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Healthy Homes: Protecting Children from Environmental Risks

2014 October 28

By Paula Selzer

Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, there are hundreds of communities known as colonias. These unincorporated rural settlements often do not have access to clean water, electricity, or safe housing conditions.  Unpaved roads, inadequate sewage disposal systems, and untreated water are the norm.

Research has shown a strong connection between poor housing conditions and health problems, such as asthma, lung cancer, lead poisoning, and other injuries.  Children in general, but especially those living in colonias, are more vulnerable to such health issues than adults. Because kids eat, drink, and breathe more than adults do in proportion to their body weight, they are at risk for both acute and long-term illness. Children are smaller, their organ systems are still developing, and their play and learning behaviors expose them to additional environmental threats.  For example, children play close to the ground and often put their hands in their mouths, ingesting harmful contaminants. When a child is running at full speed, such as during a soccer game, they may take in 20 to 50 percent more air – and more air pollution – than would an adult doing a similar activity.  In addition, children have unique windows of susceptibility that make them more vulnerable during certain stages of their development.

The impacts of health problems arising out of poor housing conditions extends into other areas, including education.  As students fall sick, their attendance in school drops.

This year, the U.S.-Mexico Border Program in EPA’s Region 6 office provided funding to support Healthy Homes training by the Southern Area Health Education Center (SoAHEC) at New Mexico State University. The Healthy Homes training is designed to teach parents, child care providers, community health workers, and case managers how to create and maintain a safer, healthier home to protect children from environmental health risks. To reach those who may not otherwise have been able to travel to traditional classroom sites, Health Educators from SoAHEC brought the training directly to several colonias along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Classes covered the seven healthy homes principles, with special emphasis on pediatric environmental health, indoor air quality, safe cleaning practices, and integrated pest management.

New Mexico has one of the highest rates for childhood poverty in the nation. By training more than 350 people under this grant, SoAHEC estimates the long term results will benefit more than 3,000 people who will continue to have long-term benefits as their children grow in healthy homes.

The Healthy Homes classes are offered in disadvantaged communities across the country as one of EPA’s initiatives to protect children’s health.

To learn more about children’s environmental health, check out the Presidential Proclamation for Child Health Day or visit EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection website.

About the author: Paula Selzer joined EPA in 1994 and spent several years working on asthma and school environmental health programs in Washington, DC.  In 2006, she moved to Dallas where she currently serves as the Coordinator for the EPA Region 6 Children’s Health program. She has been spearheading the Healthy Homes initiative for the children’s health program for the last four years. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.

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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Working with Municipalities and Communities to Bring New Solutions to Old Problems!

2014 October 23

By Suzanne Murray, with John Blevins

Source: The Advocate

One of the most gratifying accomplishments that I can point to in my almost 20 years with EPA would never have happened if the Agency relied solely on traditional tools to address environmental and community concerns.  These traditional tools include discussions focused on enforcement resolution only, which are conducted in a “closed-door” confidential setting.  For the Buffer Zone Project for the City of Baton Rouge Wastewater Treatment Plant,  we helped to break down bureaucratic silos and historic barriers by going beyond traditional practices and achieved what we set out to do every day at EPA – making a neighborhood and its environment a better place to live.

Baton Rouge, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River, is a city that saw its population temporarily explode after Hurricane Katrina.  The University Place neighborhood where the treatment plant is located is a predominantly minority, lower-income community.  Residents complained about foul odors and swarms of sewer flies invading their homes. After decades of sharing their neighborhood with the facility and its expansions, residents were looking for change.

When I became involved in the project in 2012, there already had been a decade of legal battles between the neighborhood and the City, a civil rights action against EPA, and an enforcement action against the treatment plant.  The City felt hamstrung because it had already made significant investment in the plant at a time when the infrastructure of Baton Rouge was pushed beyond capacity, due in large part to the population nearly doubling in the month after Hurricane Katrina.

Emotions were running high due to positions taken and statements made about the treatment plant during the protracted legal battles, but everyone in Baton Rouge wanted an outcome that ended the fighting and addressed community concerns.  The neighborhood had asked for relocation, which the City of Baton Rouge had supported as a path forward – but the City had no legal mechanism to support such a project.  So, along with our colleagues at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), we flew to Baton Rouge.  We came upon a tense situation where traditional legal options were scarce.  All we had was a decade-old enforcement consent decree that needed modification, a civil rights complaint, and no consensus on how to move forward.

What followed was months of conversations, negotiations, and advocacy, which took place at kitchen tables, in conference rooms and community centers, and at City Council meetings.  We talked to and worked with people from the community and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), a local environmental organization, and representatives of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, the Mayor’s Office and the State of Louisiana.  These meetings were not easy and not always civil – there were raised voices, tears, and even a bit of laughter.  But despite the differences, there was always one remarkable uniting force – we all wanted to make the buffer zone project happen.  There was a power in our united singularity of purpose.

Eventually, this collaborative effort prevailed and the City is creating a buffer zone around the wastewater treatment facility, which includes green space and the relocation of residents living in approximately three city blocks surrounding the treatment plant.  The project is now memorialized in a consent decree among EPA, the City, Concerned Citizens of University Place Subdivision, and LEAN.  As Adam Babich of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic said, “It was a bumpy ride.  We got an agreement only because everyone kept working and kept talking.”

I believe it’s working because all parties have represented what they want and are doing so in an honest way.  We are still talking.  We continue to work out the inevitable kinks that go along with implementing a large scale project, particularly one that is so filled with the emotions that come with uprooting one’s family and changing one’s home.   We are not overcommitting, but working within the authorities that we have to make a difference for the citizens and for Baton Rouge’s infrastructure.

If traditional methods, while useful and successful in many situations, had been relied upon in this instance, I do not believe the final project would have been possible.  It is clear that having these types of conversations – face-to-face, person-to-person dialogues where voices may be raised but new relationships can be forged – are crucial to the success of environmental projects where people’s lives and homes are impacted.

About the authors:  Suzanne Murray, EPA Region 6 Regional Counsel, has been with EPA since 1997, when she joined the Agency as an enforcement attorney.  Since that time she served as the Deputy Regional Counsel for Enforcement and has been the Regional Counsel since 2001.

John Blevins, EPA Region 6 Enforcement Director, has been with EPA since 1986, where he has held positions in EPA Regions 9, 4 and 6.  John has also held positions with the states of Oregon and Delaware.  John has been the Region 6 Enforcement Director since 2005.

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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Bringing Human Rights Home: Engagement and Environmental Justice

2014 October 21

By Jessica Sblendorio

When most Americans think about human rights, they tend to think of the concept at a global level, even though there are many social and environmental justice issues right here in the United States that affect many of our neighborhoods and families.  Environmental justice is an ever-growing movement that highlights issues such as health, access to safe drinking water, and housing that are at the heart of treaties and laws focused on human rights.  Thus, at its core, environmental justice is about the intersection of human rights, the environment, and how people can equitably access the resources they need to survive.  “Bringing human rights home” is a critical part of focusing on human rights issues here in our own neighborhoods in the United States and plays an important part of the global movements for environmental justice and international human rights.

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

An important mechanism for addressing and remedying human rights issues is through international treaties.  Unfortunately, most Americans tend to have a very low level of awareness of such treaties and how they can be used to effect change here in the United States.  As part of the United Nations (UN)  treaty-monitoring process, countries report to UN treaty monitoring bodies about how they are protecting human rights and addressing issues submitted by members of civil society – those non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest the interests and will of citizens.  The United States participates in this process for the treaties that it has signed and ratified, thus becoming U.S. law.  Some of these treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which conducted reviews of the United States’ compliance with these treaties during 2014.

As a student working in the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami’s School of Law, I was able to contribute to a “shadow report” on immigrants’ rights that highlighted examples of challenges with implementation of the ICCPR.  Many organizations and members of civil society use these companion reports as opportunities to highlight issues where the government and society can work together to address human rights violations and improve compliance with treaties.  This engagement is important for addressing human rights not only on a global level, but here at home as well.

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

Working on the shadow report, I came to realize the importance of engagement between stakeholders — both civil society and government.  This summer during my internship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), I had the opportunity to experience what stakeholder engagement is like from the perspective of government.  I also learned about how engagement by all stakeholders makes the conversation meaningful and productive for all parties.  One of the projects I worked on was to help plan a recent meeting between civil society and government representatives on environmental issues in advance of the 2015 UN Periodic Review of human rights records.  This consultation was held in Berkeley, California on October 7th, 2014.  These types of meetings are important for both federal and civil stakeholders to engage with one another in a forum where environmental issues that are at the heart of “Bringing Human Rights Home” can be discussed.

This meeting came on the heels of a recent meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  For the first time, the EPA had a government representative at the CERD meeting in Geneva, which occurred this past August, to address the environmental issues raised by Committee members.

The realization of the importance and necessity of addressing the human health and environmental issues of minority and low-income residents, and their relationship to human rights, is becoming more and more prominent but it is dependent upon active and sustained engagement from both the government and civil society at large.  Different avenues of stakeholder engagement are important to educate both citizens and the government to show the relevance of these issues and identify the methods and opportunities to make a visible difference in vulnerable communities.  I feel honored to have been a part of this process, which opened my eyes to all the participation among stakeholders in this crucial process to inform the government’s perspective.

About the author: Jessica Sblendorio was recently a summer law clerk at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is a law student at the University of Miami School of Law, and will be graduating in Spring 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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Taking a Seat at the Table: Your Involvement in the Future of Our Legacy Cities

2014 October 2

By Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP

America’s Legacy Cities were once industrial powerhouses and hubs of business, retail, and services scattered across New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest.  Their factories provided jobs, and downtown areas were alive with department stores, professional offices, and financial institutions that served large regions. Since the mid-20th century, however, these cities have seen sustained loss of jobs and population, and now face daunting economic, social, physical, and operational challenges.  This loss has fallen disproportionately on minority and low-income neighborhoods that have seen a greater degree of disinvestment and abandonment.  But the revitalization of these neighborhoods in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, their residents is not only an imperative of equitable redevelopment but also enshrined in the Federal statutes that guide it.

Earlier this year, I attended the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities Conference which focused on public policies, programs, and planning issues associated with Legacy Cities and challenges managing shrinking populations, changing demographics, physical alterations, loss of resources, and declining tax bases.  Participants agreed Legacy Cities need to revitalize their communities in the 21st century.

While many agree that change is inevitable, there are those who have not fully accepted that planning for change should be inclusive and take advantage of all available tools.  Looking back over the last twenty years, the non-inclusive planning practices of the past resulted in older, minority, and low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of dynamic physical and socio-economic changes – changes that were prompted, in part, by federal actions.

Dr. Clement Price, Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency established by Congress to advise the President and Congress and oversee the Section 106 review process, moderated a provocative panel discussion entitled Identifying, Celebrating, and Preserving African-American Landmarks. The presentation was timely as many were grappling with how to protect historic properties, particularly those in communities of color.  They wanted to be clear about what qualifies African-American landmarks for the National Register of Historic Places.  Is the criteria used by the National Register in evaluating historic properties appropriate for an ethnically and racially-diverse nation? Should African American or other ethnic landmarks be evaluated based on their physical characteristics or on the stories drawn from the history of these properties?

When considering how to best engage the broader public in federal planning, environmental review policies are typically applied.  The two major federal environmental reviews required for major actions are the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).  NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. NHPA is intended to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States.

Before implementing federally-funded activities such as abandonment, demolition, and property alterations in Legacy Cites, agencies must comply with their NEPA obligations and with NHPA.  Since many cities use federal funds to develop public-private partnerships, the scope of federal environmental reviews can be broader for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  Notwithstanding the dictates of Title VI, the provisions in NEPA and NHPA require federal agencies to “stop, look, and listen” in project planning.

Residents and officials within communities must be better educated about NEPA and NHPA if they are to avoid a repeat of the failures of ‘Urban Renewal’ in the 1960s.  These environmental reviews require the participation of the public; review of the “purpose and need” statement; consideration of alternatives, and selection of a preferred alternative or outcome.  NEPA requires agencies to disclose environmental justice issues in their environmental documents, information that is vital to residents in communities that may be disproportionately affected by federal projects.  While this is one of several key provisions in NEPA, it is important for the public to remember that environmental justice is equally about the built environment as it is about the natural environment.

In a similar manner, Section 106 of NHPA requires agencies to identify and evaluate historic properties within the project’s area of potential effects, in coordination with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPO).  Further, Section 106 is a consultative process in which diverse stakeholders, including civic groups, neighborhood groups, churches, anchor institutions, professional organizations, affinity groups, and the like, must discuss various options to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on historic properties.

Dr. Price said that “to live, work, and play in Legacy Cities is an act of faith and perseverance.”  Residents and other stakeholders must exercise their rights to comment on the merits of federal projects which have the potential to change their sense of their physical and social community.  It is an essential part of the laws that have been in place for decades.

Information about the ACHP can be found at, including the report, Managing Change: Preservation and Rightsizing in America.  Information about the White House Council on Environmental Quality and NEPA can be found at CEQ website.

About the author: Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP, is a certified planner employed with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). She received her Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As an Assistant Director in the ACHP’s Office of Federal Agency Programs she manages historic preservation reviews and program improvements of federal projects that provide financial assistance; issue permits and licenses; and issue approvals.

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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Collaborating for Sustainable Environmental and Social Change

2014 September 16

By Dr. Mildred McClain

Residents living in the Hudson Hill neighborhood of Savannah, Georgia, had long complained about damage to their health and homes due to emissions from the paper mill located within this west side community.  In 2004, Harambee House Inc.-Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ) was awarded one of the first EPA Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJ CPS) cooperative agreements.  This award put HH/CFEJ and the Savannah Hudson Hill residents on the road towards community capacity building, citizen engagement, and sustainable environmental change.

For decades, residents of this largely African American community, originally settled in the late 1860s by freed African slaves, described a range of health effects they associated with exposure to air pollution, including respiratory problems (e.g., asthma, bronchitis), gastrointestinal symptoms (e.g., nausea, vomiting), skin rashes, attention deficit disorders, lung cancer, and headaches. In addition, many residents living near the mill’s fence line complained about unpleasant odors, such as the smell of rotten eggs (sulphur) and burning tires, as well as other peculiar odors.  In developing its health consultation report, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) gave careful consideration to these concerns and the extent to which they might be associated with air pollutants released from the paper mill facility and other local pollution sources.  The ATSDR’s key findings confirmed some of the residents’ complaints and stated that additional research was needed to confirm public health hazards.  ATSDR also approached the community from a collaborative approach, working closely with environmental justice representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division.

HH/CFEJ was born out of the tremendous need for African-Americans to develop collective strategies for the effective engagement of citizens in local decision-making.  Our philosophy of change is grounded in the following simple equation:

Community Building + Capacity Building +
Citizen Engagement in Policymaking + Government Actions =
Sustainable Environmental and Social Change

The EJ CPS cooperative agreement supported HH/CFEJ’s efforts to make this idea come to life by focusing on collaborating with partners in community empowerment, documenting community history and health concerns, and creating a comprehensive action plan for addressing community health and environmental concerns associated with pollution from the nearby paper plant.  Most importantly, the EJ CPS funds helped create the Savannah Community Environmental Collaborative Partnership.

Harambee, Swahili for “let’s work together,” embodies the collaborative approach essential for affecting positive change in our community.  The Savannah project witnessed increases in social capital as the community overcame the challenges of working with business partners.  Through a series of community partnership meetings, educational trainings, planning charrettes, and health fairs, Hudson Hill residents began working closely with their academic, government, and industry partners.  In this impacted community where 97 % are African-American and 30% live below the poverty line, there have been many years of struggle and challenges toward progress addressing environmental and health concerns in collaboration with 17 local industrial facilities.  The collaborative process supported through the EJ CPS project set the stage for great things to come –  a permanent mechanism that will lead to healthy, safe, and clean neighborhoods, as well as the advancement toward environmental justice.

By leveraging additional funding and technical support from the City of Savannah, other federal agencies, and academia, HH/CFEJ expanded and sustained our community partnership work, to include the Woodville Community and to later focus on risk assessment, priority setting, and environmental risk reductions.  In the 10 years since receiving the EJ CPS funds, HH/CFEJ created its Business Roundtable to serve as a neutral zone for healthy dialogue between communities and industry, developed a city-wide task force to address community concerns, incorporated their comprehensive action plan into the City of Savannah’s 5 to 10-year Master Plan, worked in partnership with the City of Savannah to develop and implement the first citywide standards for community gardens, redirected 80% of industrial truck traffic away from community residents, and partnered with local industry in voluntary risk reduction actions to reduce volatile organic compounds impacting local health.

An underlying purpose of the EJ CPS program is not just to create collaborative change in one community, but to replicate lessons learned so that the model can be utilized by other communities seeking to address similar concerns.  HH/CFEJ also created a partnership with the ReGenesis Project, taking community leaders to Spartanburg, South Carolina and bringing the Spartanburg Team to Savannah.  Today, we are planning on additional collaboration between our community and the ReGenesis so that we can continue to learn, share, and work for community sustainability and improvement.

Dr McClain, center, received an EJ Achievement Award for EJ CPS Grant work in 2008

The EJ CPS program has created living legacies of collaborative change for the residents of Hudson Hill and Woodville, and its benefits continue to grow within our community and spread to others.  The project became a stepping stone for the HH/CFEJ and these two Savannah communities to continue to push forward and face our challenges.  It allowed us to put our motto — Harambee! Let’s work together — into real action and prove that when a community can organize, bring all sectors (both public and private) to the table, and collaborate in good faith to solve its problems, environmental justice is achieved for all.

About the author: Dr. Mildred McClain is founder and executive director for Harambee House Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice (HH/CFEJ). Dr. McClain served as a co-chair of Congressman James Clyburn’s National Environmental Policy Commission for four years. She is also a Bannerman Fellow and received the Keystone Award for Leadership in the Environmental Justice field of work.  Under Dr. McClain’s leadership for the past 20 years, the Black Youth Leadership Development Institute has trained more than 1,500 young people to serve as leaders in their 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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Opening Immigrants’ Eyes to Environmental Health in American Homes

2014 September 11

By Kate Gibson

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

When Sophorn Sim first moved to the United States from Cambodia, she finally received medical treatment for her chronic lung problems, a legacy of an early childhood illness and years spent in a forced labor camp run by the Khmer Rouge. Despite treatment, Sophorn’s condition got worse: she started coughing up blood and had to use her emergency inhaler up to three times a week.

Like many new immigrants and refugees, Sophorn faced new health hazards in the United States for which she was ill-prepared and that exacerbated her condition. Her first apartment was covered with mold, to which her family responded by cleaning the entire apartment with bleach and without proper precautions. Not accustomed to the notion of different soaps for different uses, she used laundry detergent for bathing and washing her hair, irritating her scarred lungs and contributing to her worsening condition.

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Sophorn’s story, sadly, is not unique. Many refugee immigrant families, already living in areas with higher concentrations of poverty and less healthy conditions, are exposed to additional health hazards due to language and cultural barriers, lack of education, and misinformation spread through communities. For example, many immigrant families have settled in communities in close proximity to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the I-5 freeway that runs through Seattle, Superfund sites such as the Lower Duwamish River, mixed industrial/residential zones, and other potential sources of toxic exposures. Some new immigrants and refugees come from different climates and aren’t aware of proper ventilation practices for their new homes. Others have misconceptions about items that people who grew up in the United States take for granted, such as using Murphy’s Oil cleaner to wash dishes or to cook eggs, or confusing such items as Pine Sol with apple juice and Comet with parmesan cheese.

Thanks to an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant, and with the assistance of the American Lung Association’s Master Home Environmentalist Program, the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) significantly expanded its Healthy Homes program this year to reach more immigrants in a broader region. The program, coordinated by Sophorn, now an ECOSS staff member, is aimed at increasing awareness of indoor air quality among the Seattle area’s new immigrant and refugee populations—particularly Burmese, Bhutanese, and Somalian.

Through the program, ECOSS is reaching out to low-income, refugee, and new immigrant communities with free training, information, and green cleaning kits to improve indoor air quality and prevent harmful health effects associated with indoor air pollution. In partnership with the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila, ECOSS trained community members, who then planned outreach for their communities. In addition, they conducted home assessments, helping families in their homes with practical, low cost solutions.

For many participants, the information was eye opening. Often, new immigrants think of the United States as a healthy place with the best indoor air quality, and often assume that unsafe products would not be available in stores. For many, it can thus come as a surprise that training about product safety is even necessary.

Allan Kafley, who led outreach to the Bhutanese community, noted that many in his community had spent years in refugee camps where “pollution was much more obvious: dust in the air, particulates from at-home wool spinning businesses, and the charcoal briquettes used for cooking.” In sharp contrast, indoor air hazards in the United States—chemicals used in paint and cleaners, for example—are relatively invisible.

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The expanded Healthy Homes program has been a tremendous success so far, reaching over 500 individuals in the first year through presentations and in-home assessments. To Allan, the in-home assessments are particularly effective, allowing outreach coordinators to be much more specific and concrete than through group presentations. “I can point directly to the car cleaning chemicals that a father stores in his kitchen and tell him about the danger it poses to his family. This way, we see immediate results.”

Members of the Somali community loved that baking soda and vinegar can be used to both cook and clean, and that they can save money with greener cleaning supplies. “One single mother of nine said she used to have to buy all kinds of cleaners: some for the dishes, the floor, clothes. Now she is using healthier cleaning products and has more money to spend on her children,” said Somali Coordinator, Fahmo Abdulle.

ECOSS looks forward to reaching more new immigrants and refugees through this important ongoing program, as well as through word of mouth.

About the Author: Kate Gibson is the Communications/Fund Development Associate for the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle.

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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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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