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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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Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

2015 March 5

by Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

Standing Sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Building Partnerships Between Colleges and Underserved Communities

2015 February 18

By Michael Burns

During my 30-plus years with the federal government, I have held many great positions, such as Deputy Director of the Army Reserve Base Operations Division, and Executive Director of the Navy’s Southeast Region. I have enjoyed each and every position, but I never felt that I was giving back to communities as much as I would have liked.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Five years ago, I worked for the National Park Service, and attended a meeting with various federal agencies to work together on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects where we met with the Mayor of Hayneville, a small town in southern Alabama. The Mayor described how she had many infrastructure issues to address, but expressed concern about her city’s capacity to pass federal audit requirements that come with the funding needed to address the issues. She said a Certified Public Accountant told her it would cost about $20,000 to ensure she passed the audit. For a small, poor town of 1,080, such a fee was beyond their means. I thought about it, and remembered that a university only thirty minutes away could possibly help them. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to follow through with the idea.

Many small, underserved communities, like Hayneville, are in need of resources to improve their environment and quality of life. However, they often lack the technical expertise in engineering, transportation, and infrastructure planning to pursue initiatives in a progressive and sustainable manner.

Eighteen months later, I was talking to folks from EPA Region 4 about this idea of connecting underserved communities with the talents of college students and faculty. They asked if I would be willing to collaborate with EPA. I agreed, and began to reach out to colleges and universities.

With no budget or funding to provide to the schools, it was tough going! Our first breakthrough came when the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to provide stipends to students through its Massie Chair of Excellence Program at Tennessee State University. The students worked with the City of Cooperstown, Tennessee, helping it upgrade its financial recordkeeping and develop an economic development plan. With this effort, we were able to prove that the college-community partnership concept was not only valid, but we could help make a difference in small, underserved communities. But the lack of funding continued to plague our efforts.

Our biggest advance came when Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a small college in Tifton, Georgia, agreed to provide economic development plans for two small cities in Georgia with no financial support from the federal government. The College understood the value of giving its students such a rich experiential learning opportunity in which they could take what they learned in the classroom, apply it to real world problems, and come up with real-world solutions. The school also understood that such opportunities were more important than simply extending financial support to these cities. Just as critical was that the program gave their students a leg up when looking for employment after graduation – they not only could talk in interviews about what they learned, but about what they had DONE. In addition, the school is now an important pillar of the community. It is looked upon as an organization that can and has made a visible difference in these communities.

The briefing the school gave the communities about concepts and plans for economic development was fantastic! It has offered to help these communities develop grant proposals to move forward, and get the resources they need for improvements.

As a result of the growing success of the program, I was hired at EPA Region 4 to expand EPA’s College/Underserved-Communities Partnership Program (CUPP), which develops long-term partnerships between local colleges and universities and underserved cities and communities. Through the program, schools provide technical support to communities at no cost to them. Small rural communities are able to use this assistance to address important issues – like energy savings projects, land reuse, and economic development – that will support the long-term viability of their communities.

We continue to add colleges and universities to this effort, and in future blog posts we will talk about plans and projects that are moving these underserved communities forward. We are also looking for schools that wish to voluntarily be a part of this program. Do you know a school, or does your school want to make a difference in the lives of those who need the help the most? Let us know!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

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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Climate Justice: A Fight for Equal Opportunity

2015 February 12

By Gina McCarthy and Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.

(Cross-posted from EPAConnect)

Fifty years ago, Americans facing racial injustice marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest discriminatory voting laws.  It was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and forever redefining and improving our cherished values of freedom and fairness.  February marks Black History Month—a time to reflect on past injustice, and refocus efforts on injustices that persist.

Today, too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and health risks.  Those same communities are excessively vulnerable to the devastating floods, fires, storms, and heatwaves supercharged by climate change.  To make matters worse, the carbon pollution fueling climate change comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local businesses and jobs.  Power plants, our biggest source of carbon pollution, are often located in these areas, casting their shadow over communities already vulnerable to environmental health hazards.

Pollution and climate impacts are a barrier to economic opportunity, blocking the path to middle-class security.  President Obama calls ensuring America’s promise of opportunity for all a defining challenge of our time; however, it’s impossible to climb any ladder of opportunity without clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to live on.

That’s why at the core of EPA’s mission is the unwavering pursuit of environmental justice.  The Hip Hop Caucus joined the fight for Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that underscored communities facing risks from climate impacts: low-income families and people of color.

With President Obama’s leadership, EPA is ramping up efforts to cut air and water pollution, expanding public outreach, enforcing laws to defend public health, and holding polluters accountable.  And through President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is taking historic action to fight the economic and public health risks of a changing climate by cutting carbon pollution from power plants.

Organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus are critical to climate progress by ensuring at-risk communities are a part of the conversation—and part of the solution.  To balance the ledger of environmental disenfranchisement, we must confront today’s risks with a focus on communities that need it the most.

We’re moved by the words of Jibreel Khazan spoken in Greensboro, NC on the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro Four sitting down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store on February 1st, 1960:

“Climate change is young people’s ‘lunch counter moment’ for the 21st century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen.”  

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America’s great civil rights leaders; it’s a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity.  History proves even the most wrenching strains on justice can be unwound, with a committed, diverse, and vocal coalition of people calling for change.  That’s why EPA, the Hip Hop Caucus, and organizations around the country are fighting for climate justice—so we can further fairness and opportunity for all.

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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Public Participation – A Bedrock Principle for Human Rights

2015 February 10

by Lupe Aguirre, Neelam Mohammed, and Leslie Morales

Public participation is an essential component of a vibrant and truly representative democracy. It requires meaningful opportunities for the public to provide input during decision-making as well as free and simple access to information about government agencies and their activities. Yet, it is challenging to facilitate public engagement in a nation as large, complex, and varied as the United States.

On October 7, 2014, the University of California, Berkeley School of Law hosted the United States Government Consultation on Environmental Issues. This session was held in advance of the second review of the human rights record of the United States by the U.N. Human Rights Council, scheduled for May 2015.

As interns with the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic (the Clinic), we were tasked with coordinating this historic effort in collaboration with government officials and community groups. Bringing together numerous advocacy groups, members of the public, and officials from seven federal agencies, the session provided an important opportunity to directly engage a variety of stakeholders about pressing environmental issues.

Developing an inclusive and effective Consultation required thoughtful coordination. The planning process involved advocates, community members, and government officials to determine the agenda and topics to be discussed. Participants (whether attending in person or by phone) could submit written comments in advance of the session to create a record of public input. Dozens attended the Consultation in person and dozens more joined by phone, allowing those who could not travel to the session to participate.

In the months since the Consultation, we have posted several videos of the individual panel sessions to allow those who were not able to participate to listen to the full discussion. Lastly, we drafted a summary report outlining the main points of discussion and providing resources for further engagement.

Although each panel focused on a distinct issue (climate change, water issues, and environmental/public health protections and members of vulnerable communities), a common theme that arose was the need for meaningful public participation to identify and address environmental challenges. We know public participation is a bedrock principle of human rights, but how can that principle be put into practice?

Due to its national scope and the array of relevant issues, the Consultation on Environmental Issues presented our team with complex questions:

  • How do we reach diverse communities across the country?
  • How do we facilitate the opportunity for affected community members to speak?
  • How do we keep the conversation going well into the future?

Answering these questions offered both insights into the challenges as well as best practices in creating opportunities for engagement.

During the Consultation, community members and advocates from around the nation identified problems in their communities and offered solutions. They asked for more opportunities to engage with the government and to lift barriers to that engagement by addressing linguistic, geographic, and temporal challenges to participation. The dialogue reminded us that direct contact with affected community members can reveal issues that may otherwise fall through the cracks, and that the knowledge of local communities is a critical component in crafting creative solutions to environmental challenges. Having all stakeholders at the table ensures the development of responsive and sustainable solutions to real world problems. So while providing inclusive processes can be complicated, it is well worth the effort.

We saw what public engagement looks like in action at the Consultation in October and hope that government at all levels will provide more opportunities for meaningful community engagement. However, coordinating national events is not the only path to achieve public engagement; it can be accomplished in simpler and smaller ways. Such opportunities should not only be available when the United States is on the eve of a review before the U.N. or some other significant event. Rather, a continuing dialogue between government and the public is necessary to tackle environmental and other social justice issues.

Moving forward, the Clinic continues to work with local environmental justice advocates to advance universal access to clean and affordable water by engaging with California state officials and raising these important issues before international human rights bodies.

NOTE: On February 20, 2015, the U.S. State Department is holding a civil society consultation on the U.S. government’s second UPR, in Washington, DC, with an option to dial-in by phone.

About the Authors: Lupe Aguirre, Neelam Mohammed, and Leslie Morales are law students at the International Human Rights Law Clinic, UC Berkeley School of Law, who are scheduled to graduate in 2016. Lupe’s interest in social justice was sparked by her work with vulnerable low-income immigrant communities in Southern and Central California before entering law school; she plans to continue serving at-risk communities as a public interest lawyer. Neelam developed an interest in environmental justice issues after taking courses at Berkeley Law focused on the importance of clean energy development and the rights of individuals disparately impacted by fossil fuel-generated energy. Leslie was drawn to international human rights through her volunteer work providing legal services to immigrants and asylum-seekers as she became aware of the many injustices faced by low-income and minority groups in the U.S. and abroad, including in her family’s native Guatemala.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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

2015 February 5

by Melissa Friedland

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

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

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

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

Reducing Flood Impacts

011080410 FEMA assists IEMA with flood assessments

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

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

Addressing Floodway Regulations

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Delivering on the Promise of the Clean Water Act

2014 December 18

By Gina McCarthy

(Cross Posted from EPA Connect)

On January 9th of this year, concerned citizens noticed a chemical odor floating down the Elk River Valley toward Charleston, West Virginia. State inspectors traced the odor to a Freedom Industries facility, where they found a storage tank leaking the chemical MCHM, used in coal processing.

Before the day ended, drinking water supplies for more than 300,000 people were contaminated. Schools closed. Hospitals evacuated patients. And the local economy ground to a halt.

West Virginia led the response to contain the spill within days. EPA provided technical assistance to help clear the water system, helped determine a water quality level that would be protective of public health, conducted air monitoring—and sent a Special Agent from our Criminal Investigation Division to the site. The Special Agent, in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Charleston and the FBI, conducted more than 100 interviews and launched a joint investigation into the cause of the disaster.

We found a pattern of negligence by the storage tank owners, who were obligated to inspect the tank, fix corrosion, and take action to contain potential spills. Their negligence resulted in one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters in recent memory.

Today, U.S. Attorney Goodwin, along with EPA and FBI officials, announced that four former officers of Freedom Industries have been indicted on Clean Water Act negligent misdemeanor charges, as well as for violating the Refuse Act. Freedom Industries, along with two other individuals, were separately charged with Clean Water Act crimes. The four indicted defendants face multiple years in prison if they are convicted, and the two other individuals each face up to one year.

When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act, it gave states primary authority to implement the laws and protect the environment, including safeguarding drinking water supplies for American communities. EPA works with states to deliver these benefits, including through criminal investigative work that holds serious violators accountable. Our efforts send a clear message to would-be violators that we’re serious about enforcing our laws fairly, leveling the field for companies that play by the rules and follow the law.

The spill occurred in the 40th anniversary year of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which protects drinking water sources and requires that water from our taps be clean. The law has been such a success, and we so often take safe drinking water for granted, that it’s easy to become complacent. But Freedom Industries’ illegal, negligent actions serve as a reminder that we need to vigilantly enforce our laws to protect safe water.

Just last week, the Source Water Collaborative, a group of 25 national organizations united to protect America’s sources of drinking water, launched a call to action—asking utilities, states, federal agencies, and local governments to do more to protect source water, and prevent disasters like the one in Charleston before they happen. EPA provides states with technical and scientific expertise, as we did in the aftermath of the chemical spill in Charleston. We’re also developing tools and resources for prevention, preparedness and response to spills or releases, and sharing them with states so they can meet their legal responsibilities.

Clean, reliable water is precious. It’s what lets our children grow up healthy, keeps our schools and hospitals running, and fuels our economy. Our efforts can’t undo the damage done to public health, the local economy, and the environment in Charleston. But by working together, we can help prevent spills like this one in the future, and protect our children’s health for years to come.

About the Author: Gina McCarthy is the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appointed by President Obama in 2009 as Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Gina McCarthy has been a leading advocate for common-sense strategies to protect public health and the environment.

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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The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: An International Human Right

2014 November 26

by Danny Gogal

“Sure, I’ll serve as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreements.” That was my response to my Office Director this past April, although I knew very little of what this new responsibility would entail. However, I was intrigued by the potential opportunities to engage the international community on issues of environmental justice.

Fortunately, I had some previous exposure to international human rights processes in 2010, when the U.S. Government (USG) initiated its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record.  During this time, the USG was engaged in a concerted effort to meet with a wide range of interested parties throughout the country to get input and comments on efforts to provide for human rights.  These included consultations with federally recognized tribal government officials and indigenous peoples.

Four years later, I found myself once again fully engrossed in our government’s preparation for its review by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). For the first time, EPA was asked to participate as an official member of the U.S. delegation. Although the USG completed and submitted its report to the CERD in June 2013, the presentation to the UN wasn’t until August 2014. The environmental section of our report highlights the re-establishment and activities of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (Section 28), a variety of environmental justice projects, such as federal agencies’ EJ strategies (Section 144), and EPA’s use of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in a pollution permit decision (Section 173).

The day before our presentation, the U.S. delegation met with U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGO) and tribes at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva.  More than 80 individuals attended the three-hour meeting, which provided the opportunity for the NGOs, many of whom had submitted “shadow reports,” to share their perspectives on human rights in the United States and the USG’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The meeting and interactions after the meeting proved to be beneficial to many of the NGOs, as well as the U.S. delegation.

The meeting with the CERD was held over a two-day period, consisting of two 3 hour sessions which opened with remarks from the US Ambassador for Human Rights, Keith Harper. The key environmental issues raised by the CERD included:

  • Water shut-offs in Detroit and Boston
  • Impacts of resources extraction on water and drinking water
  • Pollution in foreign countries caused by multi-national companies
  • Addressing environmental and public health impacts to minority, low-income and indigenous communities living along the coasts, particularly the Vietnamese communities in Louisiana and indigenous communities.
  • General concerns included need for:
    • USG to actually seek “transformation” to address discrimination
    • Greater education within the United States about the ICERD and its principles

In its initial report, the CERD also expressed concern about “the large number of tribes that remained unrecognized by the Federal Government and the obstacles to recognition…, and ongoing problems to guarantee the meaningful participation of indigenous people…” These concerns drew my attention given EPA’s new Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which speaks to how EPA works to provide the meaningful participation of state-recognized and non-recognized tribes, indigenous peoples, as well as others, in EPA’s decision making processes.

The CERD’s concluding observations highlighted their recommendation that the USG improve its protection of the environment and public health of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.

The upcoming USG UPR review, scheduled for May 11, 2015 also will likely bring attention to environmental justice and equitable development.  This review also includes engaging with the public through various civil society consultations held throughout the country, including a consultation on environmental issues held October 7 of this year.

I am looking forward to once again engaging the NGOs, my fellow public servants, and the international community during this UPR process as we strive to identify ways to more effectively make a visible difference in vulnerable communities, particularly in environmental and public health protection.  I also would be interested in hearing from NGOs about how valuable they find these international human rights processes.  This work is proving to be a viable avenue for raising awareness and harnessing interest in environmental justice, both domestically and internationally.

About the author:  Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background.  He is currently serving as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreement, and has been working on tribal and indigenous peoples environmental policy and environmental justice issues for the past 28 years.  He is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and has worked in various capacities for the Agency’s environmental justice program over the past twenty-two years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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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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