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Deep Impact

2014 April 28

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

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mountains of unprocessed material

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with Regional personnel who discussed a composting facility which EPA was concerned may have been the source of certain odors in the neighborhood. Additionally, I was informed that the facility had been found out of compliance by the state environmental agency and had been issued an order and was fined by the state.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a Untitled-2pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

I thought that a compost center would be a positive addition to the industrial park it was located in and the local neighborhoods, but it turned out to be much more complex than that. I’d learned that the compost wasn’t being processed within an appropriate amount of time, partly because of the sheer amount, in addition to insufficient staffing.  The company was eventually fined by the state and they hired additional workers.

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Next, I visited the office of The Clean Air Council, an EPA EJ grantee that works with communities in the same area. They have interviewed residents about their concerns with the compost plant to help enable the community to find a solution for this problem. When I followed up with the grantee several months later about their work with the composting facility, they shared that none of the residents wanted to speak against the company in court, and they were trying to figure out a way around that challenge. They were afraid of being victimized economically, as many of the residents are employees of the neighboring companies, or just fear in general fear of speaking out.

The community expressed the problem and worked to collaborate and communicate with federal and state government to fix it.  However, the momentum and power of holding the facility accountable and deter them from future mistakes were somewhat impeded because of fear.

My visit was extremely illuminating. There are many laws and technologies in place to assist in environmental justice efforts, but implementation and enforcement is not always clear-cut as one might think. My experiences helped cultivate a better understanding of what I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my professional career assisting the Agency and many other partners doing: Positively impacting human health and general well-being, people’s livelihood, their history and future.  It is gratifying to know that we are making a difference, and doing what we can for those whose voices sometimes go unheard.  Although not all problems can be solved completely, they can and must be addressed somehow.

For those who haven’t had a chance – especially those of us at EPA— I would highly encourage at least one visit to a community with real environmental justice issues. I’m confident it will be as enlightening and an invaluable experience for you as it was for me!

A relative newcomer to the EJ Community, Gelena Constantine works as an EJ Coordinator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  She has worked with several NEJAC workgroups and EPA committees on EJ. 

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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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Marva E. King, PhD permalink
    April 28, 2014

    Thanks for being so refreshing, honest, and committed enough about the work you are doing Gelena to embark on a Region 3 summer internship. I believe it would benefit additional EPA staff at DC Headquarters to spend some time in a regional office. FYI — I actually did the exact same thing when I came to the Agency in the late 90s to work for Dr. Clarice Gaylord. I hope you will continue engaging and building upon those regional relationships as I did while I was on my Reg 3 detail approx 20 years ago. It is a valuable experience that will stand the test of time.

  2. Mirabel Weriwoh permalink
    April 28, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your awesome practical impact of Environmental Justice!

  3. Jim Nave permalink
    April 28, 2014

    I agree with you Gelena, concerned citizens (and the EPA) should be involved in a community facility with environmental issues. EPA enforcement is only effective if issues are reported and addressed. For the citizens that are afraid to speak out, the fear should lie in health risk and quality of life for their families. I am learning environmental management in college and did not have the opportunity to intern in my degree program; close to graduation, I feel I missed a valuable lesson in environmental enforcement and how the EPA’s due process works.

  4. Sun Yi permalink
    April 28, 2014

    Very insightful – thanks for sharing!

  5. Jim Swanek permalink
    April 29, 2014

    Giving up what may be the only jobs in a community to improve the social environment always involves difficult decision-making; the current case of the Huy Fong hot sauce plant in the L.A. area in point, where 250 jobs will likely be lost forever, as the owner relocates rather than hermetically seal his plant against emanating odors.

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