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Stay Connected to EJ at EPA!

2012 August 2

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) developed a number of tools to get you the information you need to stay connected and informed. Sign up for OEJ’s ListServ to bring you the latest environmental justice news, resources, and events. You can follow our 20th Anniversary Video Series featuring government officials, non-profit and business leaders, academics and students who share inspiring and educational stories about the lessons they have learned while working on environmental justice. OEJ also recently developed a new webpage to provide the resources you need for housing, health, transportation, environment and other the factors that are critical for creating sustainable and equitable 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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Sampling the Garden Soil

2014 November 24

by Cliff Villa

It began with a concerned mom in Eugene, Oregon, raising a seemingly simple question: is the soil in my garden safe for growing food?

Joanne Gross, the stay-at-home mom posing the question, had reason to be concerned.  The neighborhood of West Eugene, where she and her family were living, was ringed with air pollution from a variety of sources: energy production, chemical processing and manufacturing, wood products, traffic, and idling trains.  The chemicals emitted from these sources are associated with a variety of health risks including asthma, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  And indeed, more than 60% of residents who participated in a local survey reported significant concerns about asthma and cardiovascular diseases, as well as increased incidences of headaches, fatigue, and other ailments potentially connected to air pollution.

The 97402 zip code that makes up West Eugene is home to 99 percent of the City of Eugene’s air toxics emissions.  Of the 31 facilities reporting to the city’s Toxics Right-to-Know Program, all but one is located in this zip code.  One facility, a wood treatment plant that uses creosote in its industrial process, operates 100 feet from the nearest home and just over half a mile from Fairfield Elementary School, which has the highest asthma rate for an elementary school in the Bethel School District.  Reflecting local demographics, 35 percent of Fairfield’s students are Latino and 71 percent receive free or reduced school lunches.

To help gather information about environmental justice concerns in this community, EPA Region 10 awarded two Environmental Justice Small Grants to Beyond Toxics, a local community-based organization working in partnership with other community organizations.  The grants supported statistical analysis, door-to-door surveys, community presentations, and other initiatives including a local “EJ Toxics Tour.”  Beyond Toxics and its partners, including Centro Latino Americano, conducted community interviews and meetings in Spanish, and recorded the concerns of community members who might have been overlooked in the past.

These discussions engaged the attention of many government organizations, including the City of Eugene, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, the Oregon Health Authority, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.  While some agencies worked on air permitting issues local health studies, brownfields assessments, and land use planning, we here in EPA Region 10 wondered how else we might contribute to enhancing the environmental well-being of this over-burdened community.

The simple question posed by concerned mom Joanne Gross and other community members prompted EPA’s response:  find out whether it is safe for local residents to grow food in their gardens.

The My Garden – West Eugene project was designed to answer this question.  We knew that we possessed the technical capacity to conduct soil sampling and analysis, and through the use of mobile laboratories, field equipment, and EPA and contractor personnel, it seemed possible that soil sampling and analysis could be conducted in the field, with results provided to community members almost instantaneously.  We discovered that the concept already had been tested and proven a success in EPA Region 3, where staff had held “Soil Kitchen” events in diverse neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.  Their Soil Kitchen events pioneered an innovative process involving community members collecting their own soil samples from their backyards and gardens and bringing their samples to the “Soil Kitchen” for real-time analysis by EPA.

Partnering with local organizations, including Beyond Toxics and the Active Bethel Citizens neighborhood association, as well as state and local agencies, we planned the My Garden event for Sunday, October, 19, 2014, to coincide with the neighborhood Bethel Harvest Festival.  In the weeks leading up to the event, community partners helped assemble and distribute throughout the community 250 citizen sampling kits.  Each kit included a metal spoon, the illustrated instructions, and a zip-lock bag for collecting and the delivering the soil sample to the mobile lab.  Over the course of a lovely fall afternoon, community members, including concerned mom Joanne Gross, brought 38 soil samples to the EPA mobile lab and received both the analytical data and an explanation of what the data meant.  The operation was overseen by EPA On-Scene Coordinator Dan Heister, assisted by many other technical and program staff and contractors.  Importantly, the EPA team included a native Spanish speaker who could explain the sampling process and results to the more than one-third of Spanish-speaking community members who brought their samples in for testing.

In addition to establishing connections with community members and local agencies and organizations, the My Garden – West Eugene project provided reassuring news to Joanne Gross and all her neighbors participating in the event:  of all samples analyzed, none indicated contamination at levels of concern for growing food in gardens.

About the author: Cliff Villa is an Assistant Regional Counsel for EPA Region 10 and an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law.  At EPA, Cliff provides legal counsel to the Emergency Management Program and represents the Office of Regional Counsel on the Region 10 Environmental Justice Integration Team.

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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Veterans Love the Environment Too!

2014 November 13

By Victoria Robinson and Dr. Marva E. King

Admiral Michelle J. Howard

Admiral Michelle J. Howard

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Veterans Day Celebration on November 6 gave participants the pleasure of hearing an inspiring speech by Admiral Michelle Howard, the first woman to achieve the rank of admiral in the Navy and the first African-American woman to achieve a 4 star ranking in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Listening to the Admiral talk about her military experiences as well as her proud interest and commitment to our environment inspired the Office of Environmental Justice to begin exploring how other veterans, inside EPA, in other federal agencies, and in other sectors, are putting their love for the environment and for their communities into action.

What we found was that here at EPA, more than 1,500 of our colleagues are veterans or continue to serve as reservists in the U.S. armed forces.  Starting in 2012, EPA developed a series of videos about some of our home grown champions.  These EPA sheroes and heroes share their love for the military, their love for the Agency, and their love for the environment.

As daughters of veterans, we have seen first-hand the dedication and commitment of veterans who came home to make our world better for others. We’re also keenly aware of national environmental justice champions who served our country. Many of you may know the story of Hilton Kelley, who served in the Navy before serving his Port Arthur, Texas community.  Dr. Robert Bullard, author of more than 18 books about environmental justice, served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps after college.

Kelly Carlisle, Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project

Kelly Carlisle, Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project

In addition to these leaders of the environmental justice movement, many new veterans are joining the fight for healthy environments in their neighborhoods by working in the non-profit sector.  Take a look at Kelly Carlisle, a Navy Veteran, who founded Acta Non Verba: Youth Urban Farm Project, a non-profit urban farm focusing on serving at-risk youth, who also plans to establish a farmers market with educational opportunities for involved youth in basic gardening and composting.  To learn more about what Kelly is doing, please visit the Farmer Veteran website.

Former Army and National Guard Veteran Sonia Kendrick founded Feed Iowa First, a nonprofit with a mission of combatting food insecurity by raising food and farmers, and was honored earlier this year at the White House as one of 10 leaders who are White House “Champions of Change – Women Veteran Leaders.”  The event highlighted the incredible contributions of women veterans to our nation’s business, public, and community sectors.  Go here to find out more about Sonia and Feed Iowa First.

Sonia Jo Kendrick, Feed Iowa First

Sonia Jo Kendrick, Feed Iowa First

As a local Washington DC veteran, Joe Wynn, President of Veteran’s Enterprise Training and Services Group, recently remarked “veterans are people too!”  The EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice wants to learn about the other veterans who “love the environment too!” and are working on social justice and environmental concerns in communities across the country.  Please let us know who you are, which branch of the military service you served in, and what work you are doing to make a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically-distressed communities.

Please post in the comments section below because we want to hear from our homegrown sheroes and heroes.  We thank you for your service abroad and here at home.

About the authors:  Victoria Robinson currently is the Acting Communications Director for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  Recently she served 5 years as Designated Federal Office (DFO) of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.  She also works as the OEJ point of contact for climate change.  She has been served EPA in the Office of Environmental Justice for more than 11 years.

Marva E. King, PhD, a U.S. Air Force veteran, recently rejoined the staff of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice where she had worked for over 10 years as a Senior Program Analyst in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice managing the EJ Collaborative Problem-Solving (CPS) Cooperative Agreement Program and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.  Previously she served as Program Co-Chair for the Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) Program.  She also serves as a community expert on several EPA teams across the Agency. Dr. King holds a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Delaware and a Ph.D. in Public Policy at George Mason 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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Cities on the Edge: Tools and Assistance for Revitalizing Distressed Communities

2014 November 10

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

2014 November 4

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

2014 October 30

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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Healthy Homes: Protecting Children from Environmental Risks

2014 October 28

By Paula Selzer

Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, there are hundreds of communities known as colonias. These unincorporated rural settlements often do not have access to clean water, electricity, or safe housing conditions.  Unpaved roads, inadequate sewage disposal systems, and untreated water are the norm.

Research has shown a strong connection between poor housing conditions and health problems, such as asthma, lung cancer, lead poisoning, and other injuries.  Children in general, but especially those living in colonias, are more vulnerable to such health issues than adults. Because kids eat, drink, and breathe more than adults do in proportion to their body weight, they are at risk for both acute and long-term illness. Children are smaller, their organ systems are still developing, and their play and learning behaviors expose them to additional environmental threats.  For example, children play close to the ground and often put their hands in their mouths, ingesting harmful contaminants. When a child is running at full speed, such as during a soccer game, they may take in 20 to 50 percent more air – and more air pollution – than would an adult doing a similar activity.  In addition, children have unique windows of susceptibility that make them more vulnerable during certain stages of their development.

The impacts of health problems arising out of poor housing conditions extends into other areas, including education.  As students fall sick, their attendance in school drops.

This year, the U.S.-Mexico Border Program in EPA’s Region 6 office provided funding to support Healthy Homes training by the Southern Area Health Education Center (SoAHEC) at New Mexico State University. The Healthy Homes training is designed to teach parents, child care providers, community health workers, and case managers how to create and maintain a safer, healthier home to protect children from environmental health risks. To reach those who may not otherwise have been able to travel to traditional classroom sites, Health Educators from SoAHEC brought the training directly to several colonias along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Classes covered the seven healthy homes principles, with special emphasis on pediatric environmental health, indoor air quality, safe cleaning practices, and integrated pest management.

New Mexico has one of the highest rates for childhood poverty in the nation. By training more than 350 people under this grant, SoAHEC estimates the long term results will benefit more than 3,000 people who will continue to have long-term benefits as their children grow in healthy homes.

The Healthy Homes classes are offered in disadvantaged communities across the country as one of EPA’s initiatives to protect children’s health.

To learn more about children’s environmental health, check out the Presidential Proclamation for Child Health Day or visit EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection website.

About the author: Paula Selzer joined EPA in 1994 and spent several years working on asthma and school environmental health programs in Washington, DC.  In 2006, she moved to Dallas where she currently serves as the Coordinator for the EPA Region 6 Children’s Health program. She has been spearheading the Healthy Homes initiative for the children’s health program for the last four years. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Working with Municipalities and Communities to Bring New Solutions to Old Problems!

2014 October 23

By Suzanne Murray, with John Blevins

Source: The Advocate

One of the most gratifying accomplishments that I can point to in my almost 20 years with EPA would never have happened if the Agency relied solely on traditional tools to address environmental and community concerns.  These traditional tools include discussions focused on enforcement resolution only, which are conducted in a “closed-door” confidential setting.  For the Buffer Zone Project for the City of Baton Rouge Wastewater Treatment Plant,  we helped to break down bureaucratic silos and historic barriers by going beyond traditional practices and achieved what we set out to do every day at EPA – making a neighborhood and its environment a better place to live.

Baton Rouge, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a city that saw its population temporarily explode after Hurricane Katrina.  The University Place neighborhood where the treatment plant is located is a predominantly minority, lower-income community.  Residents complained about foul odors and swarms of sewer flies invading their homes. After decades of sharing their neighborhood with the facility and its expansions, residents were looking for change.

When I became involved in the project in 2012, there already had been a decade of legal battles between the neighborhood and the City, a civil rights action against EPA, and an enforcement action against the treatment plant.  The City felt hamstrung because it had already made significant investment in the plant at a time when the infrastructure of Baton Rouge was pushed beyond capacity, due in large part to the population nearly doubling in the month after Hurricane Katrina.

Emotions were running high due to positions taken and statements made about the treatment plant during the protracted legal battles, but everyone in Baton Rouge wanted an outcome that ended the fighting and addressed community concerns.  The neighborhood had asked for relocation, which the City of Baton Rouge had supported as a path forward – but the City had no legal mechanism to support such a project.  So, along with our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), we flew to Baton Rouge.  We came upon a tense situation where traditional legal options were scarce.  All we had was a decade-old enforcement consent decree that needed modification, a civil rights complaint, and no consensus on how to move forward.

What followed was months of conversations, negotiations, and advocacy, which took place at kitchen tables, in conference rooms and community centers, and at City Council meetings.  We talked to and worked with people from the community and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), a local environmental organization, and representatives of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the Mayor’s Office and the State of Louisiana.  These meetings were not easy and not always civil – there were raised voices, tears, and even a bit of laughter.  But despite the differences, there was always one remarkable uniting force – we all wanted to make the buffer zone project happen.  There was a power in our united singularity of purpose.

Eventually, this collaborative effort prevailed and the City is creating a buffer zone around the wastewater treatment facility, which includes green space and the relocation of residents living in approximately three city blocks surrounding the treatment plant.  The project is now memorialized in a consent decree among EPA, the City, Concerned Citizens of University Place Subdivision, and LEAN.  As Adam Babich of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic said, “It was a bumpy ride.  We got an agreement only because everyone kept working and kept talking.”

I believe it’s working because all parties have represented what they want and are doing so in an honest way.  We are still talking.  We continue to work out the inevitable kinks that go along with implementing a large scale project, particularly one that is so filled with the emotions that come with uprooting one’s family and changing one’s home.   We are not overcommitting, but working within the authorities that we have to make a difference for the citizens and for Baton Rouge’s infrastructure.

If traditional methods, while useful and successful in many situations, had been relied upon in this instance, I do not believe the final project would have been possible.  It is clear that having these types of conversations – face-to-face, person-to-person dialogues where voices may be raised but new relationships can be forged – are crucial to the success of environmental projects where people’s lives and homes are impacted.

About the authors:  Suzanne Murray, EPA Region 6 Regional Counsel, has been with EPA since 1997, when she joined the Agency as an enforcement attorney.  Since that time she served as the Deputy Regional Counsel for Enforcement and has been the Regional Counsel since 2001.

John Blevins, EPA Region 6 Enforcement Director, has been with EPA since 1986, where he has held positions in EPA Regions 9, 4 and 6.  John has also held positions with the states of Oregon and Delaware.  John has been the Region 6 Enforcement Director since 2005.

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

2014 October 21

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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Taking a Seat at the Table: Your Involvement in the Future of Our Legacy Cities

2014 October 2

By Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP

America’s Legacy Cities were once industrial powerhouses and hubs of business, retail, and services scattered across New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.  Their factories provided jobs, and downtown areas were alive with department stores, professional offices, and financial institutions that served large regions. Since the mid-20th century, however, these cities have seen sustained loss of jobs and population, and now face daunting economic, social, physical, and operational challenges.  This loss has fallen disproportionately on minority and low-income neighborhoods that have seen a greater degree of disinvestment and abandonment.  But the revitalization of these neighborhoods in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, their residents is not only an imperative of equitable redevelopment but also enshrined in the Federal statutes that guide it.

Earlier this year, I attended the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities Conference which focused on public policies, programs, and planning issues associated with Legacy Cities and challenges managing shrinking populations, changing demographics, physical alterations, loss of resources, and declining tax bases.  Participants agreed Legacy Cities need to revitalize their communities in the 21st century.

While many agree that change is inevitable, there are those who have not fully accepted that planning for change should be inclusive and take advantage of all available tools.  Looking back over the last twenty years, the non-inclusive planning practices of the past resulted in older, minority, and low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of dynamic physical and socio-economic changes – changes that were prompted, in part, by federal actions.

Dr. Clement Price, Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency established by Congress to advise the President and Congress and oversee the Section 106 review process, moderated a provocative panel discussion entitled Identifying, Celebrating, and Preserving African-American Landmarks. The presentation was timely as many were grappling with how to protect historic properties, particularly those in communities of color.  They wanted to be clear about what qualifies African-American landmarks for the National Register of Historic Places.  Is the criteria used by the National Register in evaluating historic properties appropriate for an ethnically and racially-diverse nation? Should African American or other ethnic landmarks be evaluated based on their physical characteristics or on the stories drawn from the history of these properties?

When considering how to best engage the broader public in federal planning, environmental review policies are typically applied.  The two major federal environmental reviews required for major actions are the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. NHPA is intended to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States.

Before implementing federally-funded activities such as abandonment, demolition, and property alterations in Legacy Cites, agencies must comply with their NEPA obligations and with NHPA.  Since many cities use federal funds to develop public-private partnerships, the scope of federal environmental reviews can be broader for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  Notwithstanding the dictates of Title VI, the provisions in NEPA and NHPA require federal agencies to “stop, look, and listen” in project planning.

Residents and officials within communities must be better educated about NEPA and NHPA if they are to avoid a repeat of the failures of ‘Urban Renewal’ in the 1960s.  These environmental reviews require the participation of the public; review of the “purpose and need” statement; consideration of alternatives, and selection of a preferred alternative or outcome.  NEPA requires agencies to disclose environmental justice issues in their environmental documents, information that is vital to residents in communities that may be disproportionately affected by federal projects.  While this is one of several key provisions in NEPA, it is important for the public to remember that environmental justice is equally about the built environment as it is about the natural environment.

In a similar manner, Section 106 of NHPA requires agencies to identify and evaluate historic properties within the project’s area of potential effects, in coordination with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPO).  Further, Section 106 is a consultative process in which diverse stakeholders, including civic groups, neighborhood groups, churches, anchor institutions, professional organizations, affinity groups, and the like, must discuss various options to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on historic properties.

Dr. Price said that “to live, work, and play in Legacy Cities is an act of faith and perseverance.”  Residents and other stakeholders must exercise their rights to comment on the merits of federal projects which have the potential to change their sense of their physical and social community.  It is an essential part of the laws that have been in place for decades.

Information about the ACHP can be found at www.achp.gov, including the report, Managing Change: Preservation and Rightsizing in America.  Information about the White House Council on Environmental Quality and NEPA can be found at CEQ website.

About the author: Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP, is a certified planner employed with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). She received her Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As an Assistant Director in the ACHP’s Office of Federal Agency Programs she manages historic preservation reviews and program improvements of federal projects that provide financial assistance; issue permits and licenses; and issue approvals.

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

2014 September 16

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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