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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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Feed the Barrel: A tale of how small actions can change the world

2015 March 26

By Lena Adams Kim

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he's pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

Father Didik of St. Thomas Aquinas church is one of the 15 Barrel Keepers who manage the system of oil collection barrels. The oil he’s pouring will become biofuel, compost, and soap.

It all started Thanksgiving Day 2013, with my daughters frantically yelling, “The basement is flooding!!!” A visit from the plumber, yards of ruined carpeting, and $900 later, it was clear that cooking oil clogging my kitchen drain was the culprit. And so I did what many do after experiencing the horrors of home damage – I complained to everyone who would listen.

My tale of woe reached Indah, a parent in my kids’ schoolyard. Indah, a journalist of Indonesian descent, mentioned how families in her immigrant Indonesian community in South Philadelphia were grappling with the same clogged pipes and costly repairs, yet unlike me, were often unaware of the cause.

She described how many had emigrated from rural areas of Indonesia, where every drop of precious oil is used, re-used, and then re-used again. Very little oil, if any, was discarded. And those first-world kitchen drains and sewer systems? Non-existent in the 17,000 largely undeveloped islands that comprise Indonesia. Those huge jugs of oil, available at low cost at grocery stores in the U.S.? Unheard of on smaller islands where budgets and resources are limited.

Yet things are far different in America, the land of plenty. Additionally, the cultural knowledge of what can and cannot, go down a drain is instilled in many of us from an early age. Not so obvious, however, to newcomers in a new homeland with new customs.

During my conversation with Indah, I realized there was a beautifully simple solution to this costly environmental issue of used fats, oils, and grease, also called “FOG”, which cause public health problems by entering the waste stream. Just last month, the New York Times reported on the impacts of food waste like oils entering waterways and landfills, ultimately decomposing to emit methane, a greenhouse gas. I wondered, “what if EPA worked with this community on proper oil disposal.” Could it make a difference?

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Residents drop off bottles of used cooking oil at one of the neighborhood’s 15 oil collection points.

Today, two years after my basement flood, things are far different from the clogged pipes of the past. Thanks to connections made by Indah, this vibrant Indonesian community is now the first in the nation piloting a wildly successful residential oil collection program. Called Feed the Barrel, the program has gone far beyond just education on oil disposal. Now, they work with an oil recycler to collect and recycle used oil into biofuel, rich compost, and soap.  The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community.

It would take pages to detail the unique ways this community tackled this environmental problem — how they insisted on using a local recycler, how they decided to empower children to help spread the word, and how they enlisted spiritual leadership to encourage neighbors in churches, temples, and mosques to become involved.

And it would be impossible for me to describe the pride I see in my neighbors in their newfound ability to spread environmental awareness — which they can give back to their new homeland that has given them so much opportunity.

News of their success in diverting more than 300 gallons of oil in the first year alone has traveled fast. They have been approached by communities throughout the greater Philadelphia area, and in New Jersey and Houston, Texas. Media coverage has been powerful in spreading the word, as their efforts have been highlighted on National Public Radio, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the city’s respected Grid magazine.

Imagine — Feed the Barrel started from a schoolyard conversation about providing people with something as simple as information. While EPA’s goal of “meaningful involvement of all communities in environmental decisions” might seem broad, its simplicity allowed, in this case, room to develop a creative solution to a nagging problem.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that, “when people are made aware … they are empowered to act.” To learn more about the possibilities of oil recycling, or to follow pilot progress, visit www.facebook/feedthebarrel. And join the rallying cry: Feed the Barrel to Fuel America!

About the author: Lena Adams Kim is a member of EPA Region 3’s Asian Pacific American Council, as well as a communications specialist in the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Division. 

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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Puerto Rico Shows the Power of Community Involvement in Protecting Waterways

2015 March 24
Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

By Mike Shapiro (cross-posted from It’s Our Environment)

Growing up, I remember playing along the mud flats by Newark Bay and pondering why the water nearby was so dark and sticky. I later learned that the water and mud flats were contaminated with oil and other substances. While Newark Bay is still far from clean by our current standards, today when I return to my home town I can see progress from the cleanup and restoration that is taking place.

Our work with communities to improve water quality makes a big difference. I flew to Puerto Rico in February to visit two projects that have made tremendous strides in improving the health of communities there – thanks to dedicated project leaders who empower local people and collaborate with local and federal government agencies to protect their waterways.

My first visit was to Mulas Jagual in Patillas, where the city and its residents are building a filter to treat water that will serve 200 households. This is an incredible accomplishment for a community that only a few years ago was taking water from a local river and piping it directly to their homes without any treatment. Through an EPA grant, they received training and technical assistance from a university in Puerto Rico. They learned about chlorination and formed a board to help manage their community water system.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

My second visit was to the Martin Pena Channel, a 3.75-mile tidal channel located within San Juan Bay. During the early 20th century, substandard dwellings were built within the wetlands bordering the channel, using debris as fill material. Over 3,000 structures now discharge raw sewage into the remains of the channel. Poorly maintained sewer systems result in flooding, regularly exposing 27,000 residents to polluted waters. In 2014, we awarded a grant of $60,000 to design a new stormwater drainage system. We’re currently working with our federal partners on a major dredging project that would restore water flow within the channel.

Administrator Gina McCarthy declared February to be Environmental Justice Month. It’s important to provide minority and low-income communities with access to information and an opportunity to better protect their health. Clean water is a vital piece of the puzzle for the health and safety of all Americans.

About the author: Mike Shapiro is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water where he performs a variety of policy and operational functions to ensure the effective implementation of the National Water Program.

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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It Takes an Extended Village

2015 March 19

By Michael Burns

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, Georgia at the Lithonia City Hall.

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, GA at City Hall.

There is an old Nigerian proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child.  Its basic meaning is that a child’s upbringing is a communal effort, in which the responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger, extended family.  Even the wider community gets involved, such as neighbors and friends.  This proverb, and many others like it, focuses on the values of community, unity, cooperation, and sharing.

Today’s modern village is more than just an actual geographic place where individuals and families live, work, and play together.  For underserved communities like Lithonia, Georgia, the horizons of the contemporary village extend beyond the town line to include colleges and universities, some local and some not so local.  Through efforts like the College-Underserved Community Partnership Program, this wider community of students and professors are being engaged to build long-term partnerships with small municipalities and provide no-cost technical assistance to help the towns accomplish their planning goals.

With the success we had in getting Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College onboard, I began reaching out to other schools to participate.  I had met Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson shortly after she was elected, and really wanted to provide a partner for her to help her city move forward.  I reached out to Dr. Charles Richardson from Clark Atlanta University to see if he could work with Lithonia.  As I was in his office discussing the possibility with him, one of his MBA students walked in to talk about what they would be working on the upcoming fall semester.  Dr. Richardson turned and looked at the student and said “Shake hands with Mr. Burns, he just gave you your class project for this semester.”  And just like that, another school was added.

Clark Atlanta University’s MBA students formed an Organizational Development Planning Team to help “rebrand” the city.  They developed an organizational structure that allocated different responsibilities not only to members of the Lithonia Business Alliance Group but to local residents as well.  They established membership guidelines, governance principles, and scheduled guidelines for meetings and events to keep things well organized. They identified benefit sets for members and potential collaboration opportunities that would ultimately help increase community involvement. They also identified marketing tactics for the association and business members of the business alliance.

They did a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis of the city’s economic situation and provided valuable recommendations to the city to help it move forward.

  • They worked with the City to help rebrand to improve their ability to promote the city.
  • They worked with local businesses, and provided recommendations on how they could work better together, and how the city could help them move forward.
  • They provided recommendations on how to attract business to become a part of the city.
  • They also worked with the City to help them identify grants to address their brownfields site in the downtown area.

We often talk about the benefit the program provides to our underserved cities and communities, but the value to the students who participate is also great.  For these students, the CUPP Program has given them an edge in competing in the marketplace for jobs and opportunities.  One of the students had this to say:

“This [project] personally helped me in my career to be organized, to be an intelligent decision maker, and to most importantly take a risk to make a real difference! I am extremely proud of Clark Atlanta University for recognizing talent when they see it and they certainly saw something in Dr. Charles Richardson who pushed us to our limits and encouraged us to work smart. Thank you Clark Atlanta University! Thank you Dr. Charles Richardson! Thank you to the City of Lithonia, GA!”

Efforts like CUPP illustrate that it takes a modern, extended village not constrained by geography to make a difference.  It’s a timeless reminder that a community will thrive if the whole of society works together.  We are not just making a visible difference in communities; we are making better students entering the workplace.  Both sides are winners!

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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Grassroots Mojo: Bridging Yesterday with Today

2015 March 12

by Fred Tutman

The recent 50th Anniversary commemoration of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights brings to mind the long history of grassroots organizing, and the role the local Selma freedom movement played to help raise the civil rights conversation to national prominence.

In making the connection from Selma to today, we need to remember that there is a power, an inspirational wallop, that flows from small grassroots movements, like those that served as the foundation of the civil rights movement and today’s environmental justice movement.  The civil rights movements not only achieved their own local goals but served to pursue larger ones as well.

The grassroots have a powerful “mojo” with a deeply inspirational history of achievement.  Grassroots causes have a track record of success that channel the raw energy needed to change the world in order to make it more just.  Grassroots causes are also inherently democratic, compassionate, equitable, empowering, and diverse!  The fact that such movements generally lack money is unimportant, as their lack of cash is more than made up for with their zeal, ingenuity, and passion. Grassroots causes can produce charismatic and highly effective leadership.  My own grassroots heroes include people like Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jesus Christ.  Nobody paid them lots of money to be change agents.

A true grassroots movement generally draws its strength and vision from rank and file participants, while empowering the people and communities from which that same power and initiative flows.  These mostly unpaid and localized grassroots groups often have intensely active and engaged members who control the priorities of their movement.

So while grassroots groups build coalitions and campaigns around mutual self-interest and shared moral commitment, top down ones often do so around issues that can rally more people and more money. And why not? These groups surely have more expenses and compete with other similar groups on national and international stages for both members and resources. But the key is that while both forms of advocacy can do vital and worthwhile work, they rarely do exactly the same work, nor should we always expect them to!  Recognizing distinctions between top down organizations and grassroots movements is vital when understanding how true community-based advocacy works, and how such work occasionally clashes with well-meaning institutionalized environmentalism.

Despite these differences, if there is one thing of which I am certain, large top down movements need grassroots partners as well as a deeper appreciation of the rich potential of grassroots work and environmental justice.

I have heard it argued that these distinctions are unimportant because, regardless of the business model, grassroots and big environmentalism “all want the same things.” But it’s important to realize that communities don’t usually band together simply because “everybody” wants clean air and water.  They do so more forcefully because their sense of place is threatened by dirty air and water. The reality of attacking a local threat is a much stronger motivator than an issue that is a diffuse and amorphous threat that attracts empathy and donations. The momentum generated by a movement serving actual communities and local constituencies presents an enormous advantage in terms of the payload it can deliver.

That is why it’s especially important for large, well-funded environmental groups to explore fresh ways to jump on local bandwagons, instead of the other way around.  And the fastest way to satisfy the need for diversity in environmentalism is to build stronger connections to grassroots advocacy.

So how do we forge stronger bonds between the larger and more nationally influential organizations to invest more deeply in local work?  One way is to better understand that local advocates are drivers and not passengers along for the environmental ride.  It is important to remember that the civil rights movement was really a series of grassroots efforts, like the Selma march, of ordinary citizens determined to end racial injustice, not only locally but across the United States.  Success came when they banded with others, locally and with other like-minded souls from around the country.

There is no greater calling than doing grassroots work that helps real people and real communities, as well as the nation and the planet.

About the author:  Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, has served more than 11 years as the Riverkeeper for Maryland’s longest and deepest intrastate river. Fred also is an adjunct instructor at historic St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where he teaches an upper level course in Environmental Law and Policy.

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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