sustainable communities

Rain Barrels of Savings

by Jennie Saxe

As I spent a recent weekend doing springtime yard work, I noticed that the side yard of my house seems to have washed away over the past few years. After a short investigation, I realized that three downspouts on my home pointed at this exact location. I wondered…could I use green infrastructure to help slow the flow of rainwater?

I decided to install a rain barrel to direct some of the rain water to storage instead of letting it flow as run-off across the ground. Reducing the amount of run-off from my roof will keep the soil from washing away. As an added benefit, the stored rain water will be perfect for watering our flowers and vegetable garden.

Full disclosure: DIY is not my strong suit. Even though it’s fairly simple to build your own rain barrel, I purchased mine. All that was left was to follow the directions for connecting it to a downspout.  Here’s the finished product:

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

The rain barrel was installed in a couple of hours, but I did make some rookie mistakes. If you’re thinking about installing your first rain barrel, here are some helpful hints:

  • Location: I knew which downspout to connect to, but I also had to be sure I was able to connect a hose. I also had to consider where excess water would drain once the barrel was filled. Excess water can be directed to overflow, to another rain barrel, or to a rain garden.
  • Safety: A 60-gallon rain barrel will weigh 500 pounds when full, so it’s a good idea to make sure that little ones won’t be tempted to play around it. I used a bed of stones to make sure the base of the rain barrel was sturdy in all weather and able to support the weight of the barrel. To protect against mosquitos using your rain water as a breeding ground, be sure to have screening over all openings.
  • Level: This was the hardest part. Since you won’t want to move the rain barrel once it’s installed, take all the time you need on this step.
  • Have the right tools: If you purchase your rain barrel, follow the instructions. Common tools will include a level, a hacksaw, and a tape measure. Be sure you also have gloves and eye protection – a cut aluminum gutter can be sharp!

Now, if it would just rain! The conditions in my area have just been declared “abnormally dry” (designated “D0” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map). But with my rain barrel installed, I’ll be ready to save the rain when it does arrive.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She thanks fellow Healthy Waters bloggers Steve Donohue and Ken Hendrickson for their helpful hints on rain barrel installation.

 

 

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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Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

by Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

Standing Sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama

Raw sewage outside a home in Lowndes County, Alabama (source: http://eji.org/node/629)

When most of us think or speak about people who lack access to adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment — if we think or speak of them at all– it usually brings to mind folks in developing countries half way across the globe. Just as an upcoming United Nations Summit on development goals seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” we want the people of those countries to have the basic human rights that we may take for granted daily at our taps and toilets. Unfortunately, we often overlook communities in our own backyard who lack access to clean water and sanitation.

Here in the United States, communities that lack access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation can be found in colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, in rural Alaska Native Villages, in Appalachia, and in the Black Belt of the southern U.S. In EPA’s Sustainable Communities Branch of the Office of Wastewater Management, we focus on these communities.

Last year, we visited Willisville, a small, historic, rural community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia, considered one of the wealthiest counties in America. Yet in unincorporated Willisville, many of its largely low income, African-American families lived without indoor plumbing, relying instead on privies and outhouses, and drawing their water from shallow wells, as their ancestors had done since the community’s founding just after the Civil War. In 1998, the Loudoun County Health Department found that the majority of homes in Willisville had inadequate drinking water supplies, and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Additionally, the poor soil quality was not compatible with the installation of traditional septic systems, while more costly alternative systems were out of the price range of residents.

Bringing adequate infrastructure to Willisville had presented funding, planning, and installation challenges. In 2007, a joint venture of the County, the local water authority, and the community, provided an on-site community wastewater collection and treatment system that replaced outhouses and failing drain fields. The County covered most of the cost of connecting homes to the system, drilling new wells, and adding bathrooms, kitchen sinks, and washing-machine hookups. Yet even with these improvements, additional challenges remained. Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes, for example, would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, due to the determination of key individuals, Willisville residents were able to work with the County and nonprofit organizations to modify the tax base to allow residents to afford the new services.

Unfortunately, the situation that had plagued Willisville can be seen in other communities around the country.

Take for example, Lowndes County, Alabama, a mostly rural minority community with a 27 percent poverty rate. In 2002, it was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or were using an inadequate one. In addition, 50 percent of the existing septic systems did not work properly. The community had been built on highly impermeable clay soils that do not quickly absorb water, making installing sophisticated and advanced septic systems very cost prohibitive. It was not uncommon to see raw sewage in fields, yards, and ditches. Inadequate wastewater management became a public health hazard and an environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. In 2011, the situation was the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry.

In 2010, EPA entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management plan for rural Lowndes County. The grant demonstrates the use of affordable or new technologies in an effort to address the inadequate disposal of raw sewage in Lowndes County. The grant not only signifies an important first step to improving the area’s basic sanitation services, but it provides a model to help protect water quality and human health in this community and others around the country.

Most people living in the United States enjoy access to safe water and sanitation. Yet, there are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County for which the opposite is true. Providing funding and technical assistance to underserved communities can help them tackle the complex issues of improving their water and wastewater infrastructure. But it’s not a task that can be undertaken by a single individual. These efforts will require multi-stakeholder engagement and the collaboration of public, private, and academic partnerships with the affected communities to achieve environmental justice. We’ve seen the success first hand, and we know it’s possible.

Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

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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Community-driven Revitalization: Tying it Together in Freeport, Illinois

by Melissa Friedland

The East Side of Freeport, Illinois, is a remarkable place. This African-American neighborhood has been home to families for generations. Residents have a strong sense of community and deep affection for the area. However, frequent flooding from the Pecatonica River has not just damaged homes but impacted the community’s economic vitality. The community also has vacant former industrial areas, petroleum contamination, and has been subject to illegal dumping at the CMC Heartland Superfund site. These have exacerbated the legacy of racial segregation, strained relationships with civic leadership, and diminished access to community amenities.

In 2013, community members began to tackle these challenges. Their goal: to make it possible for Freeport’s East Side to again support quality housing, thriving businesses, and public amenities. At the outset, stakeholders identified two key outcomes for the project – reducing flooding impacts and addressing floodway regulations. Properties in the neighborhood’s floodplain are subject to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state floodway regulations as activities such as rebuilding and improving housing and commercial space after flood events are considered. Residents have indicated that addressing these challenges could lay the foundation for pursuing additional neighborhood revitalization goals.

To help make this happen, EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) and Region 5 office sponsored a reuse planning process for the CMC Heartland site and other contaminated properties in the neighborhood. The year-long effort brought local residents and business owners together with city officials and federal agency staff.

Building trust and relationships was the first priority, as a legacy of poor communication and strained relations between the community and the local government threatened to derail progress. A pro-bono Cultural Competence training brought city staff and neighborhood residents together. Breakthroughs followed, as participants shared their experiences and people realized that everyone at the table was interested in addressing past challenges and ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for the East Side. The training was an early turning point that enabled participants to understand each other’s perspectives and plan for the future.

Reducing Flood Impacts

011080410 FEMA assists IEMA with flood assessments

With good working relationships in place, the work shifted to understanding where and how flooding was affecting the neighborhood. During several working sessions, residents and city staff developed a detailed map that incorporated community feedback about areas of concern as well as technical floodplain information. In a follow-up session, participants explored ways to manage stormwater differently. Where traditional gray infrastructure approaches rely on pipes, sewers, and other physical structures, green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality, and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency.

Participants then prioritized a set of goals for reducing flood impacts, including addressing areas where floodwaters enter homes and block street access, ensuring safe access to a neighborhood school, tackling areas of standing water, and designing green infrastructure features to beautify the East Side neighborhood and the Stephenson Street entrance corridor.

Addressing Floodway Regulations

East Side residents, city staff, and elected officials knew that engaging with FEMA was essential to reducing flooding impacts and supporting community revitalization. Parties developed a joint statement describing how the neighborhood’s economic vitality and housing quality have been impacted over time by its location in the floodway where residents contend with recurring major and minor flood events. East Side residents would like to work with FEMA on the best possible ways to maintain and improve their homes.

In a presentation to FEMA in 2014, the group invited agency staff to join a dialogue to focus on finding solutions. In addition, a plan that focused on flood impact reduction and neighborhood revitalization was developed with the support of the EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative and Region 5. More information can be found in the final report.

Through its work with communities, EPA’s goal is make a visible and lasting difference. The East Side project shows how these efforts can lead to new partnerships, vital innovations, and long-term revitalization.

About the author: Melissa Friedland manages EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, an EPA initiative that helps communities reclaim cleaned-up Superfund program sites.

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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Cities on the Edge: Tools and Assistance for Revitalizing Distressed Communities

By Katherine Takai

“While municipal bankruptcies have gotten a lot of national headlines, it’s not the bankrupt cities that are the widespread problem. It’s the ones on the edge—the ‘distressed’ cities. These are places that likely will never declare bankruptcy but are nonetheless struggling to become economically viable again.”

This quote from Liz Farmer’s March 2014 article in Governing Magazine refers to the plight of cities, like Scranton, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin and others across the nation, facing the effects of population decline, job loss, and high rates of poverty. Vacant properties, brownfields, and other remnants of lost manufacturing industry are common.

Population and job loss, decreased public service capacity, and abandoned, vacant land are issues that are all too familiar to me as a native of Metro Detroit. Through my work with local governments on sustainability issues, I have observed cities that are home to declining urban centers in many areas of the country that face similar challenges. Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately represented in these cities; and these communities are most susceptible to environmental harm, often with little capacity to voice their concerns with decision-makers.

This isn’t always the case though. We’ve seen the effectiveness of integrating environmental justice principles to enhance economic competitiveness in the Regenesis effort to revitalize Spartanburg, SC. Spartanburg’s city and county governments’ partnership with local community groups and leaders demonstrated the key role that local government can play in efforts to address economic development and environmental justice issues.

National Resource Network

And Spartanburg isn’t alone – efforts to increase the economic competitiveness of cities across the country are introducing an opportunity to integrate equity and environmental justice considerations for more sustainable and resilient communities. One such effort is the National Resource Network, recently launched through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide local leaders in city governments with the expertise and resources necessary to tackle the biggest barriers to increasing economic competitiveness. The Network, a core component of the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2), offers access to experts, technical advice, and information to address the biggest barriers to economic competitiveness.

Through the Network website, you can explore customized tools and advice, such as:

  • The Resource Library – a searchable database of vetted published resources with information about targeted topics for overcoming obstacles faced by distressed cities, including public health, economic development, sustainability, citizen engagement and more.
  • The Technical Assistance Clearinghouse – the country’s first-ever searchable database of more than 100 technical assistance programs offered to local governments and communities from federal, state, and local agencies and non-government organizations.
  • 311 for Cities” – an online assistance resource where local public agency staff in selected cities can connect with a rich a network of private and public sector expertise and receive strategic help on key issues their cities are facing. See if your community is eligible to participate in “311 for Cities.”
  • The Request for Assistance (RFA) portal – a direct technical assistance program designed to help local governments and their partners develop and implement strategies for economic recovery. The Network is now accepting applications from eligible cities to have a team of the Network’s private and public sector experts provide on-the-ground help to implement locally identified projects and initiatives that will deliver economic benefits in the near term. See the FAQs for more details.

To address issues facing cities similar to those in Detroit, finding the resources, knowledge, and expertise to identify and implement solutions presents a seemingly overwhelming challenge. This is especially true for smaller communities with less staff and capacity. As a comprehensive resource for distressed communities, the Network aspires to decrease the size of the challenge and broaden the federal government’s reach to those cities who may not traditionally have the capacity to apply for government assistance and truly transform communities through local action.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently said, “knowledge is fuel for progress and innovation. The National Resource Network will be a valuable tool in helping local governments address their challenges and achieve their goals. It will provide on-the-ground technical assistance and human resources that cities can use to build for the future. Working together as partners, I know we’ll expand opportunities for more Americans.”

About the Author: Katherine Takai has been a project manager with the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Sustainable Communities since 2012. In addition to working on the National Resource Network, she supports EPA’s National Brownfield Training Conference, the Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN), and a number of other local government sustainability projects. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

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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Revitalization is Good Medicine

By Stephanie Cwik

Exiting the toll road in Gary, Indiana isn’t something I would have casually done a year ago. With smoke and gas-belching steel mills to the left, and a meandering, sometimes garbage-strewn waterway on the right, it’s not the most welcoming sight to the weary traveler — this Grant Street exit that doesn’t even take you to Grant Street.

But follow the signs to the hospital (if you can find them) and keep your eyes open, because when you start to look around you find that Gary is brimming with potential. The air quality is improving. That waterway is slowly being remediated, foot by foot, with native plants and habitats taking ground faster every day. And the blight from years of disinvestment that greets you when you swing left from some street that is definitely NOT Grant Street into the Horace Mann neighborhood, is on its way out. The City’s only hospital is a major anchor here, and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has determined it’s time to work together with the medical community to improve the quality of life for her residents.

Region 5 EPA has been working closely with Mayor Freeman-Wilson on issues of blight and abandonment, redevelopment, and economic development since 2012. Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Gary Northside Redevelopment Project, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and EPA have engaged the City and its medical providers in recreating the concept of a Medical District in the Horace Mann neighborhood. Surprisingly, health care has become one of the largest employment sectors in the City, and is growing. With four major health providers within walking distance of each other, the creation of a formal district just made sense.

Initially, the Gary Medical District existed only as a fleeting idea within the City’s planning department but, after great success engaging a growing and broad range of stakeholders at a workshop about Employer-Assisted Housing in February 2014, the Partnership team wanted to do more to formalize the brewing cooperative interest in revitalization. The collaboration included local medical providers and non-profit organizations, many of whom are long-time Gary residents, as well as federal agencies.

Architects from HUD and EPA designed and conducted a four-hour charrette to examine the potential to actually create a medical district in Gary’s west side Horace Mann- Ambridge neighborhood. Crucially, local citizens joined the Mayor, her staff, and the City’s medical providers to examine physical and design changes to improve the quality of life for Horace Mann residents as well as to determine where these multiple agencies might partner to achieve greater results with the community. These early conversations built consensus among local leadership and addressed concerns about the increasing amounts of real estate speculation in Gary that too often derails the local redevelopment process. Discussions about creating a long-lasting district in the neighborhood initially examined the existing and overlapping services already provided, and identified possible efficiencies that could be created through cooperation. During the charrette, conversations about gaps in services, district branding, and how to engage the stakeholders required to implement and sustain this district were examined and shared.

Six assorted teams presented recommendations, as well as identified ways to improve the built environment with sustainable development features such as: bike lanes, sidewalks, green infrastructure, street trees, improved transit connections and wayfinding (I’m looking at you, Grant Street exit), ecological restoration, and single and multi-family housing that address vacant and blighted brownfields. In addition, the teams addressed the role of grocery stores and retail and commercial needs in addressing access to food and encouraging economic stimulus.

Charged with excitement, the Mayor agreed to match any potential planning funding provided by Methodist Hospital to create a plan for a medical district. And although they may not have seen eye-to-eye in the past, these two powerhouses of potential are eagerly entering into a new era of teamwork. The resulting excitement has caused the City and its partners to include the Medical District in two new planning efforts:

  • Gary Public Transit Corporation’s Livable Broadway Plan, which will assess opportunities for improving bus service while enhancing economic development, environment and land use and promoting livability; and
  • Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, which promotes investment and redevelopment in the places where people already live and work to create an improved working and living environment that is supported by travel choices.

The Partnership team has summarized the results of the charrette, and will reconvene its participants and new planning contacts to discuss how to move toward concrete next steps, funding opportunities, and cultivating these new relationships that will carry the Gary Medical District into the future. Word of mouth is spreading the news of the emerging partnerships, and as the two planning efforts come together, the City stresses that the continued involvement of local residents is key to the long term sustainability of this historic neighborhood.

About the Author: Stephanie Cwik has been working in EPA Region 5’s Superfund – Community and Land Revitalization Branch on sustainable redevelopment issues since 2007, and is now a full time member of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities team housed in City Hall in Gary, Indiana. She has a Master’s Degree in Hydrology from the University of Arizona.

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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More Bang for the Green Buck: Using Green Infrastructure to Revitalize Water Systems and the Community

by Mike Shapiro

Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s small but historic Crystal Park is located in a racially diverse and economically distressed neighborhood rich in history. The neighborhood once served as a welcome gate to the southwest corner of the city but suffered neglect. The park was no different, and long had been underutilized by local residents. When Lancaster implemented its Green Infrastructure Plan, neighbors of the park considered it an important focus for the city’s redevelopment efforts. Nearly one year later, neighbors love the space. Use of the park, which had been non-existent before this revitalization effort, has outpaced all expectations.

Revitalization of the park is just a part of Lancaster’s efforts to recreate itself into a sustainable city. In fact, Lancaster was the first community to receive the Sustainable Pennsylvania Community Certification under the Pennsylvania Municipal League’s new statewide program. The certification acknowledges Lancaster for its progress in addressing areas of community design and land use, energy efficiency, health and wellness, mitigating blight, intergovernmental cooperation, recycling and waste reduction, fiscal controls, and internal management and operations.

Students tour green infrastructure projects around the city

Students tour green infrastructure projects around the city

Lancaster, a diverse city of 60,000 in southern Pennsylvania faces many of the infrastructure challenges prevalent in older communities across the country. Located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the city operates a combined sewer system, which manages both wastewater and stormwater, as well as a separate storm sewer system. As with many urban centers, the city is largely paved—nearly half of the city is covered by impervious surfaces such as parking lots, buildings, and roadways. Stormwater runoff from these paved areas overflows the city’s combined sewers during heavy rainstorms, becoming a major source of pollution in local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

On August 18, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Lancaster’s Director of Public Works, visited EPA headquarters to discuss the series of innovative, green approaches the city has adopted to improve its water infrastructure and enhance the community for the benefit of all residents. For Crystal Park, enhancements include a porous asphalt basketball court, a plaza and picnic area constructed of permeable pavers, and rain gardens that help capture stormwater runoff. The porous plaza doubles as an amphitheater where local theaters have brought plays to this underserved community this past summer for the first time in the city’s history.

Lancaster has built over 100 green infrastructure projects designed to reduce stormwater runoff. Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency. Increasingly, it is being used to complement and enhance gray infrastructure investments such as pipes and ponds.

The city has creatively integrated green infrastructure into other public works improvements, actively engaging community groups in selecting and developing these projects. The city worked to ensure that residents from around the city were represented and engaged in the process, convening an advisory committee, with representatives from the city’s civic and community groups, to provide input into its green infrastructure plan and throughout project selection and development. In addition, the city has used demonstration projects and outreach efforts to seek out community input and educate community members on the benefits of green infrastructure.

The public works department has used this approach to cost-effectively improve the city’s overall infrastructure and neighborhoods and improve a range of amenities for local residents—incorporating plants and infiltration trenches into “green” alleys and parking lots; building community rain gardens; and creating basketball courts with permeable surfaces through which stormwater can drain. Lancaster estimates that its green infrastructure projects will capture about 45 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually. In addition to managing stormwater runoff and helping enhance neighborhoods and residential amenities, Lancaster has found that green infrastructure approaches can cost significantly less than gray infrastructure investments—enlarging the city’s wastewater treatment plant and building holding tanks to adequately store stormwater overflows would cost the city an estimated $300 million, compared with $140 million to manage the same volume of stormwater using green infrastructure approaches.

Building green infrastructure has been instrumental in allowing Lancaster to improve its infrastructure with the least possible impact to wastewater utility rates, a concern for the city’s many economically distressed ratepayers. In addition, to further pay for these stormwater improvements equitably, the city adopted a stormwater utility fee in February based on each parcel’s impervious cover, meaning those properties that generate proportionally more stormwater pay a higher utility fee. This also provides relief for individual ratepayers, whose properties generally have lower levels of impervious cover.

Importantly, Lancaster has looked to optimize the many community benefits that green infrastructure can provide. Increasing green space in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities, enhancing tree canopy, and improving recreational facilities have provided public health benefits and improved the overall livability of Lancaster. We were grateful to have Charlotte share many of Lancaster’s successes and to see how communities are making green infrastructure work for their residents, providing both environmental and social benefits.

About the Author: Mike Shapiro is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water and leads the office’s efforts with regard to 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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Bringing Human Rights Home: Engagement and Environmental Justice

By Jessica Sblendorio

When most Americans think about human rights, they tend to think of the concept at a global level, even though there are many social and environmental justice issues right here in the United States that affect many of our neighborhoods and families. Environmental justice is an ever-growing movement that highlights issues such as health, access to safe drinking water, and housing that are at the heart of treaties and laws focused on human rights. Thus, at its core, environmental justice is about the intersection of human rights, the environment, and how people can equitably access the resources they need to survive. “Bringing human rights home” is a critical part of focusing on human rights issues here in our own neighborhoods in the United States and plays an important part of the global movements for environmental justice and international human rights.

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

An important mechanism for addressing and remedying human rights issues is through international treaties. Unfortunately, most Americans tend to have a very low level of awareness of such treaties and how they can be used to effect change here in the United States. As part of the United Nations (UN) treaty-monitoring process, countries report to UN treaty monitoring bodies about how they are protecting human rights and addressing issues submitted by members of civil society – those non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest the interests and will of citizens. The United States participates in this process for the treaties that it has signed and ratified, thus becoming U.S. law. Some of these treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which conducted reviews of the United States’ compliance with these treaties during 2014.

As a student working in the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami’s School of Law, I was able to contribute to a “shadow report” on immigrants’ rights that highlighted examples of challenges with implementation of the ICCPR. Many organizations and members of civil society use these companion reports as opportunities to highlight issues where the government and society can work together to address human rights violations and improve compliance with treaties. This engagement is important for addressing human rights not only on a global level, but here at home as well.

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

Working on the shadow report, I came to realize the importance of engagement between stakeholders — both civil society and government. This summer during my internship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), I had the opportunity to experience what stakeholder engagement is like from the perspective of government. I also learned about how engagement by all stakeholders makes the conversation meaningful and productive for all parties. One of the projects I worked on was to help plan a recent meeting between civil society and government representatives on environmental issues in advance of the 2015 UN Periodic Review of human rights records. This consultation was held in Berkeley, California on October 7th, 2014. These types of meetings are important for both federal and civil stakeholders to engage with one another in a forum where environmental issues that are at the heart of “Bringing Human Rights Home” can be discussed.

This meeting came on the heels of a recent meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. For the first time, the EPA had a government representative at the CERD meeting in Geneva, which occurred this past August, to address the environmental issues raised by Committee members.

The realization of the importance and necessity of addressing the human health and environmental issues of minority and low-income residents, and their relationship to human rights, is becoming more and more prominent but it is dependent upon active and sustained engagement from both the government and civil society at large. Different avenues of stakeholder engagement are important to educate both citizens and the government to show the relevance of these issues and identify the methods and opportunities to make a visible difference in vulnerable communities. I feel honored to have been a part of this process, which opened my eyes to all the participation among stakeholders in this crucial process to inform the government’s perspective.

About the author: Jessica Sblendorio was recently a summer law clerk at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is a law student at the University of Miami School of Law, and will be graduating in Spring 2015.

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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Turning Lemons into Lemonade: Resilience, Smart Growth and Equitable Development on Long Island

Destruction and debris on Oak Beach in Suffolk County, NY after Superstorm Sandy

Destruction and debris on Oak Beach in Suffolk County, NY after Superstorm Sandy

By Joe Siegel and Rabi Kieber

Last of a five-part series on climate change issues.

It has been nearly two years since the shores of Long Island were battered by Superstorm Sandy, leaving behind devastation across Nassau and Suffolk Counties. What emerged in the aftermath was an unprecedented collaboration that went beyond simply rebuilding by incorporating the principles of resilience, smart growth and equitable development into long-term planning for Long Island.

Within months after Hurricane Sandy, EPA, FEMA, New York State Department of State, Suffolk County, Nassau County and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) formed the Long Island Smart Growth Resiliency Partnership to discuss options to help Long Island rebuild in a smarter, stronger and more resilient fashion. This group was, in part, an outgrowth of a broad collaboration through the National Disaster Recovery Framework, Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-8 and the Recovery Support Strategy that was written for the Sandy recovery process. One of the key goals of the Partnership is to encourage economically, environmentally and socially sustainable development in low risk areas away from flood zones and along transit corridors in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

Over the past year, the Long Island Smart Growth Resiliency Partnership has embarked on a number of projects to achieve its goal of merging resilience, smart growth and equitable development. It organized a ground-breaking conference, Accepting the Tide: A Roundtable on Integrating Resilience and Smart Growth on a Post-Sandy Long Island, which took place last May and brought together a wide variety of stakeholders. The Partnership also trained communities in community outreach and stakeholder engagement, and Health Impact Assessments (HIA) for recovery. Additional training for communities and federal recovery workers is being planned on tools such as Community Viz, a participatory scenario planning tool for decision-making on smart growth andEPA’s National Stormwater Calculator.

As part of the Partnership, EPA is working with FEMA to support sustainable rebuilding in specific communities such as Long Beach, Long Island. Long Beach received technical assista

nce from Global Green which was funded through a grant from EPA’s Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program. The Partnership also helped to secure law students from Touro College’s Land Use and Sustainability Institute to assist Long Beach in implementing some of the recommendations from both the Global Green Technical Assistance and a New York University study on green infrastructure and storm water management.

As an outgrowth of the May 2014 Roundtable, the Partnership has begun to focus efforts on ecosystem services valuation and health impact assessment to guide post-Hurricane Sandy redevelopment and recovery on Long Island. In doing so, the Partnership has added to its cadre of experts, representatives from Stony Brook University and The Nature Conservancy. At a meeting in July, the group launched a number of projects including a pilot that will not only generate important ecosystem-related economic data on improving resilience, but will also encourage green infrastructure and promote strategies to maintain and enhance ecosystem resilience. Ecosystem services valuation is a very useful tool because it can help us better understand, for example, the economic benefits of restoring wetlands to prevent impacts from future storms.

EPA Region 2 has already begun working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development and the Partnership on an island-wide ecosystem services assessment, a pilot health impact assessment in Suffolk County, and a project to develop a set of health indicators that can be used for long term evaluation of health impacts of projects, polices or plans. Health impact assessment is an important decision-making tool because it can illustrate how a particular plan, action or policy under consideration, will impact the health and well-being of a community. Health indicators can be used to evaluate the long-term health impact of the project, policy or plan.

Hurricane Sandy was devastating for Nassau and Suffolk Counties, but the Long Island Smart Growth Resiliency Partnership has turned lemons into lemonade by incorporating not only climate change resilience but smart growth and equitable development into long term planning on Long Island. The groundbreaking work of the Partnership will no doubt serve as a model for other recovery efforts in Region 2 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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Collaborating for Sustainable Environmental and Social Change

By Dr. Mildred McClain

Residents living in the Hudson Hill neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia, had long complained about damage to their health and homes due to emissions from the paper mill located within this west side community. In 2004, Harambee House Inc.-Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ) was awarded one of the first EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJ CPS) cooperative agreements. This award put HH/CFEJ and the Savannah Hudson Hill residents on the road towards community capacity building, citizen engagement, and sustainable environmental change.

For decades, residents of this largely African American community, originally settled in the late 1860s by freed African slaves, described a range of health effects they associated with exposure to air pollution, including respiratory problems (e.g., asthma, bronchitis), gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting), skin rashes, attention deficit disorders, lung cancer, and headaches. In addition, many residents living near the mill’s fence line complained about unpleasant odors, such as the smell of rotten eggs (sulphur) and burning tires, as well as other peculiar odors. In developing its health consultation report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) gave careful consideration to these concerns and the extent to which they might be associated with air pollutants released from the paper mill facility and other local pollution sources. The ATSDR’s key findings confirmed some of the residents’ complaints and stated that additional research was needed to confirm public health hazards. ATSDR also approached the community from a collaborative approach, working closely with environmental justice representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

HH/CFEJ was born out of the tremendous need for African-Americans to develop collective strategies for the effective engagement of citizens in local decision-making. Our philosophy of change is grounded in the following simple equation:

Community Building + Capacity Building +
Citizen Engagement in Policymaking + Government Actions =
Sustainable Environmental and Social Change

The EJ CPS cooperative agreement supported HH/CFEJ’s efforts to make this idea come to life by focusing on collaborating with partners in community empowerment, documenting community history and health concerns, and creating a comprehensive action plan for addressing community health and environmental concerns associated with pollution from the nearby paper plant. Most importantly, the EJ CPS funds helped create the Savannah Community Environmental Collaborative Partnership.

Harambee, Swahili for “let’s work together,” embodies the collaborative approach essential for affecting positive change in our community. The Savannah project witnessed increases in social capital as the community overcame the challenges of working with business partners. Through a series of community partnership meetings, educational trainings, planning charrettes, and health fairs, Hudson Hill residents began working closely with their academic, government, and industry partners. In this impacted community where 97 % are African-American and 30% live below the poverty line, there have been many years of struggle and challenges toward progress addressing environmental and health concerns in collaboration with 17 local industrial facilities. The collaborative process supported through the EJ CPS project set the stage for great things to come – a permanent mechanism that will lead to healthy, safe, and clean neighborhoods, as well as the advancement toward environmental justice.

By leveraging additional funding and technical support from the City of Savannah, other federal agencies, and academia, HH/CFEJ expanded and sustained our community partnership work, to include the Woodville Community and to later focus on risk assessment, priority setting, and environmental risk reductions. In the 10 years since receiving the EJ CPS funds, HH/CFEJ created its Business Roundtable to serve as a neutral zone for healthy dialogue between communities and industry, developed a city-wide task force to address community concerns, incorporated their comprehensive action plan into the City of Savannah’s 5 to 10-year Master Plan, worked in partnership with the City of Savannah to develop and implement the first citywide standards for community gardens, redirected 80% of industrial truck traffic away from community residents, and partnered with local industry in voluntary risk reduction actions to reduce volatile organic compounds impacting local health.

An underlying purpose of the EJ CPS program is not just to create collaborative change in one community, but to replicate lessons learned so that the model can be utilized by other communities seeking to address similar concerns. HH/CFEJ also created a partnership with the ReGenesis Project, taking community leaders to Spartanburg, South Carolina and bringing the Spartanburg Team to Savannah. Today, we are planning on additional collaboration between our community and the ReGenesis so that we can continue to learn, share, and work for community sustainability and improvement.

Dr McClain, center, received an EJ Achievement Award for EJ CPS Grant work in 2008

The EJ CPS program has created living legacies of collaborative change for the residents of Hudson Hill and Woodville, and its benefits continue to grow within our community and spread to others. The project became a stepping stone for the HH/CFEJ and these two Savannah communities to continue to push forward and face our challenges. It allowed us to put our motto — Harambee! Let’s work together — into real action and prove that when a community can organize, bring all sectors (both public and private) to the table, and collaborate in good faith to solve its problems, environmental justice is achieved for all.

About the author: Dr. Mildred McClain is founder and executive director for Harambee House Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ). Dr. McClain served as a co-chair of Congressman James Clyburn’s National Environmental Policy Commission for four years. She is also a Bannerman Fellow and received the Keystone Award for Leadership in the Environmental Justice field of work. Under Dr. McClain’s leadership for the past 20 years, the Black Youth Leadership Development Institute has trained more than 1,500 young people to serve as leaders in their communities.

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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Collaborative Problem Solving: A Tool to Address Fracking Concerns

Untitled-2

By Danny Gogal

The continuous passing of rumbling eighteen wheeler trucks, utility vehicles, pick-up trucks and cars witnessed on April 8, 2014, is a familiar site to those visiting or living in New Town, North Dakota. Located within the Fort Berthold Reservation, it is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. The regular flow of traffic in such a remote town is the result of the burgeoning business of oil and natural gas extraction, made possible by advances in technology for accessing oil and gas in shale formations found deep in the Earth through horizontal drilling and the fracturing of rock, commonly referred to as hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I arrived in the afternoon to begin a three day training workshop on collaborative problem-solving, appropriate dispute resolution, and environmental laws. EPA supported the workshop in response to a TAT community-based representative’s request for an interagency meeting and training in North Dakota for tribes, indigenous organizations and tribal members on issues of environmental justice.

Untitled-3The unprecedented amount of oil and gas development has enhanced job opportunities, significantly lowered unemployment, and is bringing in substantial revenues to the TAT, resulting in the elimination of the tribes’ debt.  However, it is also straining the reservation’s infrastructure, overstretching the resources (personnel and financial) and capability of the TAT’s departments. This, of course, includes the environmental department, which is facing significant environmental and public health concerns, such as the proper disposal of hydraulic socks and fracking fluids, and concerns about the flaring of gas.

The TAT tribes’ government faces challenges that are experienced by virtually every other government: the need to grow their economy to obtain revenue to meet the needs of the community and to do it in a sustainable way.  This is not easy, and is even more challenging in Indian country due to the myriad of laws and regulations and the unique political status of federally recognized tribes.  However, experience has shown that sustainable development can be effectively accomplished when the key parties are meaningfully involved, the necessary tools are available and used, and an appropriate collaborative approach is utilized.

Untitled-1Approximately 40 tribal community-based representatives, TAT tribal government officials, academia, business and industry, state government representatives, traditional peacemakers, and federal officials from the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Bureau of Land Management, and Environmental Protection Agency, participated in the workshop.

The workshop provided training on collaborative problem-solving approaches, dispute resolution techniques, including mediation/negotiation processes, skills and tools, federal statutes that pertain to environmental and public health protection, grants/financial assistance programs, federal tribal and community-based programs, and federal Indian law and policy.  It also provided the participants the opportunity to enhance or build new working relationships and identify issues of mutual interest for which they can collaborate to address their environmental and public health concerns, as well as other quality of life interests of the TAT communities.

I am hopeful that one or more collaborative approaches will effectively be used to address the range of concerns facing the TAT communities.  I am encouraged by a participant’s statement on the evaluation form noting that a key benefit of the workshop was “meeting people to build collaborative relationships with.”  Additionally, at the Workshop, a tribal council member noted his support for a public meeting with oil and gas developers to enhance understanding of interests and concerns among the stakeholders on the reservation.

Finally, plans for the a public meeting of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG) to focus on the environmental justice concerns of federally recognized tribes and indigenous peoples is still being planned and is projected to be held in September 2014 in Bismarck, North Dakota.  I encourage tribal governments, indigenous community-based organizations, tribal members, and other interested parties to attend the meeting to discuss how we can work collaboratively to effectively address environmental justice issues in Indian country and in other tribal areas of interest.  Information on the IWG public meeting will be available soon on the IWG web site.

About the author:  Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background and has worked on tribal and indigenous environmental policy and environmental justice issues for over 25 years.  He is the Tribal Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, where he has worked for the past twenty-two years.

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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