Pollution Prevention

Pollution by Design: Reducing Pollution Through Organizing

By Penny Newman


Heavy rains cause overflow from toxic waste pits to run through a local Glen Avon school

Thirty five years ago, I joined a rag tag group of moms who gathered together to decide how we were going to stop the exposures from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a permitted Class 1 toxic dump site that accepted chemical wastes from throughout California.  This was in response to an incident where the State of California, during a heavy rain period, released over one million gallons of liquid toxic waste into our community in order to relieve pressure on a the dam that was holding back 34 million gallons of hazardous waste. They did this without informing us, flooding our streets, and inundating our homes and school.  Our children splashed in the puddles, made beards and became snow men in the frothy mounds of gray toxic foam.

Untitled-23When we realized what had happened, we decided we’d had enough.  Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA) formed to stop it. By 1980 we began to hear rumors of places like Love Canal and Times Beach, where communities were experiencing similar problems.  Putting our heads and hearts together we launched into a decade long battle to make the system respond to the health crisis that we, and other communities, were facing.  Our efforts changed laws, developed legal precedent and created new institutions.

In 1993, after stopping the exposures and winning a personal injury lawsuit with a $114 million settlement, CNA became the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) to broaden our work and bring focus to the underlying factors of polluted communities.  We learned that these situations don’t just appear by accident. They are the result of a system that seeks the lowest costs, which can lead to high polluting industries locating their operations in poorer communities and communities of color.  This is why CCAEJ has developed a mission of “bringing people together to improve our social and natural environment,” as recognition that the social environment—economic, political, education— determine the fate of our community’s environment and our living conditions.

If we do not have the power to influence decisions in those systems, they will be used to advance other interests.   It is not by accident that our small rural community ended up with the Stringfellow Acid Pits – it was a decision made by powerful interests taking advantage of the system.   The goal was to find cheap places to dump their poisonous wastes in a place that is out of sight—commonly called “remote disposal.” While we knew this by instinct, our feelings were confirmed when we uncovered a report commissioned by the State of California and written by a consulting firm.  It profiled the communities that would be the easiest to site polluting facilities.  In the summary they write, “all socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.” 

Untitled-24In other words, pick the most vulnerable communities.  Understanding that poor communities and communities of color are targeted for pollution is an important factor in how to attack the problems. That’s why CCAEJ works specifically in Inland Valley communities like Riverside and San Bernardino in Southern California; which face some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country today.  Building power for these forgotten communities through leadership development, trainings, and actions; forcing the public and politicians to see the issues so they can’t be ignored or hidden; and flexing our political power is the true pathway to environmental justice.

Penny Newman is executive director and founder of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She began her fight for environmental justice with the battle of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California’s worst toxic waste site. This 25-year battle of a small town against the pollution from the Stringfellow site is recounted in her book, “Remembering Stringfellow.” Ms. Newman has received numerous awards during her 27 years as an environmental activist, including Jurupa’s “Citizen of the Year.” Newman has also appeared on numerous television shows such as the “Remembering Your Spirit” segment of the Oprah Winfrey show. She was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Toxic Time Bomb.”

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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Tales from Our Trash: New York City’s Sanitation Workers, Sustainable Cities, and the Value of Knowledge


By Rebecca Bratspies

screen_20060123182758_9talkingtrash2tsi's_pickup_crewWe have a problem in New York City: We generate more than 30,000 tons of waste each day. Roughly one third of that waste is household trash, and the daunting task of collecting garbage from New York City’s three million households falls to 7,000 workers from the NYC Department of Sanitation.  They are, in the words of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “keeping New York City alive.”

All of NYC’s waste is shipped out of state for disposal. But first, the city must consolidate the garbage at one of 58 waste transfer stations. In addition to the overpowering odors the trash itself produces, these stations generate a constant stream of truck traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and safety issues. So, of course, no one wants to live near them.

Thus, it may come as no surprise that most of NYC’s waste transfer stations are concentrated in poor and minority communities in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In 1996, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance helped form the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods to address this injustice, and over the next decade these groups worked with hundreds of concerned citizens, ultimately culminating in the passage of the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. Although the plan laid the foundation for a more equitable distribution of these facilities, attempts to locate a waste transfer station in Manhattan have been met with litigation and outrage.

frank justich wayI think about these numbers every time I place my family’s trash can on the curb for sanitation workers to empty. These workers do this thankless and risky job every day. Sanitation workers are far more likely to be killed on the job than are police officers or firefighters. In 2010, this was the case when NYC sanitation worker Frank Justich was hit by a truck and killed while on the job in Queens. My daily commute takes me past the corner where he died, which was renamed Frank Justich Way in his honor. How many of us know the names of the men and women who collect our trash? Their vital contribution to our welfare goes unacknowledged: their specialized knowledge and skills overlooked.

This is why the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) is launching its Whose Trash? Initiative, which uses NYC waste-handling practices to consider broader questions of urban sustainability. This initiative highlights the importance of including under-represented voices in the waste planning processes: communities burdened with landfills and transfer stations; workers tasked with collecting and handling wastes; and young people saddled with undesirable economic and ecological legacies.

The kick-off event, Tales from Our Trash, will take place this Thursday, November 14, at 6 p.m. at CUNY School of Law. Commemorating Frank Justich’s life and service, this event highlights the contributions sanitation workers make to urban sustainability. The event will be memorialized by Frank Justich’s widow, who speak briefly about what it means to her that this event is commemorating her husband’s life and work. Other participants include  Dr. Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation and author of Picking Up; CUNY School of Law Professor and CUER Director Rebecca Bratspies; artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, creator of Touch Sanitation and artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation; NYC Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty; and three NYC high school students speaking on behalf of future generations. More information is available on CUNY Law’s website.  Don’t live in New York? No Problem! The events are free and it is open to the public, and will be live-streamed online. Hope to see you there!

About the author: Rebecca Bratspies, Professor, joined the faculty of CUNY Law in 2004. Her teaching and scholarly research focus on environmental and public international law, with a particular emphasis on how legal systems govern the global commons and how law can further sustainable development. Professor Bratspies spent a year seconded to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Environmental Protection Administration. Upon her return to the United States, she was a litigation associate with Dechert, Price and Rhoads where she worked with civil rights groups to bring two victorious class action suits challenging Pennsylvania’s implementation of welfare reform.

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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A Healthy Collaboration to Improve Children’s Health

Reposted from EPA Connect

By Gina McCarthy and Dr. Elena Rios

When we travel to cities and communities large and small, we see first-hand the direct link between a healthy environment and healthy lives, especially for our country’s children. But as we observe Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s worth remembering that too many of our children, especially in minority communities, live in unhealthy environments that lead to unhealthy lives.

Scientific studies show that minority children who live, learn, and play in low-income communities are at a greater risk of environmental health problems such as asthma, lead poisoning, pesticides exposure, among others.

In 2009, approximately 70 percent of Hispanic children lived where air quality standards were subpar, contributing to higher incidences of asthma and other respiratory diseases. In fact, Puerto Rican American children have among the highest levels of reported current asthma as compared to all other racial and ethnicity groups. In the United States, nearly 1 in 10 school-aged children live with asthma every day, those most affected live in lower-income communities of color.

These health disparities are more than just hospital visits and more medicine. They also mean more missed school days, and a higher incidence of obesity due to less exercise.

That’s why improving children’s health and fighting for environmental justice are critical to the work we do. And that’s why we’re proud that EPA and the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA) have collaborated with federal, state, and community partners to increase awareness on key environmental health issues, particularly among the most vulnerable minority populations.

Just last year, EPA and the NHMA actively participated in President Obama’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, which launched the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to reduce racial and ethnic asthma disparities. This plan now provides a framework for federal agencies with measurable goals and outcomes to enhance environmental health among our nation’s children in partnership with our healthcare professionals.

Another key way to fight health disparities is increasing access to quality health care. The Affordable Care Act will help by connecting people to high-quality, affordable health insurance through the new Health Insurance Marketplace, Medicaid expansion, and consumer protections like prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes or asthma that disproportionately affect minority communities.

But if we are serious about addressing large scale public health disparities, especially for our children—we must be serious about reducing carbon pollution and fighting climate change.

Climate change is about more than extreme weather.  It’s also about children’s health. It’s about clean, healthy air they breathe. The carbon pollution that fuels climate change brings about hotter weather—worsening levels of pollen and smog and leading to longer allergy seasons and increased heat-related deaths, especially for children.

The urgency to act on climate change couldn’t be clearer. That’s why we’re proud to follow President Obama’s leadership to bring communities together so we can take simple steps at home and in our neighborhoods to reduce the adverse impact of a changing climate and do right by our children.

As we travel the country, we see that a healthy environment means healthy children. And as we observe the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s our promise to the American people to continue fighting for cleaner water, cleaner air, and stronger public health standards for all of our children and families—regardless of who they are, where they come from, or where they live.

About the authors: Gina McCarthy is the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dr. Elena Rios serves as President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, (NHMA), representing 45,000 Hispanic physicians in the United States. She also serves as President of NHMA’s National Hispanic Health Foundation affiliated with the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University, to direct educational and research activities.

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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Knowledge is Key with Chemical Safety Policy

By Michele Roberts

 I grew up in Delaware, in an area that was commonly known as one of the largest chemical corridors in the world. Sure, that meant there were jobs and income for our residents, but it also came with a heavy cost to the personal health of some in my family and neighbors. Growing up, I saw members of my family die from all sorts of cancers: breast cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, you name it. And cancer was only one of the many health problems that were ever present in our community. So when I made the connection between the chemicals that people in my community were being exposed to, and their tragic effects on our health, I decided that I was going to change my career to do something to address this grave problem.

Untitled-1 What I have learned over the years from my work is that there is still so much that we don’t know about the many chemicals that we manufacture in this country, and something needs to be done about it. Did you know there are over 80,000 chemicals are currently listed or registered under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), and hundreds of new chemicals are introduced into the marketplace every year? Unfortunately, there is a lack of access to vital information about these chemicals, which is especially troubling for communities impacted by chemical exposures.

Untitled-2For example, in the wake of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, community activists ask how many “shelter-in-places drills” must their children practice and how much stress from feeling unsafe should they be asked to endure. Communities located in an area commonly referred to as “cancer-alley” want to know why they have to experience cancer at such a disproportionately higher rate than the rest of the country. Communities in the Southwest want to know why the most precious resource to their livelihoods, water, is being threatened by uranium mining. In the Northeast, communities located near toxic chemical storage areas want to know why severe flooding leaves them vulnerable not only to catastrophic disasters like Hurricane Sandy, but also to the potential chemical runoff that may wash over their homes and neighborhoods.

Luckily, I have found there are many advocates from across the country that are as concerned as I am about this dearth of information and want to do something about it. Today, on October 29th the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform, consisting of delegations of community activists, youth, local elected officials, and environmental justice advocates from across the country will converge on Washington, DC to expand the dialogue towards adopting a comprehensive plan for the guidance, standards and regulations necessary for them to live safer lives with a sense of security. These reforms can better protect the health and well being of their communities and the workers inside the facilities. If this is an issue that you are concerned about and want more information, click here to find out what you can do and hear about proposed solutions for reform.

About the author: Since 1990, Ms. Roberts has provided technical assistance and advocacy support to communities regarding the impacts of toxins on human health and the environment. She received a master of art degree from the University of Delaware and a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Morgan State University. Roberts has co-authored reports on environmental justice issues. Her advocacy work has been featured in television, print news, and magazines.  Prior to being an advocate, Michele worked for 20 years as an environmental scientist for the government. She currently is co-director of the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

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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Creating a Green Urban Oasis


Design concept for Green Infrastructure Plan in Philadelphia

By Matthew Marcus

After interning in the Office of Environmental Justice this summer, I reflected on how environmental justice issues affect my beloved home city of Philadelphia.  There are pockets of communities throughout Philly that face challenges such as poverty, unemployment, a lack of educational opportunities and crime. They also face many environmental concerns such as foul air from cars and industry and polluted streams disproportionately affecting poorer neighborhoods.  However, Philly is rising to this challenge in unique and creative ways, and deserves praise for its efforts.

Untitled-3For instance, Philadelphia is addressing waterway pollution in innovative ways. Philly has old water infrastructure that combines storm water pipes with sewage lines, and during periods of heavy rainfall or snow melt, the volume of wastewater in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or wastewater treatment plant. When this happens, combined sewer overflow (CSO) and discharge sewage goes directly to nearby water bodies. These overflows can contain not only storm water, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris.

To address this problem, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), with support from the EPA, developed a strategy called Green City Clean Waters (GCCW) to mitigate this problem while remaining in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Traditionally, this would be done by building more “grey” infrastructure: bigger pipes underground that do nothing for the community.  The PWD has instead opted for a green infrastructure approach that simultaneously addresses many community needs. Howard Neukrug, PWD commissioner, told me that environmental and economic justice issues in poor urban areas are so closely related that they must be understood and tackled together.


Proposed design for rooftop in Philadelphia

Green Infrastructure (GI) consists of designing urban buildings and spaces that allow storm water to permeate into the soil rather than runoff into the pipes.  Usually this takes the form of bioswales, rain gardens, or green roofs that convert impervious surfaces to pervious ones.  This green process/technique improves water quality and protects community residents from exposure to raw sewage, which is a long-term investment in public health and clean water. So far, more than 100 construction projects have been completed, converting more than 600 acres of impervious surface to green infrastructure. The result of this project will include 5-8 billion gallons of CSO avoided per year, as well as the restoration of 190 miles of wetlands, and 11 miles of streams that flow adjacent to surrounding low-income communities.

The projects’ benefits transcend water. GCCW is attempting to integrate all aspects of community planning to produce a favorable outcome to the environment and people. One can see these benefits emerging in the New Kensington neighborhood.  A large block was turned into a beautiful GI site, a LEED platinum high school was built; and now a grassroots movement has begun to make this area the greenest point in Philly.  Students’ work has improved in the new school, and the community has something to cherish together.

Another example is the Herron Park Spraygound.  Formerly an old dilapidated pool, it’s been transformed into a green square with sprinklers throughout the playground.  Children run through the fountains safely in this beautiful green oasis on hot summer days, and on rainy days, the water infiltrates into the soil.  To the community, the sprayground adds beauty and a safe recreating spot, and to the PWD, it reduces river pollution. GCCW’s approach to sustainability is beginning to affect all parts of life, and environmental justice is addressed. I am hopeful that this great work will continue in Philly and provide an example nationally to address urban EJ challenges.

About the author: Matthew Marcus interned with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice the summer of 2013. He is currently studying his Masters of Applied Geosciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

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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Once Upon a Time NASCAR Went Green With Al Gore and the EPA

By Matt Bogoshian

Could such a story be true?

NASCAR just held their Green Summit this week in Chicago where I was lucky enough to represent EPA with an impressive group of change makers that included, of all people, Al Gore!

I’ve heard a few people question why EPA is helping NASCAR, but I like to think it fits into the story of the future, a story where all of us are on a continuous improvement path toward an America that’s built to last.

I just read Daniel Pink’s new book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, and he talks about the ways people are moved to take action. One way he describes is to tell stories the way Pixar tells stories, so here we go. Using the Pixar way, here’s one way to tell the story of the future:

Once upon a time, we built a strong and rising middle class powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, not realizing that our over reliance on them would hurt us in the long run. Every day for generations, we burned lots of fossil fuels to make stuff, build stuff, eat stuff, go places and have fun. Year after year, auto racing became more popular and NASCAR became part of the fabric of American sport. Then one day, everything started to change and more of us ended up finding new ways to get ahead using fewer fossil fuels and creating less waste. NASCAR joined the effort to improve their own practices, and help their fans learn new ways to save money, that also protect people’s health and the planet. Because of that, more kids learned new innovative skills and had better health. Also because of that, more people found better jobs and created their own businesses to make things that solved problems and added joy to life. Finally, we realized that by enlisting every American and every organization to work together, we could build a low carbon, low waste society that will create a rising and thriving middle class for this and every generation.

Make believe? Together, we’re on the road to find out …

You can help out, too, by using some handy tools found on our new online Green Sports Website. Next week is Pollution Prevention Week. Take steps to prevent pollution by committing to health, planet and money saving action!

Green for Go!

About the author: Matt Bogoshian is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Senior Policy Counsel in the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention where he leads EPA and Obama administration efforts to help manufacturers and their supply chains profit by adopting more sustainable practices while harnessing the power of consumers to demand smarter products and services. Mr. Bogoshian combines strengths of efforts such as the E3: Economy, Energy and the Environment framework, the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, the Design for the Environment (DfE) program, the EnergyStar Industrial program and the SmartWay Partnership to optimize collective benefit for American manufacturers and their communities. Bogoshian helps lead the President’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership initiative, designed to accelerate the resurgence of manufacturing and create jobs in communities across the country.

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?


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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Dr. King’s Dream and Environmental Justice


Reposted from EPA Connect

By Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming

President Obama will mark the anniversary of the March on Washington today at the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic speech 50 years ago.  As we all reflect on Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his influence on American society, let’s also celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of social and environmental justice.

Dr. King was a pioneer on many fronts. He fought to raise awareness about urban environmental issues and public health concerns that disproportionately affect communities of color – issues that are still relevant today. We have made tremendous progress in the past 50 years, but our work is not done.

As I reflect on this anniversary, my thoughts go to scripture. I am reminded of the passage from Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

This sentiment of stewardship is what led me to join the Environmental Protection Agency. At the EPA, we work every day to safeguard our environment – the environment with which we have been entrusted – for future generations.

Something we don’t think about often enough is that ensuring basic environmental protections for all is a civil rights issue – one that we have yet to resolve. Our low income and minority neighborhoods suffer disproportionate health impacts, like asthma and heart disease, due to harmful pollution in the air, land and water.

We must work to correct these injustices now as we face one of the great environmental challenges of our time – climate change.

We know that our climate is changing. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires, floods and drought are becoming more and more common. And low income neighborhoods are disproportionately impacted by extreme weather because of aging infrastructure and limited means to escape the devastation.  Our nation’s poorest communities are already bearing the brunt of this devastation, and will continue to do so if we don’t act now.

President Obama recently announced a Climate Action Plan that calls for us to work together to improve the resiliency of our communities so that we can provide protection to those who need it most.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, let’s also reflect on Dr. King’s legacy. As Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must redouble our efforts to protect people’s health and the environment in all of our communities.

About the Author: Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming serves as Chief of Staff to the Administrator. Ms. Fleming was appointed by President Obama as Region 4 (Atlanta) Regional Administrator of the EPA in September 2010, the first African-American to hold this position. Previously, she served as the first African-American and first woman DeKalb County District Attorney and Solicitor General. She was the youngest ever elected as Solicitor General. Ms. Fleming is a New Jersey native and earned a bachelor’s degree in finance from Douglass College and she earned her law degree from the Emory University School of Law. Ms. Fleming credits her parents, Ursula Keyes, a retired registered nurse and her late father, Andrew J. Keyes, a former Tuskegee Airman, as the reason for her commitment to community service.

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.


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!


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.


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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Planning for People: Smart Growth Strategies for Equitable Development

By Sara James

I’ve always taken note of the world around me, particularly how the built environment meets – or fails to meet – the needs of the people who actually live in that environment. Even before I decided to study urban planning, I questioned why environmental and public health issues and access to jobs, services, and other daily necessities were a challenge faced by some communities but not by others.

During my urban planning studies and my internship with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities (OSC), I’ve learned that traditional planning focuses on the built environment (e.g., buildings, roads). Too often, a project’s main goal is to minimize the developer’s financial bottom line, not to maximize the residents’ quality of life. Effective planning also requires understanding a community’s social, economic, and cultural diversity. The most successful planning processes today include comprehensive community engagement, advocacy for community members most in need and an eye toward equitable development. In its recent publication, Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities, EPA identified smart growth strategies that planners, developers, and community leaders can use to build healthy, sustainable, and inclusive communities.

Community engagement event in Mariposa

The Denver Housing Authority facilitated over 120 public meetings and community engagement events and translated documents into three languages.

The Mariposa District in Denver used these strategies and was recognized last year for its accomplishments in equitable development by EPA’s National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement. (Watch the video.) Planning for redevelopment of the Mariposa District, a 17.5-acre public housing site, included more than 120 meetings, discussions, group consultations, workshops, and information sessions. Planners conducted door-to-door interviews, translated outreach materials into multiple languages, facilitated training sessions for public housing residents, and conducted a cultural audit to fully understand the DNA of the neighborhood as a whole.

Katrina Aguirre, a Mariposa resident, said she “learned how the concerns of residents could become part of the plan for the redevelopment as long as [they] voiced [their] thoughts.”  As the new buildings are constructed, Ms. Aguirre sees the effect of the residents’ involvement in the process. “Our goals and ideas have been included – which will make this a place where we want to continue to live.”

Successes like the Mariposa District are ripe with lessons that can be captured and shared with practitioners and stakeholders. That’s why OSC has been working closely with the Office of Environmental Justice to develop a new webpage, Smart Growth and Equitable Development. The resources on this page explain the challenges underserved communities face in relation to the built environment and land use decisions. They also point to approaches, like in Mariposa, that can be used to ensure that planning and development processes are unbiased, inclusive, and result in a better quality of life for everyone. Resources like these have helped me better understand and answer some of my initial questions about the built environment’s effect on the people it serves. I hope they will help you answer your smart growth, equitable development, and environmental justice questions as well!

Sara James is studying to obtain her master’s degree in sustainable urban planning at George Washington University and interning with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She assists EPA in researching and promoting innovative, sustainable, smart growth and equitable development strategies in communities across the country.

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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