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Stay Connected to EJ at EPA!

2012 August 2

Untitled-1EPA’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 in Greenversations 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.

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

2014 April 15

By Maya Nye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Addressing Crucial Water Issues in Our Communities

2014 April 3

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Nancy Stoner

This year, we here at EPA celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to address environmental disparities in minority and low-income communities. We’ve certainly accomplished a lot since the order was signed, but sadly, too many people still breathe dirty air, live near toxic waste dumps, or lack reliable access to clean water. But we continue to make progress in all of those areas, and here in EPA’s Office of Water, I’m proud of how we’re helping communities across America—both rural and urban—addressing their most crucial water issues.

Last fall, I was in Laredo, Texas and visited a community near the U.S.-Mexico border called the colonias, which until recently did not have regular access to clean water. Thanks to funding from EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Infrastructure Program, 3,700 people in the colonias now have access to a modern sewer system. We also have a program that provides funding for the planning, design and construction of wastewater infrastructure for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Providing access to clean water to people who have never had it before is one of the most important things we have the power and resources to do.

In 2012, I traveled to Baltimore to help announce funding from EPA’s Urban Waters program that’s being use to educate residents in the Patapsco watershed about the benefits of water conservation and give people the know-how to reduce water usage at home. Urban waterways can provide myriad economic, environmental and community benefits, and EPA is helping dozens of communities across the country reconnect with these important, valuable resources.

Our drinking water program is also providing substantial funding to help improve small drinking water systems across the country, which comprise more than 94% of the nation’s public drinking water systems. Small systems, those that serve fewer than 3,500 people, face unique financial and operational challenges in providing drinking water that meets federal standards. Last year, we provided close to $13 million to help train staff at small systems and give them tools to enhance system their operations and management practices.

This year, I’m proud to celebrate 20 years of EPA’s work to make a visible difference in communities across the country. We’ve made so much progress over the last two decades, and I know we’ll make even more over the next 20 years.

About the Author: Nancy Stoner is EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Water. Since February 1, 2010, Nancy Stoner has been serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water. Ms. Stoner’s extensive career in environmental policy and law began in 1987 as a trial attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently Ms. Stoner served as the Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Water Program. Ms. Stoner is a 1986 graduate of Yale Law School and a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Community Planning to Overcome Injustice!

2014 April 1

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By Carolina Martinez

“I had no idea we had the right to make changes in our community; that we could say: we don’t want this here because it’s bad for our health.”- Maria, resident of Barrio Logan, a neighborhood in San Diego.

R_AIR3MAIN_trucks_slfMaria’s child came home one day to tell her he was having difficulty breathing at school during his gym class. Shortly after, his doctor diagnosed him with the beginning stages of asthma. Maria, like many parents in her neighborhood, made the connection between her son’s respiratory problems and the warehouse with dozens of heavy duty trucks travelling daily on her block. She lived across the street from heavy pollution, and now her family was suffering the impacts.

Unfortunately, her story isn’t uncommon. In fact, Barrio Logan is the highest at-risk community in San Diego and in the top five percent in the state for hazards of toxic pollution. As an urban planner I can relate to Maria, but I think most people in environmentally compromised communities don’t know they can have a say about the layout of their neighborhood.

However, residents can — and should — play an active part in the community planning process. And now, with Environmental Health Coalition’s (EHC) groundbreaking video, Creating Healthy Neighborhoods: Community Planning to Overcome Injustice, you have the tools to step up and create positive neighborhood change more than ever! We developed this 20-minute video that uses real-life examples to illustrate a seven-step process we can all use to participate in community-led planning and become better advocates for our neighborhoods and win healthy community visions.

Residents like Maria literally live and breathe the effects of environmental injustice in their neighborhoods. No one is better qualified to recognize and propose solutions than local community members, but the planning processes can feel intimidating and land-use policy often sounds like a foreign language. Residents need to know they have a voice, and with Creating Healthy Neighborhoods, families just like Maria’s learn to speak out in the policy and planning processes impacting their community.

EHC Title Creating Healthy CommunitiesSo how can you get started steering your community towards a better future? How can you ensure your children grow up in a healthy, safe neighborhood? With this video (available online and on DVD in both Spanish and English) Environmental Health Coalition walks you through the seven steps to successfully pursue environmental justice for your community through community-engaged planning while highlighting true stories from community members just like you.

When we created this revolutionary tool we wanted to make something to help advocates gain a fuller understanding of their communities and take action to create healthier, more vibrant and livable communities. And although we’ve only just released it, at the conferences and events we have presented the video at, I have seen people who had little initial knowledge of these issues become very enthusiastic about the community planning process. In fact last week was the first time we presented it to our most involved members in EHC and they loved it! They relayed that the video was engaging and easy to understand, and they are excited to use this video to educate their neighbors on healthy land use principals.

People throughout the country endure impacts of toxic pollution every day because of poorly planned land-use policies, but it does not have to be this way, and you have the power to change it. So remember: community planning is power. Understanding how to become involved in land-use and planning processes in your community is first step towards a better community for your family today and for generations to come – What will you change?

About the author: Carolina Martinez is a Policy Advocate at the Environmental Health Coalition.  She is responsible for supporting residents in National City, a low-income majority Latino community, advocate for land use policies that respect their priorities, improve health, and are consistent with environmental justice principles.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Looking Back and Moving Forward on Environmental Justice: Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society Hosts National Conference

2014 March 26

By Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal

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For decades, grassroots activists and their allies have worked to end environmental disparities between communities. The environmental justice movement, which grew out of the civil rights movement, questioned why low income communities and communities of color are beset by more polluting industries, suffer higher rates of asthma and cancer, and enjoy fewer environmental amenities like parks and access to nutritious food.

Twenty years ago, government began to respond. In 1994, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, which made Environmental Justice a national priority and gave activists hope that politically underrepresented communities overburdened by environmental harms would soon have a voice and vehicle for bringing about justice. State governments began responding, too. In 1994, only four states addressed environmental justice by law or executive order. Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of environmental justice law, executive order, or policy, demonstrating recognition of environmental justice as a critical issue deserving government attention. For more details see EJ Milestones and Accomplishments: 1964-2014, a report by the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

In recognition of the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s Executive Order, the Harvard Law School Environmental Law Society (HELS) will be hosting the National Association of Environmental Law Societies (NAELS) 26th Annual Conference on March 28–29, 2014, with the theme “Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?” The conference will focus on three themes: progress on the goals of environmental justice, the social justice aspects of today’s national, and international environmental movements, and strategies to ensure that environmental justice is a priority in future environmental work.

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The two-day conference will feature speeches from leaders in the field, including former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson; Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice;” and Professor Gerald Torres, who, as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, worked with communities to help draft the President’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice. The conference will also feature seven panel discussions, each focused on an important aspect of environmental justice advocacy. Topics will range from strategies for achieving environmental justice to food justice and access to clean energy.

The EPA has been instrumental in helping HELS plan and prepare for the conference. In addition, EPA staff and other federal partners will facilitate breakout sessions on March 29. These sessions will engage conference attendees—students, academics, and community activists—in a productive discussion about milestones achieved in environmental justice and strategies for improvement and moving forward. We will share the outcomes of these discussions more broadly with federal representatives after the conference.

Although much progress has been made over the past twenty years, there is still plenty of work to be done. Living in an environmental justice community can have a severe impact on health and quality of life. Zip code is a strong predictor of health, and too often the heaviest environmental burdens and the highest percentage of low-income and minority residents are concentrated in the same zip codes. The California EPA reports that the 10% of California zip codes most burdened by pollution contain 32% of the state’s toxic cleanup sites. Meanwhile, a recent NAACP report notes that African Americans spent $41 billion on energy in 2009, but only held 1.1% of energy jobs and only gained .01% of the revenue from energy sector profits.

There is clearly a need for continued action to work towards achieving environmental justice goals. The 2014 NAELS Conference promises to make a valuable contribution to the conversation on environmental justice by reflecting on past challenges and successes in the movement, and by bringing together current and future advocates to plan for the next 20 years of work in the field.

To learn more about the 2014 NAELS Conference, please visit the HELS website for the conference. To learn more about environmental law at Harvard Law School, please visit the Environmental Law Program website.

About the Authors: Sam Caravello, Gen Parshalle, and Cecelia Segal are students at the Harvard Law School, class of 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Helping to Protect the Communities of Port Arthur, Texas

2014 March 20
A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

A view of the Flint Hills facility at night

By Cynthia Giles

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

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

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

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

A fence-line air monitor

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Who’s Your Environmental Justice Shero?

2014 March 19

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By Dr. Marva King

In 1994, I walked through the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency with my backpack full of graduate studies theory and my mind bursting with energy and eagerness to find meaningful work.

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Dr. Clarice Gaylord

Dr. Clarice Gaylord, the first Director of EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, saw something in me to cultivate and she gave me an opportunity to work in her newly formed office. Through her mentorship I matured, networked, experienced, succeeded and found passion and purpose in my work. Dr. Clarice Gaylord changed the direction of my life and was my first environmental justice “shero.”

This past February marked the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice, as well as 20 years that I have worked at EPA. These anniversaries have made me pause and reflect on the leaders that have blazed trails to advance the cause of environmental justice. As March is also Women’s History Month, I think it is especially appropriate to honor the sheroes of the environmental justice movement, of whom there are so many within the EJ movement.

Throughout the years so many ladies — from all walks of life — advised, coached, mentored, and guided me in this field.  Some of them did not even know they were doing so.  Since there are too many to name in this blog and I would be afraid to leave out any, I will share what a few of these sheroes have meant to me in the various stages of my 20 year growth.

Early on in my career, I heard the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) public comment testimony of Ms. Zulene Mayfield, a community leader from Chester, PA.  Her moving testimony of the deplorable environmental and public health problems experienced in her community forced me to run from the public comment room straight into the ladies room to cry my soul out.  Wherever she is today, I will always be grateful to her for igniting the spark in my heart and cementing my determination to do all I can in this field to help communities like hers.

As I entered the 2000s, a community leader from Savannah, Georgia, Dr. Mildred McClain, impacted my life as I saw her struggle tirelessly to build trust and partnerships between residents with local government, business and industry. Initially, these groups refused to be in the same room with Dr. McClain, but her hard work and persistence led to incredible changes in Savannah. Dr. McClain always advised me to never forget that one of the reasons I was working at the EPA was to protect the people who were at times powerless to protect themselves.

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Vernice Miller Travis (left) and Peggy Shepard(right)

As I reach the stage in my career where I’m hoping to help pass over this torch of justice for the next generation, I am fortunate to continue receiving the professional collegial advice of well-known EJ leaders like Peggy Shepard and Vernice Miller-Travis, and business leaders like Sue Briggum.  These women inspired me to never give up and to always remember the obligation we all have to continue pushing EJ issues into the next generation.

To the next generation of women leaders, we are looking to you to continue carrying on this mission of justice for all.  As you arm your own backpacks with legal, technical, and policy tools and then fill your minds and hearts with passion and commitment, hold your torch of justice high!  One day when retired and I’m at home sitting on my deck surrounded by my roses, I expect to turn on my computer and read about how you are all continuing to push the envelope on these concerns!

And now I want to know: who is your shero? Sheroes in the struggle for environmental justice are around us everywhere. I hope you will join me in identifying and recognizing them for their work to improve the quality of life on the planet for all its citizens. Please post in the comments section below because I want to hear about the amazing sheroes who inspired you in your journey. Peace.

About the author: Marva King, is currently on a detail in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. 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. Previously, she worked for over 10 years as a Senior Program Analyst in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice managing the EJ Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. She 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 in Greenversations 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.

EPA’s 20th Anniversary on Environmental Justice: A Perspective on Community Work

2014 March 11

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Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Mathy Stanislaus

I am excited about the 20th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 12898.  Former President Bill Clinton signed EO 12898 on February 11, 1994. I was not there, but I knew the people who were. Some of those people are no longer with us, so today I honor them.

It seems like just yesterday that I started my career right out of law and engineering school. Since that time, I have worked fervently with and for communities ensuring that they have a say in environmental decisions that affect their lives, their children’s lives, and the lives of fellow community members. The well-being of those community members is always in the front of my mind, and drives my work each day.

My foundation for working with communities started with my work on addressing issues such as solid waste facilities, Superfund sites and power plants. Through the redevelopment of brownfields, I sought to advance the renewal of New York’s low- and moderate-income communities. My experiences and the challenges I faced there generated fervor in me to press for greater consideration and inclusion of affected communities in environmental decision-making. I brought the same fervor to EPA when I came to the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in June 2009.

Every day, I implore the people I work with to consider communities in everything they do – whether it’s permitting a facility, engaging stakeholders in the rulemaking process, or helping our state and local partners understand the importance of listening to the issues or challenges of their constituency.

I often ask myself and my staff, “What action can we take to make a community healthier and more economically sound?” That type of thinking is an important component in many recent programs and policies developed during my tenure. Brownfields’ Area-Wide Planning GrantsCommunity Engagement Initiative (CEI); Chemical Plant Safety and SecurityEnvironmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program (EWDJT); safe recycling facilities; andTechnical Assistance for Communities (TASC) are examples of this thinking.

So, as you can see, I have carried my whole-hearted commitment to serve throughout my career. In my professional life, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most amazing people and I owe most of my successes – both personal and professional – to these people.

At EPA, we will continue to look for opportunities to create healthy, green and sustainable communities. Feel free to share any opportunities that we may be missing.

Happy 20th Anniversary to all of you!

About the author: Mathy Stanislaus is the Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER), leading the Agency’s land cleanup, solid waste and emergency response programs. Mr. Stanislaus is a chemical engineer and environmental lawyer with over 20 years of experience in the environmental field in the private and public sectors. He received his law degree from Chicago Kent Law School and Chemical Engineering Degree from City College of New York. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Protecting Those That Need it Most

2014 March 6

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Cynthia Giles

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

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

Here are a few examples to help illustrate this:

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

Environmental Job Training Reaches Rural Alaska

2014 March 5
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Map Illustrating Where the Diverse Geographic Areas that Alaska Indigenous Groups Live

By Lynn Zender

At the Zender Environmental Health and Research group, our vision of environmental justice is rooted in the philosophy that solutions must rely on community-based participatory efforts. We are a small non-profit organization based in Anchorage, Alaska and primarily serve what are arguably the most remote communities in the United States— the approximately 180 rural Alaska Native villages off the State’s road system. These Villages of 50 to 1,000 people can be reached only via small plane from one of the regional hubs.  The lack of trained technicians that can address and mitigate the severe solid waste conditions and risks presented at waste disposal sites is a major issue here, as are the very poor economies and lack of income to sustain environmental programs.

And that’s exactly why EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training (EWDJT) grant program has been so helpful for us. This grant program helps low income and minority communities with unemployed or severely under-employed populations gain the skills needed to obtain employment in the environmental field.  This EPA grant program melded perfectly with the issues we are working on. Recently, our organization was very fortunate to receive funding from this EPA grant program to develop our Rural Alaska Community Job Training Program (RACEJT).

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RACEJT students receiving instruction during a metal salvaging tour.

RACEJT is unique because we train residents for work in their home villages, which helps prevent rural “brain drain” and erosion of community integrity.  Gaining several certifications related to hazardous materials handling and job safety means that students can be hired by contractors that manage site cleanup, water hookup, landfill, road, facility renovation and other environmental projects. Without these skills, villages are forced to hire contractors with their own crews and the local Alaska Native economies gain virtually nothing from these projects.

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RACEJT student geared for oil spill response training.

Over 88% of RACEJT graduates have been able to find permanent or part-time work.  In both cases, we’ve learned that any income can make the difference and help families retain their lifestyles and continue to live within their ancestral lands.  In these traditional hunting and fishing villages, a day of work can pay for gas to allow a hunter to provide moose, seal, caribou, or other game for his or her family and community, and for artists to search for ivory and other traditional materials used in making creations that they are able to sell and support their family.

One of the beauties of RACEJT is how many of our students gain self-esteem and confidence by succeeding in completing our rigorous program. Many graduates have found back their ways after stumbling on alcohol and other hardships that are all too common in rural villages.  Another lesson we’ve learned is the need to frame the program and students’ responsibilities in the context of Alaska Native cultures.  We invite Elders and other Alaskan Native mentors to evening dinners who offer great praise and encouragement to students working hard to return and help their community protect health and the subsistence way of life.

To those of us who manage the program, each student is a hero for taking on their challenging village environmental health problems, and we let them know it. Students like Brandon Tocktoo, David Olanna, Eric Alexie, and Brandon Willams have returned to their councils and educated their communities about the serious health risks posed by their open burning and uncontrolled dumps.  Chad and Garret Anelon, and Kenneth Charlie have gone back to their villages and instigated infrastructural improvements in their environmental programs. Kacey John has helped to clean up contaminated soil at her school and weatherized homes. Harvey Nusingaya has led the tank farm maintenance for his Tribal Corporation’s oil development program.  All of these students and many more are able to continue their customary and traditional practices and thus contribute to their community’s subsistence and wellness.

About: Lynn Zender is the Director of RACEJT, and Executive Director of Anchorage–based Zender Environmental Health and Research Group.

The EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, was created in 1998, partly as a result of recommendations raised by the National Environmental Justice and Advisory Council’s (NEJAC) Waste and Facility Siting Subcommittee to provide training and workforce development opportunities for local, unemployed residents of predominantly low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected by brownfields and other polluting facilities. Click here to read more!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

2014 February 27

Cross posted from EPA’s It All Starts with Science Blog.
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By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightning started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

Untitled-1The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.