives that encourage entrepreneurship and local ownership of renewable energy and renewable energy technologies.
  • Guaranteeing that there are sufficient transportation options, including affordable public transit that gets people to jobs.
  • And ensuring the highest quality education and food security for all of our children.

Untitled-3Which neighborhoods are built and rebuilt and how they are built and rebuilt have far-reaching consequences in the race towards sustainability. Prioritizing historically disadvantaged and distressed communities to engage and benefit from sustainability outcomes is an investment in the future.  I believe everyone in our nation should have the same opportunity to flourish.  But achieving such a lofty goal requires community sustainability with conscious linkages to social and economic equity goals, green economy tools and environmental justice.

About the author: Deeohn Ferris is President of Sustainable Community Development Group, a not-for-profit national research and policy innovator dedicated to advancing sustainability and public health through equitable neighborhood development, smart growth and the green economy.  She is a former EPA enforcement lawyer, now a renowned provider of equitable development expertise and technical assistance that tackles sustainability in communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods.   Deeohn was on the ground floor of drafting the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 and the first Chair of NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee.   

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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Putting Sustainability within Reach of Environmental Justice Communities

By Carlton Eley

Untitled-1I am an urban planner who works on environmental justice at the EPA. I believe certain things to be true: professional ethics require speaking up for citizens who may not have a voice in local decision-making; public service is a public trust; and expansive strategies are required for encouraging sustainable communities.  Also, I believe equitable development is one of the key solutions for making a visible difference in communities.

No task is more important to the future of sustainability in the U.S. than equitable development.  Equitable development expands choice and opportunity, encourages sustainable outcomes, and improves quality of life while mitigating impacts from activities that society considers beneficial.  As a result, the approach advances environmental justice.


In recent years, the term “place-based” has become a popular watchword among planners, urban designers, and other stewards of the built environment.  In many ways, equitable development is a place-based approach for encouraging environmental justice.  Although the public is accustomed to discussions about environmental justice framed in the context of the law, public health, and waste management, the planning and design professions are equally important means for correcting problems which beset communities overburdened by pollution and remain underserved.

When the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) published its 1996 report Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields:  The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope, it clearly outlined the nexus between environmental justice, land use, and sustainability.  Not only did this report identify the environmental benefits of urban redevelopment, but the report also emphasized that the best outcomes from urban redevelopment would come about through an inclusive process.

Obviously, the NEJAC was ahead of itself.  Since 1996, researchers, advocates, allied professionals, and community builders have demonstrated that equitable development does not shift attention from making communities better.  Instead, it results in better community outcomes, especially for underserved populations and vulnerable groups.

Susana Almanza of PODER, Diane Takvorian of the Environmental Health Coalition, State Representative Harold Mitchell, Jr. of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and many more are ‘citizen planners for equitable development’.  The outcomes from their successful projects are evidence of what happens when citizens are audacious in their attempts to do well while doing good.  Because of their examples as well as through the leadership of organizations like PolicyLink, supporters of environmental justice are learning about a broad range of community activity for fixing challenges rooted in a failure to plan, a failure to enforce proper zoning, or the persistent legacy of unequal development.

We have come a long way in understanding, implementing, replicating, and scaling-up equitable development.  Still, more work will need to occur in order to realize full appreciation of the role equitable development plays in the framework of sustainability.

Untitled-3In the interim, public demand for a balanced discussion on sustainability is not being overlooked.  The U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is organizing the workshop, “Equitable Development:  Smarter Growth through Environmental Justice.” The workshop will be held at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Denver, Colorado, on February 13, 2014.  Equally important, the NEJAC will revisit the themes of equitable development, environmental justice, and sustainability when it meets in Denver on February 11-12, 2014.

Finally, the Environmental Justice in Action Blog will explore the topic of equitable development through a series of posts in advance of the conference in Denver.  The dialogue about environmental justice for the next twenty years starts here.

Carlton Eley works for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  He is an urban planner, sociologist, and lecturer.  Carlton is credited for elevating equitable development to the level of formal recognition within U.S. EPA as an approach for encouraging sustainable communities.  He interned with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in Region 10 as an associate of the Environmental Careers Organization in 1994.

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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