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Restoring a Watershed One Community at a Time

2014 September 9

by Alicia N. Neal, MFA

In a city like New Orleans, community is everything. I remember when I would walk down the street, I’d speak to everyone I passed, and everyone would keep an eye out for one another. Everyone was our neighbor. Eight years ago, prior to Hurricane Katrina, walking around the Lower Ninth Ward meant passing several homes on every block. Now it means visiting one, maybe two, houses per block. As a result, a sense of community has disappeared from the area. With very few residents returning to the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, many lots stand vacant, some filled with weeds and trash, others still are home only to dilapidated buildings.

The few residents who have returned also gaze out over the ghostly remains of a former cypress swamp. Bayou Bienvenue, once a flourishing freshwater cypress-tupelo tree wetland where community members would hunt and fish, is now an urban swamp decimated by salt water intrusion which killed the vegetation, and weakened protection from high winds and water surges. Loss of the cypress trees made the Lower Ninth Ward more vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes. Without the natural barrier protection provided by the Bayou, a daily downpour can instantly incapacitate neighborhoods with floods.

For Lower Ninth Ward residents, there is a movement afoot to, in a sense, take back the streets through improved stormwater management. With the help of an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant, Groundwork New Orleans assessed community needs to address issues of stormwater management, ecosystem restoration, and quality of life. In the midst of the assessment, we recognized a common theme: lack of communal connection. Residents had simple requests like planting more flowers to attract butterflies back to the area. As a result, a simple rain garden was installed to mitigate flooding and grew into a beautiful green space for neighbors to gather and get to know one another.

Central to this process was engaging local residents in identifying solutions. For example, we incorporated Lower Ninth Ward residents’ needs and input to create a site that removes toxins from stormwater and provides an educational and beautiful space for residents to enjoy. A corner lot at Caffin Avenue and North Prieur Street was selected to create a rain garden and community beautification site. The site, located near the Industrial Canal levee breech that inundated the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, contains a shade structure, rain garden, native plants, fruit trees, benches and educational signage. After but a few months, the site has become a communal space where neighbors can feel welcomed, help alleviate street flooding, and improve watershed health along with neighborhood aesthetic.

Members of the Green Team, our job training program for high school aged youth, are a part of the process from start to finish. The students learn about research methods, public speaking, community engagement, science, construction, and water testing. The students are gaining valuable life skills while making improvements in their community, like using GIS mapping to plot drainage problem areas along Caffin Avenue and conducting water quality testing in Bayou Bienvenue. The results compiled from these activities were presented to neighborhood residents and organizations. At each workshop the Green Team leads a hands-on activity to share what they have learned and educate the community.

The restoration of Bayou Bienvenue is an important part of the rebuilding of the community because it can provide opportunities for fishing, canoeing, and other activities for local residents. Engaging the community in understanding how a neighborhood-level watershed and habitat design can reduce susceptibility to flooding is helping to usher in a sense of communal connection so that we heal our community while helping to heal the environment.

About the Author: Alicia Neal, MFA is the Executive Director of Groundwork New Orleans. As a long time resident of New Orleans, she welcomes the opportunity to make a positive change in the city. She is also a mother and a visual artist who is inspired most by nature.  

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 through Resiliency and Renewable Energy in a Post-Industrial City

2014 September 4

By Sherrell Dorsey

A Brownfield site in Bridgeport, CT

The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut has long been a case study for the perils of inequity that mirror similar narratives across our nation. The largest city in the State of Connecticut, Bridgeport was once a boomtown for manufacturing and jobs but has since been marred by decades of neglect and a post-industrial environment that has left it riddled with brownfields sites. Thanks to EPA brownfields grants and other funds, the City is attempting to breathe new life into the City’s historic fabric to power what it is calling the new economy.

However, participation in the new economy is a far reach for Bridgeport’s most vulnerable residents. In addition to an income gap, the city’s residents, who are largely black (31 percent) and Hispanic (41 percent), are also victims of an opportunity gap—nearly 50 percent of high school students don’t graduate from college and most students in this demographic are barely reading at grade level.

When it comes to the intersection of climate change and environmental justice, the numbers by-and-large are equally stifling.

Bridgeport’s coastal location makes it especially vulnerable to rising sea levels.  The impact of Superstorm Sandy left many of the city’s poorest communities displaced. Families in Marina and Seaside Villages, Bridgeport’s subsidized housing communities, were evacuated after their homes were flooded. Many of them lost food due to power outages and had no way to get to a grocery store.

Interstate 95 running though Bridgeport and dividing neighborhoods

The City’s pressing public health concerns and barriers limiting access to health care and other social services also impede residents ability to withstand events like hurricanes, heat waves, and infectious diseases transmitted by insects such as mosquitoes.  For example, Bridgeport has one of the highest rates of asthma in the state, which comes as no surprise considering that local air quality is bad due to the I-95 freeway passing through the city, as well as the last remaining coal plant in Connecticut and a variety of industrial facilities.  Data from two hospitals show that the leading causes of admissions are heart disease and high blood pressure.  When asked about health concerns in their communities, residents mentioned cancer‐related illnesses which they attributed in part to toxic aspects of the region’s environment and infrastructure.

In addition, the East and North End neighborhoods are home to Bridgeport’s largest food deserts, making a 45-minute bus ride or a $15 cab ride to fetch groceries implausible for struggling families.  The Black and Hispanic communities of Bridgeport have had very few choices in protecting their communities and the health of their families, though all is far from lost.

Recently, Bridgeport was the recipient of $10 million in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of Rebuild by Design—a multi-stage regional competition to promote resiliency in the Sandy-affected region through the execution of local recovery projects that can be replicated across the country. The monies will be used to address unmet needs for housing, economic development, and citywide infrastructure to ensure long-term resiliency.   Bridgeport also received a $500,000 grant from the Robin Hood Relief Committee to help elderly and low income residents with housing rehabilitation, and reconstruction to help make their units more resilient in future storms. The Seaside Village Board of Directors sits on the multi-stakeholder committee that is tasked with determining who will receive aid.

Through his bGreen 2020 initiative, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch is on a mission to make Bridgeport the greenest city in the state of Connecticut. The plan outlines 64 strategies to improve Bridgeport’s quality of life for all residents, clean the city’s soils and waterways, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and attract more green jobs and businesses. Since its inception, the initiatives enforced through the plan have resulted in the reduction of 55,290 metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

A stand at a farmers market in Bridgeport, CT

While high-tech and large-scale projects to introduce renewable and cleaner energy can and will positively impact residents, Bridgeport’s revitalization is coupled with resiliency initiatives set to protect its most vulnerable communities. With funding from HUD, green energy projects in the works, a food policy council leading the city’s now five farmer’s markets across the city, Bridgeport isn’t playing victim. In spite of its rather bleak challenges, Bridgeport’s greatest shortcomings have also proven to be its golden opportunity for change. And times, indeed, are a-changing. The world is watching as an underdog becomes a leader in how efforts toward a clean economy could potentially serve as a solution to mitigating the impact of climate change on its most vulnerable residents.

About the author: Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact writer, branding and communications strategist, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. A featured safer chemicals advocate on Fox News, her work on social justice and environmental policy has covered the pages of Black Enterprise, Triple Pundit and Inhabitat. Sherrell was named a 2013 Zoom Foundation Fellow where she was given the honor of serving on several environmental sustainability and youth-policy initiatives in the Office of Mayor Bill Finch in Bridgeport, Connecticut

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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Women and Climate Change

2014 September 3

Long-term impacts of climate change, as well as acute disasters, exacerbate inequalities and make equity issues across the globe painfully apparent. Women particularly are at serious disadvantage. The following posts offer complementary perspectives on how women disproportionately suffer the impacts of disasters, severe weather events, and climate change as traditional gender dynamics play a significant role in determining their proximity, exposure, and ability to respond to climate change impacts.

 

Women, Water, and Climate Change

by Brittany Whited

angladeshi woman steers raft

In the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, death rates for women across the region were three times that of men. It is believed that these figures reflect that many girls and women lack the upper-body strength to climb to safety, that many had not been taught to swim, and that many mothers tending small children and the elderly were unable to flee and thus were swept away. Although the tsunami was caused by an earthquake, similar impacts can occur resulting from severe weather events, like typhoons and hurricanes, fueled by climate change.

In the United States and across the developed world, most of us have access to clean drinking water. However, people in certain U.S. communities and in many developing countries struggle to meet daily needs. In developing countries particularly, securing water (as well as food and fuel) for the household is almost exclusively the responsibility of women. When the water is brought home and meals are prepared, it’s expected that men and boys receive the lion’s share, often leaving women and girls undernourished. These chores also keep girls out of school and women from more productive economic activities. Rarely do these women have a voice in community or family decision-making, meaning even some of the basic skills we take for granted (like learning to swim or climb trees) can be denied.

Women in Africa toting drinking water

These gender roles mean women and girls are heavily impacted by climate change, paying the lion’s share for poor access to clean drinking water. During times of drought, the time needed to travel to obtain fresh water increases. For example, women in Africa carry drinking water as far as six kilometers a day (nearly 4 miles), and these distances will only increase as local sources dry up. Compounding the fact that the water brought from these distant sources rarely is enough to meet daily needs, it often is contaminated by poor sanitation or other pollutants. During floods, water sources can be contaminated even further, especially in areas with poor waste management. Polluted water supplies can cause foods, such as rice gruel used to wean infants, to be fatal. This not only has health consequences, but is also very time consuming and thus reduces the opportunity for women to engage in educational and economic activities.

As a graduate student studying public health, I have come to realize that our health is not determined exclusively by our access to doctors. Rather, some of the social factors that impact an individual’s health include gender, income, and race, as well as environmental determinants involving the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food to which we have access. We must address these root factors of vulnerability, gender equity, poverty, lack of education, and other social determinants of health before we can truly adapt to the changing climate and prevent injury and early death for women. There are growing efforts to focus attention on gender within grassroots-level adaptation projects, and to international negotiations and policy-making at the highest levels. For example, at the 2012 Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the final decision included a provision establishing the issue of gender and climate change as a standing item on future meeting agendas.

Global climate change will be the most challenging and important issue for public health throughout my career. I realize that preparing for climate change by addressing underlying vulnerabilities, like inequality of women across the globe, will be paramount not only to improving quality of life but for actually saving lives.

 

Cooking Shouldn’t Kill

by Corinne Hart

A women cooks over an open fire

Rwanda hosts more than 60,000 refugees, many of them fleeing violent political clashes raging around the region. The Gihembe Refugee Camp is home to more than 20,000 of these displaced persons, all of whom are faced with the challenges of daily living, including clean and safe housing, water, and food. I recently visited the Gihembe camp to better understand how agencies like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) are trying to address the cooking energy needs of the refugees they serve. As we walked around the camp, we saw women cooking over open fires inside small, smoke-filled brick structures, with thick black soot covering the walls. Their simple stoves burn wood, animal dung, or crop waste.

The use of inefficient technologies and cooking fuels like firewood produce high levels of indoor air pollution and force women and girls around the world to endure incredible hardships to secure the energy needed to cook their families’ meals. After walking long distances to search for fuel and carrying heavy loads of firewood, they are rewarded by being exposed to deadly smoke that kills over 4 million people every year. The World Health Organization recently reported that almost 600,000 deaths in Africa are attributable to household air pollution. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. Cooking is essential. It shouldn’t be lethal.

Women and girls are the first to feel the health impacts of traditional cooking practices. In addition to the health burden from smoke inhalation, burning solid fuels releases emissions of some of the most important contributors to global climate change – carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon. In turn, the availability of water – clean water – and food, threaten the most vulnerable. For example, in South Asia, black carbon particles (more than half of which come from cookstoves) disrupt the monsoon and accelerate the melting of the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers.

The wide-scale adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels can mitigate climate change impacts, particularly by reducing emissions of CO2 from non-renewable harvesting of biomass and by reducing emissions from short-lived greenhouse gases (GHGs) and black carbon through improved combustion efficiency. Clean cooking solutions are both effective mitigation and adaptation strategies, reducing emissions and pressures on natural resources, while at the same time strengthening energy security and empowering women. Additionally, more efficient and cleaner stoves can reduce and prevent deaths from household air pollution and can save women up to 160 hours or $200 per year, allowing women the time and income needed to pursue opportunities of their choice. In the U.S., reducing residential wood smoke is being undertaken by the U.S. EPA. This year, the agency has proposed new standards that govern the manufacture and sale of new residential wood heaters.

There is a growing sector focused on creating awareness about this issue, enhancing the performance and availability of technologies and fuels, and strengthening enterprises so they can scale production and distribution. The effort spearheaded by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership of over 950 organizations across 6 continents, is taking a market-based approach to ensure that culturally-appropriate cookstoves and fuels are available and accessible to those who need them. In addition, with a 30% increase in fuel efficiency from an improved cookstove, a family in Rwanda purchasing fuel could save enough money to send two children to school.

Women are at the heart of the Alliance’s approach and we are working to ensure that women are empowered to continue to take the lead in their communities and contribute to the development of solutions that meet their needs. Fully utilizing women’s expertise, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit can release untapped potential and lead to new approaches. Women represent a powerful force that must be leveraged if we are to address this serious global environmental health issue.

About the authors:

Corinne Hart is the Director of Gender and Humanitarian Programs at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership comprised of governments, civil society groups, and corporations. She designs and manages the Alliance’s strategies and programs on gender, women’s empowerment, and humanitarian response and has experience working throughout Latin America, Africa, and South Asia. She recently spoke at the June 2014 EPA event on Women as Climate Leaders.

Brittany Whited was a summer intern in the EPA Office of Water, where she studied climate change. She is working on her Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Science and Policy and will graduate in 2015.

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

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A Dream Realized: Community Driven Revitalization in Spartanburg

2014 August 26

By Timothy Fields, Jr.

Sometimes you wake up from a bad dream. You pray it’s not real but when you open your eyes, the reality of the situation is staring you right in the face.

An abandoned fertilizer plant in Spartansburg

Harold Mitchell faced a similar situation and learned about environmental injustice when family, friends, and neighbors in his Spartanburg, South Carolina community got sick — many of whom died young from cancer and respiratory diseases. His father and sister died due to health concerns suspected to be related to exposure to environmental contamination. Harold learned even more about this issue as he experienced similar health concerns. He began to investigate the contaminated sites in his community, and with the help of his neighbors and the support of EPA Region 4, he discovered the source of the public health and environmental problems in his community. In 1997, he founded ReGenesis to help make sense of what he was discovering and to tackle what officials once called an “impossible task” of turning around streets filled with crack houses and neighborhoods impacted by numerous environmental concerns, blight, and hopelessness. In the intervening 17 years, the ReGenesis collaborative partnership grew a $20,000 EPA environmental justice small grant into more than $250 million in public and private funding through partnerships with more than 120 organizations to transform these communities.

The story of ReGenesis is about a community and its remarkable leader being exposed to environmental contamination and then implementing collaborative problem-solving, which identifies a public health problem, brings people together to work collaboratively to envision, and implement broad solutions towards creating visible change. The story of ReGenesis is about a place that “couldn’t get any worse,” according to one resident, that is well on its way to being transformed.

Community members and partners cleaning up the Arkwright landfill

ReGenesis both represented and presented local community concerns as part of a dialogue to assess and clean up contaminated sites and address the myriad challenges facing the community. As the focus of ReGenesis evolved, the community-based environmental justice organization saw an opportunity to expand discussions with local government and environmental agencies to include equitable neighborhood revitalization. In 2000, the ReGenesis Environmental Justice Partnership was formed by representatives of ReGenesis, Spartanburg County, and the City of Spartanburg, South Carolina to promote equitable development for the Arkwright and Forest Park neighborhoods. As well, a dialogue between ReGenesis and Rhodia (now Solvay) began to address the communities’ concerns about having a chemical facility in the middle of the neighborhoods. Many felt that the chemical plant would be an impediment to redevelopment. But over several years and many discussions (both formal and informal), the local community and industry found common ground. The partnership continues today.

The new partnership brought considerable funding to the area, leveraging more than $250 million for the following reinvestment and development opportunities that benefit both residents and their industry neighbors:

One of several new healthcare centers in Spartansburg

  • Critical transportation changes now mean that the only road into the communities is no longer blocked by standing trains. With the addition of a vital second entrance into and out of the community, residents are no longer isolated. Emergency response drills mean that the community is prepared for any potential incident that could occur in the area.
  • The creation of several community health centers means that residents no longer have to travel long distances for medical care. The centrally-located facilities not only support school and behavioral health initiatives, but serve migrant healthcare needs as well.
  • More than 500 new affordable housing units for residents and workers led to the removal of severely distressed public housing and new homeownership opportunities.
  • Job training and employment programs that empower residents through economic opportunity.
  • Environmental cleanup of formerly contaminated properties have turned brownfields into viable properties, removing eyesores and affording other redevelopment opportunities, such as a solar farm that is planned.
  • Increased retail development, such as a long sought after grocery store, a pharmacy, and other shops located within the community.
  • A new state of the art community center that serves as a hub of activity for the community, from young to elderly residents.

In 2009, ReGenesis received the EPA 2009 Environmental Justice Achievement Award, for its long-term – and still ongoing projects addressing environmental hazards, economic development, health care, and housing in the Arkwright community.

Harold Mitchell listens to a community member's concerns

This transformation did not happen overnight. Nor was the journey easy. Now others are looking at ReGenesis’ work in Spartanburg as a national model of environmental justice achievement, as well as a national model of how community-private-public partnerships can work. This work has effectively addressed environmental protection and community revitalization issues in the Arkwright community in Spartanburg.

But as Harold Mitchell has said repeatedly, he could not have done it without the people of Arkwright. “The one thing that we did have was the mark of the people within the community itself. We went through three mayors, four city managers, turnover on (City) Council, but the only thing that didn’t change was a little acorn, which was the community, and that was the piece that kept everything moving here.”

About the author: Timothy Fields, Jr., is Senior Vice President of MDB, Inc., a public health and environmental management consulting firm in Washington, DC. Prior to going into environmental consulting twelve years ago, Tim served as U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator in charge of environmental cleanup, waste management, and emergency response (1997-2001).

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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Urban Air Toxics Report Shows Reduced Pollution in Communities

2014 August 21

By Janet McCabe

janetmccabe-th

Reducing toxic air emissions has been a priority for EPA, and I am proud of the progress that we’ve made in communities across the country. Today, we released our Urban Air Toxics Report to Congress - the second of two reports required under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to inform Congress of progress in reducing public health risks from urban air toxics. I want to share some of the highlights with you.

The report shows significant nationwide reductions in toxic chemicals in the air in our communities. That’s good news for public health, because the Clean Air Act identifies 187 hazardous air pollutants, about half of which are known or suspected to cause cancer. Many can cause other health effects, such as damage to the immune, respiratory, neurological, reproductive and developmental systems.

And while emissions of air toxics affect everyone living in this country, the data tell us that the risk can be higher for people living in cities, and particularly those in low income and minority neighborhoods.

But, we’re making significant progress: Since 1994, we found a 66 percent reduction in benzene and a nearly 60 percent reduction in mercury from sources like coal-fired power plants. Levels of lead – a dangerous neurotoxin that can affect the brain development of children – are down nearly 85 percent in outdoor air. The report also finds that we’ve removed about three million tons of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) per year from the air in our communities by controlling emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes. We’ve also reduced toxics air pollution from businesses like dry cleaners and autobody shops that are located right in our neighborhoods.

   Click to Read the Report

Click to Read the Report

And we’re continuing our work to make communities healthier. For example, we recently proposed updates to emission standards for petroleum refineries. There are nearly 150 petroleum refineries across the country and the facilities are often located near communities. Our proposed standards would reduce emissions of chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene by 5,600 tons per year. For the first time, EPA is proposing to require fenceline monitoring to help ensure that emissions standards are met and nearby communities are protected. The data will be available for the public to see – transparency helps the community understand what’s in the air and helps with compliance. Common-sense strategies such as these will help us further reduce toxic air pollution and protect public health in communities across United States.

Administrator McCarthy has said that, “EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment is driven by a fundamental belief that regardless of who you are or where you come from, we all have a right to clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy land to call our home.” EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation works everyday to to address environmental inequity in minority and low income communities and to give everyone the opportunity to participate fully and meaningfully in the regulatory process.

We are working closely with state, local and tribal agencies to promote local, area-wide and regional strategies as we continue to address air toxics. We also support a number of community-based programs that help residents understand, prioritize and reduce exposures to toxic pollutants in their neighborhood. I am very proud of the accomplishments outlined in today’s report, but I know we still have much to do to bring clean air to our communities. I am excited to continue our work with communities, businesses and state, local and tribal governments to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals and protect public health and the environment.

About the author: Janet McCabe is the Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation (OAR), having previously served as the OAR’s Principal Deputy to the Assistant Administrator.

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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Commitment to Environmental Justice Leads Fish and Wildlife Service to Study Anacostia River Fishing

2014 August 19

Cross-Posted from Fish and Wildlife Service’s Open Spaces

By Kim Lambert

Group fishing at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. Photo by Kim Lambert/USFWS

Group fishing at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park. Photo by Kim Lambert/USFWS

Approximately 17,000 people, many African American or Hispanic, eat fish they catch out of the Anacostia River each year, and often share their fish with hungry people, according to a study commissioned by the Anacostia Watershed Society. But the watershed contains toxic hotspots caused by pollution such as PCBs, PAHs, metals and other compounds for local facilities.

As part of its commitment to Environmental Justice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with Anacostia Watershed Society, University of Maryland College Park and the Anacostia Community Museum to study the patterns of urban anglers (subsistence, recreational and cultural) and fish contaminants in the Anacostia River region.

Environmental Justice recognizes that low-income or disadvantaged populations of color are often unfairly burdened by environmental hazards and unhealthy land uses, and may have higher exposure and health risks. And the Service collaborates with its stakeholders and partners to minimize or eliminate these hazards.

On a hot Saturday morning in July, the partners sponsored a fishing day as part of the Community-Based Assessment of Exposure for Subsistence Fishers in the Anacostia River Region (CAESARR), a study about people who fish or consume fish from the Anacostia River Watershed. The event was a fun opportunity for participants to learn how to fish, get information about the river and health issues, and catch fish for the project. About 45 people attended and the fish were processed for scientific research. Estimates on the amount of PCBs, metals, contaminants and pesticides in the fish will be issued to urban anglers when the study is done.

In many ways the river is a well-kept secret for the recreational opportunities it offers, including biking, paddling, and surprising beauty and solitude. “It is in our hands to protect our planet and these beautiful species living in it,” according the Sonia Banyuls of Spain, as she walked along the river banks. Lisa Peterson brought seven Boy Scouts to the event because it was a “great fishing opportunity and so educational for the kids.”

Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, says, “The human health consequences of high fish consumption by vulnerable populations in the Anacostia River and a highly contaminant watershed are important public health issues.”

Dr. Wilson adds that there has been limited research on fish contaminants in the region, so it hasn’t been possible to establish exposure and risk assessments.

In addition to the work of the partnership, the Service is completing a report titled Analysis of Contaminant Concentrations in Fish Tissue Collected for the Waters of the District of Columbia. For this project, the Chesapeake Bay Field Office sent 38 samples of fish from Anacostia and Potomac rivers for study for contaminant concentrations. The District will use the results to update the current Public Health Advisory, which warns the public not to consume bottom feeding species and limit their consumption of other species. The report will be available in about two months according to Fred Pinkney, of the Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

Beyond enhancing fishing safety, understanding exposures for these populations can help with the Anacostia revitalization efforts.

The Anacostia River flows from Maryland into the District of Columbia, where it empties into the Potomac River about one mile from the U.S. Capitol. The 8.4- mile tidal river is part of a 176-square-mile watershed that is home to roughly 860,000 people as well as 43 species of fish and more than 200 species of birds. The Service’s Environmental Justice Program website can be found at http://www.fws.gov/environmental-justice/.

About the author: Kim Lambert has managed the Environmental Justice Program for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2001. She serves on numerous environmental justice panels and boards. In 2013, Kim received a Proclamation from the Board of Directors of the National Environmental Justice Conference, Inc.

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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Psst! Health Impact Assessments Offer New Pathways to Healthier Environments

2014 August 14

By Aaron Wernham

It’s no secret that residents of low-income communities frequently experience serious health problems as a result of their living environments. Air pollution and substandard housing are a root cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Inadequate access to healthy foods increases the risk of diabetes and obesity. A growing body of research shows that a lack of economic and educational opportunity also results in poorer overall health. Seeking ways to respond to this challenge, policymakers across the country are turning to health impact assessments or HIAs.

A map of HIAs in the US

Click to see an interactive map of HIAs in the US

A health impact assessment is a fast-growing tool that helps ensure that proposed policy changes will improve health, especially in low-income and predominantly minority communities that are often disproportionately exposed to environmental risks such as air pollution and poor-quality housing. HIAs use a flexible approach that brings together public health expertise, scientific data, and input from community and other stakeholders to examine the potential health risks and benefits of key policy proposals. Based on the potential effects identified, HIAs provide practical recommendations to capitalize on opportunities to improve community health and to minimize any potential health risks before it’s too late to correct them.

HIAs can be used to inform decisions in a variety of policy areas, from transportation and housing to energy and education. A recent evaluation published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that federal, state, local, and tribal legislators, public agency officials, and many others are using HIAs to craft smarter policies that promote safer and healthier communities.

transit

One assessment completed in 2013 gave low-income communities in North Minneapolis a voice in planning a new transit system. The Bottineau Transitway’s proposed light rail routes travel through several low-income neighborhoods where residents experience higher-than-average rates of serious health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity. With that in mind, Hennepin County’s Department of Housing, Community Works, and Transit conducted an HIA alongside the project’s environmental impact statement, a study that guides county, state, and federal planning.

The assessment found that the transitway system could significantly improve health in North Minneapolis by reducing traffic congestion, improving air quality, providing greater access to grocery stores and healthy food, and opening up employment and educational opportunities in other parts of the city. Based on the findings, county officials developed a set of recommended actions to maximize the transitway’s health benefits. Today these officials are increasing outreach to underrepresented minority stakeholders, promoting residential and commercial growth that will benefit low-income communities, and working to ensure that affordable housing remains available. As a result, the Bottineau Transitway will be more responsive to the community’s needs and ultimately support a healthier North Minneapolis.

oil

Assessments carried out in Alaska beginning in 2007 to answer health questions raised by Alaska Native communities regarding proposed oil and gas and mining projects led to the use of HIAs as a routine part of the state’s permitting process. The first of these informed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) consideration of proposed oil and gas leasing in the Northeast National Petroleum Reserve. Village residents raised questions about health effects related to air quality, the potential for contamination of local fish and game (a critical source of food), and social changes related to the influx of nonresident workers.

The HIA, which was completed in 2008, brought together the tribal government and the BLM to address these concerns. Ultimately, the BLM adopted additional protections for hunting and fishing areas to protect local food sources andprovide new monitoring for pollutants in the air and food supply near villages. Collaboration among tribal governments, state and federal regulators, and health officials on this and several other HIAs between 2007 and 2009 demonstrated the value of this approach and ultimately led to the establishment of the state’s HIA program.

The secret’s out. The voices of community members, influential champions, and other stakeholders can be deployed in ways that build momentum for considering and adopting HIA recommendations. Nationwide, more than 300 HIAs have been completed or are underway in diverse communities (view them on the Health Impact Project’s interactive map), demonstrating the power of HIAs as a tool to help decision makers develop healthier communities and environments.

About the Author: Aaron Wernham, M.D., is the Director of The Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Project is a national initiative dedicated to promoting the use of health impact assessment in the United States.

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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Port Arthur Texas – Climate Justice Hits Home

2014 August 12

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By Hilton Kelley

Texas is considered the “Energy State.” In 2013 it was the leading crude oil-producing state in the nation; its 27 refineries exceeding even the production levels of off-shore production. That year Texas was also the leading natural gas producer in the country. Port Arthur, Texas, my home, sits on the Louisiana-Texas border on the Gulf Coast, right in the heart of this Texas energy hub. Port Arthur also is home to four major oil refineries, four chemical plants, one petroleum coke plant, and an international chemical waste incineration facility.

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Many residents of Port Arthur, particularly those in the low income community of color, in the city’s Historic west side, have been and continue to be disproportionately negatively impacted by carbon emissions, volatile organic compounds, and known carcinogens from these facilities. Based on a local door-to-door community survey, one out of every five households here has someone who suffers from chronic respiratory illnesses, many of whom are children. According data compiled by the Texas Cancer Registry, the county’s cancer incidence rate is 25% higher than the state average. We have a large number of people in our community who have been diagnosed with cancer and liver and kidney disease. A separate study by the University of Texas Medical Branch found that the residents of Port Arthur are four times more likely than people who live 100 miles away to suffer from heart and respiratory problems, nervous and skin disorders, and other illnesses. The health problems endured by my friend Paula and her family are examples of the devastating impacts pollution is having in my community.

Smoke rises from Deepwater Horizon

The question of how much pollution one community can bear takes on a whole new meaning when talking about climate change. The ferocity of recent hurricanes has been unexpected, bringing in storm surges that reached to the top of the 100-year levee. Due to rising sea levels, a portion of Highway 87 leading to Galveston along the Gulf Coast has not been open for years because large sections have been washed out. Vast amounts of coastal marshlands and wetlands, which serve as natural sponges that trap and slowly release storm waters, are contaminated largely due to oil spills, big ones like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, as well as smaller ones too. There is a massive sinkhole in the Louisiana wetlands which is possibly leaking chemical waste from a very large underground injection well.

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

The emergence of serious storms and other significant weather changes only exacerbates the problems we are dealing with. Like the Murphy Oil flooding following Hurricane Katrina, storm surges will wash chemicals from their confinement into our neighborhoods. It’s not just the major storms that wreak environmental havoc on coastal areas like ours that are home to oil and gas production facilities. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike (a Category 2 storm) caused hundreds of releases of oil, gasoline, and dozens of other substances into our air and water, facilities were damaged causing explosions and other catastrophes that only compound the suffering of my friends, neighbors and future generations.

The time to deal with climate change and related issues like chemical safety, chemical reduction, and community resiliency is now — people are dying because of over-exposure to dangerous substances. Human and wildlife habitats are being lost. Just as important, we are losing the culture and way of life of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast. We must do more to get local, regional, and State governments involved in the fight to reduce and combat climate change. Time is of the essence.

This must happen! Not next year, not next month, but right now.

About the author: Hilton Kelley is the Executive Director and Founder of Community In-power and Development Association Inc. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his efforts on environmental justice.

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

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Seeing the Whole Picture

2014 August 7

By Malavika Sahai

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I was in my freshman year of college in the spring of 2013 when I took my introductory Environmental Policy and Planning class. Although my professor covered a wide range of topics that fit under the umbrella of U.S. environmental policy, one lesson really stood out for me: her overview of environmental justice considerations in policy enforcement. She told the powerful story of Bayview Hunters Point, a low-income community of color in southeast San Francisco that had been home to a former naval shipyard and other industries that had polluted the area, severely impacting the residents. Despite decades of cleanup and redevelopment efforts, their struggle continues. I became inspired and emotionally involved in wanting to help other communities like Bayview.

Untitled-1Growing up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, I had witnessed instances of low-income and minority communities being plagued by pollution problems. I saw that for residents living in urban areas with aging infrastructure and minimal green space, the impacts seemed worse. I had considered myself a budding social justice advocate, but it was not until that day, that lesson, that I realized there was a vibrant, working movement to achieve justice in such communities.

After that lesson, I had an epiphany about what I wanted to do with my career. Suddenly, all my papers for my other environmental classes incorporated discussions about environmental justice. I spent my free time searching the internet to learn more about environmental justice and how and where people were impacted. I wanted to talk about these issues with anybody who would engage in the conversation. I didn’t want to stop learning more.

In my sophomore year, my interest in environmental justice led me to declare a Geography minor, so I could better understand the connection between social issues, place, and the environment. I want to learn more about the way that social geography impacts environmental decision-making in different places, to preserve local culture and adapt to be more equitable and sustainable. As I continue to learn, I keep challenging myself to learn more about the intersection of environmental justice and other related social issues, such as using ecofeminism as a framework toward global justice and planetary health.

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Learning about environmental justice issues as a critical component in policymaking decisions has inspired me to pursue it professionally. I want to ensure that a clean environment and good public health are not mutually exclusive. Being an intern in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and collaborating with other environmental organizations as a part of my internship has broadened my understanding of the amount of work that’s already being done to address environmental justice issues across the nation, as well as what remains to be done. Learning about environmental justice has helped me realize that people have the power to make a change in the world and help one another. Learning about environmental justice in a classroom setting has helped me realize that environmental justice and environmental policy should be intertwined.

I am eternally grateful to my freshman environmental policy and planning professor for introducing environmental justice in the classroom, and my hope is that as time progresses, all environmental policy and planning programs in universities, and even high schools, teach their students about environmental policy and justice side by side.

About the Author: Malavika Sahai recently was a Summer intern at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is studying Environmental Policy and Planning and Geography at Virginia Tech, and plans to graduate in Spring 2016.

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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100th Blog Post: Harnessing Momentum for the Next 20 Years of Environmental Justice

2014 August 5

By Mustafa Ali

In the more than two years since beginning this blog, we’ve presented many posts that have looked at what two decades of environmental justice has meant across the country. In our very first post, I said that we want to use this space to celebrate 20 years of environmental justice at EPA, as well as to discuss the future of the environmental justice movement in the next 20 years.

Over the past 99 blog posts, we have focused on highlighting those stories that often get overlooked in the dialogue about the environment and environmental justice. These are the stories of positive change that are helping to move many environmentally overburdened communities from surviving to thriving, as well as those stories that highlight the challenges that still exist. We featured an entire video series dedicated to powerful stories from environmental justice leaders who were on the forefront of the movement, advancing it with each innovative and tireless action that they took to defend their communities from pollution and harm. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of environmental justice at EPA, I want to go back to the beginning and share this video with you.

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I love this video because it captures the passion and energy of the environmental justice movement 20 years ago. To be clear, 1994 wasn’t the beginning of environmental justice. Civil rights and environmental leaders had been working on these issues for decades. But twenty years ago there was a new momentum, there was a sense of togetherness, and it was exciting.

In the early 1990s the words of environmental justice had not yet been cemented in the public lexicon. But the concept was beginning to take shape, and things were changing. I’m sharing this story with you now because I think it is so relevant today. Everywhere you look, it seems like the EJ movement is gaining new momentum. Things ARE changing. And that is one of the things I think this blog has captured well over the last 100 posts.

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One source of this new momentum is the energy from the multitudes of young people getting involved in the EJ movement. Worcester RootsToxic Soil Busters program is a great example. The program employs the local youth in Worcester to clean up and remediate hazardous lead-filled sites. Another post highlighted the efforts of a group of students who were doing research on environmental hotspots and used the feedback from surveys filled out from over 150 readers on this blog to complete a list of case studies on environmental justice. And there are many more avenues being developed to engage with younger people about environmental justice, like Mayah’s Lot, the environmental justice comic book, or Tox Town, which is a great tool for teaching children about chemicals and chemical safety.

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Another catalyst of momentum has been technology. For example, we shared stories like the one from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which is utilizing smart phone technologies to enable residents to track pollution and associated health effects in their neighborhoods. The Jordon River Commission in Utah has been using smartphones to engage young people to help clean up the river and make it more accessible for community residents, many of them from more ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. And new tools being developed here at EPA (like the new community mapping tool C-FERST) and outside the agency (like the Metro Atlanta Equity Atlas), are providing more information and data to residents to inform them of pollution problems and equip them with tools for protecting their communities.

Clean Air Event

More than anything though, the environmental justice movement is being propelled forward by the ingenuity and hard work of everyday heroes in towns and cities all across the country. One illustration of this hard work is from the Clean Air Coalition, which used EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory data and other monitoring technology to hold a company accountable for violating the Clean Air Act to the tune of a $200 million settlement. Another example comes from Nuestras Raíces, which is training young people how to weatherize houses and make them more energy efficient. This effort not only provides jobs in the local economy but saves money for community residents. These stories are just a sliver of the multitude of stories that demonstrate the breadth and depth of positive results led by environmental justice advocates around the nation.

When I first started at EPA as an intern, the term environmental justice was brand new. I remember the enthusiasm and excitement that was emerging across the country as the movement was taking shape and gaining ground. As I travel across the country I see similar signs of that momentum everywhere I go. There are collaborative partnerships where communities are joining with state, local, and tribal governments, faith based organizations, and business and industry to make a positive change. So let’s keep pushing for change. Let’s keep going forward and make the next 20 years even more exciting and impactful as we strive to build a country that is safe and healthy for all to live, work, play, and pray.

About the author: Mustafa Santiago Ali is the Acting Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

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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