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Storytelling to Confront Injustice

2014 June 3

By Dale Slongwhite

I first heard the term “environmental justice” in October 2009 when my daughter Karen invited me to attend the first annual Environmental Justice Summit at Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, an event she was helping to organize. I did not even know what the term “environmental justice” meant. I attended the conference as a show of support for her efforts to make a positive change in the world.

But something happened halfway through the day that converted me from a supportive mother to an individual willingly drawn into the middle of the fray.

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Click to Hear Linda Lee’s Story

An African American woman, a former farmworker on the many now-closed Lake Apopka farms, spoke about her experience crawling on her knees in the scorching Florida sun, down seemingly endless rows hacking at lettuce with a machete for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for decades. She spoke about women gathering their skirts around another woman as a make-shift bathroom since there were none in the field; about gobbling down a sandwich after hauling a crate of corn to the truck; about crop duster planes dropping pesticides without asking workers to leave the fields; about high incidences in her neighborhood of lupus, eczema, and cancer. And about 18 funerals in one weekend.

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Farmworkers pack vegetables on a large vehicle called a mule train.

She started working summers and weekends at the age of seven, standing atop the mule train twelve feet off the ground pushing crates down the chute for other women to pack vegetables. She was the same age as me — I pictured my summer days at age seven — lounging on the beach in Connecticut, riding my bike around the block, engrossed in Writer magazine dreaming of becoming a published author.

The stories of these women, these farmworkers, haunted me until I could no longer sit on the sidelines. But what could I do for a whole community ten minutes from my house whose residents now suffered life-threatening illnesses? I’m not a lawyer, so I couldn’t fight a legal battle. I’m not a doctor, so I couldn’t offer healthcare. I’m not a scientist, environmentalist, or lobbyist. I’m just a writer.

Just a writer! I could craft stories about the harmful effects of pesticide exposure, about heat stroke, and about labor laws we all take for granted that do not apply to farmworkers. I could write so that others who live in their own worlds away from environmental injustices could be made aware of what it takes to harvest our food.

 

Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson's Story

Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson’s Story

I interviewed 11 African American former farmworkers, who told stories of pregnant women bending over in the fields harvesting or planting right up until the time of delivery. Many of these babies were born with low birth weights, physical or mental disabilities, or stillborn. I heard stories of snakes in the fields and trees. I heard stories of indebtedness.

I learned that these same individuals went home to neighborhoods that housed toxic dumps trucked in from other parts of the country; that race is the biggest factor when it comes to the location of municipal landfills and incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, and Superfund sites.

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley's Story

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley’s Story

I could tell people about Mary who sees all sorts of doctors for her lupus, which she believes was caused by exposure to chemicals and pesticides in the fields. She has sympathy for people working in the fields.

I hope these stories move you. When you sit down tonight for your evening meal and experience the crunch of a carrot, the succulence of an orange, or the sweetness of a raspberry, remember the farmworkers who brought you that bountiful blessing.

We all have different talents, but we also have the same obligation to confront injustices, wherever we encounter them. Hopefully you will spread the message, and maybe there are even some who can do more than just tell stories. Maybe you can take action — before more farmworkers unnecessarily suffer another day just so that we all can eat.

About the Author: Dale Slongwhite is a professional writer and has been coaching writers for over 10 years. Her recent book, Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, dives deeper into many of the issues surrounding Lake Apopka.

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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Rights Become Reality

2014 May 27

By Miya Yoshitani

Nearly two decades ago, when I came to the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) as a youth organizer, we did an exercise with our teen participants asking them to fill in a timeline of AAPI history. We would place the colorful sticky notes on the timeline to mark key moments – Chinese laborers build the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Filipino and Japanese farmworkers strike for better pay, Executive Order 9066 putting 120,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps, the fight for the International Hotel. A history steeped in institutional racism and inspiring leadership with real victories from community organizing.

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Today, as APEN’s Executive Director, I feel honored to be part of the work that continues to add more organizing victories and milestones to the AAPI history timeline, and I keep with me the lessons learned from APEN’s founders and from the environmental justice movement about empowering those most directly affected to lead the charge for change.

When I got to this fight, President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice was the news of the day. This order acknowledged the rights of all people to a clean and healthy environment, but no stroke of a pen can turn rights into reality. It’s the tireless organizing, the calling and knocking and persuading and energizing that produce the legal, administrative and corporate victories of which APEN and our EJ allies are rightly proud.

This order continues to be a critical milestone – official acknowledgement of the disproportionate and unjust environmental damage caused by pollution on communities of color and low-income working class communities.

Untitled-1Making this order more than words on a page continues to guide and animate our efforts towards environmental justice. Low-income Asian American and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos, communities living on the fenceline of refineries, next to freeways, in cancer allies, near incinerators, coal mines and dirty power plants. We continue the fight for environmental justice, acting as a powerful emerging force to confront one of the greatest environmental injustices of our times: the destabilization of our climate.  Here, we share with you a powerful short film about a new generation of leaders – through the Our Power campaign.  This grassroots effort, driven by Richmond’s low-income communities of color, is educating and empowering Richmond resident’s to be on the frontlines in the struggle for building a resilient and thriving local clean energy future.

Untitled-3In California, the federal recognition of the importance of environmental justice through Executive Order 12898 has been a catalyst for helping us advance innovative state policies in recent years. For example, APEN and other Asian American organizations were strong supporters of the recently passed SB 535, which ensures 25% of all revenue collected through the state’s cap and trade program benefit California’s most disadvantaged communities who are also the most impacted by climate change. This law is expected to drive billions in public dollar investments to low-income communities of color throughout the state.

This is just one of the many victories we have seen. Since the early days of the Executive Order, communities of color in California, like the low-income AAPI immigrant and refugee communities organized by APEN, have not only been on the frontlines of fighting pollution, but on the cutting edge of solutions on all fronts, including transitioning the state from a polluting fossil fuel based economy to a clean renewable energy economy. We have a vision for local, renewable energy that creates jobs, new models of ownership, and deep community resilience in the face of climate change.

While much has changed over the last 20 years, some essential things remain the same. Our will, our resolve and the courage of our communities have not altered, and neither has our gratitude for the tireless support of allies like you and champions of change within agencies like the EPA.

About the author: Miya has an extensive background in community organizing and working in the environmental justice movement. She was a participant in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 and on the drafting committee of the original Principles of Environmental Justice. Miya first joined APEN staff in the mid-90s as a youth organizer. Today she serves as Executive Director-continuing on a 20 year journey of leading the fight for climate justice in California and trailblazing the path forward in bringing Asian American immigrant and refugee community voices to the forefront of environmental health and social 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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Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Environmental Justice: Majora Carter on Creative Leadership

2014 May 22

By Sherrell Dorsey  

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Click to watch video

I had the privilege of interviewing Majora Carter—the TED Talk sensation whose Greening the Ghetto presentation catapulted her work in environmental equity into global recognition and made even the most apathetic to green living consider the consequences of climate and community neglect. Carter’s public narrative and highly visible media persona represents only a small sample of how she is self-actualizing leadership in the work towards building sustainable communities one day at a time.

Charting her own path, she has set aside the proverbial soapbox for innovative entrepreneurship in environmentalism while meeting the challenges facing under-resourced communities today. She founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) in 2001, to do just that. SSBx played a major role in training local young residents to clean up massive areas of abandoned open space and transform it into the South Bronx Greenway, which has significantly increased the recreational space, expanded the waterfront access, and improved transportation safety in the South Bronx.

However, during this time she started to see the integral connection between the environmental injustices in the Untitled-1community, and the lack of sustainable jobs that help avoid unwanted pollution in the community. That’s why her new agenda is an endeavor that establishes a framework for financial literacy and entrepreneurship within the Hunts Point community. Carter has her sights set on eliminating the “digital divide” by dipping into the burgeoning technology sector with her new project, StartUp Box #SouthBronx.

The growing gap between the poor and rich in society has been evidenced by the digital divide—a concept that refers to a portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet.  Without access to technology, entire communities are left behind. Increasingly, computer literacy and the internet have become pathways for higher education, employment and entrepreneurship.

In the Bronx, where the median income is $34,300 (compared to $57,000 for NY State), less than 40 percent of residents have access to broadband internet. As the technology sector begins to grow, both the internet and mobile technologies provide economic development opportunities for those with the 21st century digital skills needed for the jobs that are coming.

Untitled-3With the launch of StartUp Box, Carter plans to leverage the new technology and education project to tap underutilized talents in inner cities. To do this, they have partnered with New York City-area computer games industry leaders to train local youth for quality assurance testing service jobs. This is an excellent way to train young people in jobs that will be relevant well into the 21st century, by providing them with exposure to a range of software development skills without advanced math or computer sciences education requirements.

Not only does this provide jobs to youth in areas where there may be few opportunities, but it also attracts software services businesses and other high tech investors by creating a local workforce with world-class tech, design, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship education.

Carter has established a rubric formula for creating sustainable impact that serves as a model for current and future leaders in social entrepreneurship seeking to scale their solutions to meet the needs of the communities they work in. Although she has accomplished so much to advance environmental justice, equity, and opportunity across the country, she says her work is just beginning. “We look at what is out there and not try to level the playing field. We have to get people on the field. Forget about leveling. They’re still in the parking lot. They’ve got no ticket to get into the stadium.”

Sherrell Dorsey is a writer, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Recently, Sherrell was awarded a Zoom Fellowship in public policy and serves in the office of Mayor Bill Finch in the City of Bridgeport where she leads the implementation of indoor air quality programs across the school district and coordinates the city’s green jobs task force. She contributes frequently to Inhabitat.com and Triple Pundit.

 

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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Breathe Easier This Mother’s Day

2014 May 9

By Tonya Winders

Untitled-1I still remember my first Mother’s Day. It was 1999 and my firstborn son Kaleb was eight months old when I learned I was three months pregnant with our second child, Kaylee. Little did I know that 15 years later I would be the mother of five children, four of whom have asthma and/or allergies.

I soon learned I was not alone.

Untitled-2More than 26 million Americans – including 7 million children – have asthma, a chronic and potentially serious disease marked by airway inflammation and bronchoconstriction. Asthma is often made worse by exposure to pollutant “triggers” like vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, tobacco smoke, and pollen. Often, urban environments have high levels of outdoor pollution and poor housing conditions, which frequently are associated with increased levels of indoor pollution. Disproportionate numbers of people of color and people from low income households live in these areas, and thus may be exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution, both indoors and outside.

Surprisingly, most people don’t know every day in America:

  • 44,000 people have an asthma attack.
  • 36,000 kids miss school due to asthma.
  • 27,000 adults miss work because of asthma.
  • 1,200 people are admitted to the hospital due to ashtma.
  • 9 people die because of asthma.

Even more alarming is the fact that roughly two to three times as many African Americans as Caucasians die from asthma each year. Although it is a disease that can be managed, often low income, single mothers and hard working parents don’t have the time to get the information that they need to manage the asthma problems of their family members and possibly prevent unnecessary deaths.

Yet we have tools available to help patients keep symptoms under control. Early on, Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA) understood the key ingredient for asthma control usually begins with mothers. AANMA emphasized the importance of providing practical tools, information and inspiration.

Untitled-3As moms, most of us place our children’s health over our own, but asthma must be a priority for all women, including mothers. AANMA recently launched a new program designed specifically for women with asthma: Women Breathe Free. This will offer four telephone counseling sessions based on motivational interviews and national asthma guidelines to better equip women with effective self-management skills. One key aspect of the program helps women identify asthma triggers in their environment and implement targeted control measures to reduce exposures to pollens, dust, mold, smoke and other irritants. AANMA will incorporate its Indoor AIRepair kit, developed in coordination with EPA, to provide helpful, practical and inexpensive tips on reducing exposures at home, school and play.

May 1, 2014, in observance of Asthma Awareness Month, AANMA launched another new initiative to help families — a prescription assistance program open to the public. This will allow families to save up to 75 percent off all of their medications, including those that play a critical role in their comprehensive management of asthma, which is especially important for low-income families who sometimes may have to make trade-offs between medication and other essentials.

I am so proud to work for AANMA, which is an amazing and essential organization dedicated to ending needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions through education, outreach and advocacy. Since 1985, we have helped hundred of thousands of patients and families breathe better together.

Untitled-2As a mother, I am grateful for organizations like AANMA that are committed to medically accurate, patient-friendly educational materials and advocacy. I also understand there are many mothers out there that are working incredibly hard to provide for their families and don’t have enough time to find out about all of the available information and resources to help them protect their children. This information has helped me to be a better mother, and I hope it reaches these mothers and helps them breathe a little easier this Mother’s Day.

About the author: Tonya Winders. MBA is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics, the leading patient advocacy organization dedicated to ending the needless death and suffering due to asthma, allergies and related conditions. Tonya has over 16 years of experience in leadership roles within the allergy and asthma industry. From sales and marketing leadership to managed markets access, she has worked tirelessly to ensure patients have access to effective diagnostic and treatment tools.

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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Environmental Justice: Where Are We Now?

2014 May 6

By Curt Spalding, EPA Region 1 Administrator

At the end of March, I was very pleased to participate in an Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard Law School to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on EJ, and to dialogue with stakeholders across all backgrounds about the future for EJ.

spaldingEnvironmental justice is critical to EPA’s mission: to protect human health and the environment.  Unfortunately many low-income communities and communities of color continue to bear a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and its health effects which create barriers to opportunity and a need for greater access to the benefits that healthy communities provide.

In Region 1 we continue to work hard to find new and innovative ways to incorporate EJ into all of our programs, policies and activities. Our programs and staff are helping improve communities through our Brownfields program; working to eliminate lead poisoning in our poorest communities; cleaning our urban rivers; encouraging environmental justice leadership among our state and federal partners and promoting climate change education in low-income and diverse communities, among many other efforts.

But while we continue to strive to make sure that we protect our most vulnerable communities, opportunities like the Environmental Justice Conference at Harvard remind me that there are many brilliant and hardworking people Untitled-1across the country coming up with many different innovative ways to advance environmental justice. I heard some very inspirational stories from activists like Hilton Kelley who shared his story about his community of Port Arthur, Texas and about its continued fight for clean air and water.  I also heard stories from community organizers like Mela Bush from the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition who helped bring public transportation options to the Fairmount Line in Boston.

At the conference we also talked about climate change, which is one of the biggest environmental challenges we face today, especially in Region 1. We have learned from storms like Hurricane Sandy that coastal areas need to begin building resilience in their communities, they need to adapt infrastructure and come up with mechanisms to handle sea level rise and storm surge.  City officials from Bridgeport shared their innovative approaches as a city taking ground breaking steps to improve resiliency and advance the community through an initiative called Rebuild by Design.  The city is taking design proposals to develop a resilience framework that focuses on protecting Bridgeport against climate change and flooding caused by storm surge and rainfall, while also stimulating environmental restoration, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization.

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

Click to watch keynote address by Dr. Robert Bullard

A key theme that came out of the conference was to look ahead.  Conference participants focused on answering tough questions, such as how we can collectively make visible differences in EJ communities now and into the future.  From my experiences at the conference and from talking with these many EJ advocates and stakeholders reinforced for me how important it is to holistically look at how a community can be sustained and how we can work collaboratively to help a community make progress.  It’s about capacity building, and using strong networks of people to move projects forward.  It’s about education and empowering communities.

I was excited to see these forward thinking and innovative approaches across the country, and I know that all of us that attended from Region 1 are grateful for the opportunity. It certainly reminded me how important it is to gather all of the brilliant minds out there to share their innovative solutions to advance environmental justice.

About the author: Since joining the EPA leadership team in February 2010, Spalding has been leading a holistic approach to finding environmental solutions in New England. He’s emphasized efforts in community engagement, sustainability, environmental justice and green economy. Spalding has focused our efforts in the region on three cross-cutting initiatives: climate change, stormwater and community prosperity.

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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EPA, Schools and Communities Work Together to Reduce Asthma

2014 May 5

Reposted from It’s Our Environment

By Dr. Teresa Lipsett-Ruiz

Visitors to Puerto Rico often come to bask in the island’s warmth and waves. But, our tropical environment also contributes to the asthma problem that affects about 1 in 10 people here.

In close partnership with EPA, our university-based indoor air quality program builds partnerships with students, schools and the community to improve the environmental conditions in schools and reduce student absences caused by asthma. It has worked!  Over the past 6 years, the schools that we’ve worked with have seen significant decreases in the number of missed school days.

Mountainous areas such as the Puerto Rican municipalities of Caguas and Gurabo are surrounded by humid valleys known as “asthma hotspots,” yet asthma education is not always available there. In response, we created a program with EPA that focuses on three key elements: (1) information resources and checklists, (2) school “walkthroughs,” and (3) partnerships with school officials and the community to physically remove indoor environmental asthma triggers.

Our program relies on EPA’s Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools guidance and Spanish-language indoor checklists to educate the community and schools on managing environmental asthma triggers. Working with the Puerto Rico Department of Education, we hold IAQ Workshops on asthma triggers.

During school walkthroughs, we often find pest problems—cockroaches, rats and mice—as well as moldy, wet cardboard boxes overflowing with paper. We then formulate a plan to address these asthma triggers.

At first, some teachers were skeptical. They were worried that this was another burden piled onto their busy schedules. Enthusiasm grew, however, when the students and the community began to help. As the old saying goes, “many hands make light work.” The school community came together for a “mega green cleaning” of the school. To check our effectiveness, we collected mold samples before and after our plans were put in place and mold counts dropped significantly.

With the support of school officials, we implemented our program at 32 schools, which resulted in a 38 percent reduction in student absenteeism due to asthma. Based on these impressive results, we now are expanding the program in partnership with EPA. To learn more, listen to my presentation in EPA’s Back-to-School Webinar: Managing Asthma in Schools. Our communities are proud to have improved both their health and student attendance. We invite you to pursue similar programs in your schools and community.

Dr. Lipsett-Ruiz is the Dean of the School of Science and Technology in Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico. Her partnership with EPA has trained more than 150 teachers in 100 schools on practical steps to asthma management. The program leverages school clubs, blogs, conferences, theatre play, and role modeling exercises, along with EPA information resources to reduce student absenteeism due to asthma.

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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Deep Impact

2014 April 28

By Gelena Constantine

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

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mountains of unprocessed material

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

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

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

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Climate Justice

2014 April 24

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Charles Lee

Untitled-1Climate change is impacting our lives today, including record high temperatures, reduced air quality, extreme weather, severe droughts and sea-level rise, just to name a few examples. While we all share this burden, these impacts greatly exacerbate the many environmental and public health challenges in minority, indigenous and low-income communities. That’s why EPA promotes “climate justice” – a movement, building on more than 20 years of commitment to Environmental Justice, to protect disadvantaged communities disproportionately affected by climate change.

The impacts of climate change on our lives, families and communities are felt by everyone. In low income communities, these impacts are often devastating, including compromised health, financial hardship, and social and cultural disruptions. Often they are the first to experience heat-related illness and death, respiratory ailments, infectious diseases, unaffordable rises in energy costs, and crushing natural disasters.

At the same time, these communities receive less support and experience greater obstacles when trying to influence decisions about mitigating and adapting to climate change impacts. Their voices, concerns and ideas can easily be discounted. We must develop processes that make them active participants in developing solutions.

I know from experience that these communities want their voices heard and valued. They want to participate meaningfully in climate change negotiations and help to develop solutions that will affect their lives and their children’s lives for generations to come. Indeed these communities have much to contribute. For millennia, many indigenous communities have survived through cycles of environmental change using “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK). This can be immensely useful in developing adaptation and mitigation strategies. For example, TEK may assist in predicting weather patterns, identifying medicinal plants, and adapting new plants to a changing ecosystem.

A 2010 study from the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that “in many cases, minorities are equally as supportive, and often more supportive of national climate and energy policies, than white Americans.” In particular:

  • 89% of blacks supported the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant
  • 70% of Asian-Americans consider themselves as environmentalists
  • 60% of Asian-Americans prioritize environmental protection over economic growth

recent poll shows 74 percent of Latinos believe climate change is a serious or very serious issue, and 86 percent of Latinos support the President taking action to reduce carbon pollution.

As part of EPA’s focus on climate justice, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee to EPA, is preparing advice and recommendations on how EPA can help improve community resilience in or near industrial waterfronts with environmental justice concerns. This project highlights the efforts of former NEJAC Chair Elizabeth Yiampierre to strengthen community resilience and emergency planning in her overburdened Brooklyn, NY community. NEJAC also embarked recently on a project to provide advice and recommendations for EPA’s individual program and regional climate adaptation implementation plans.

In 2012, communities in California took climate justice to a new level. Their advocacy resulted in legislation that ensures that resources go to communities most hurt by climate change. SB 535 calls for 25 percent of proceeds from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund go to projects that benefit disadvantaged communities. By using CalEnviroScreen to identify disadvantaged communities, the state will make both socio-economic and environmental factors important considerations for determining where potentially billions of dollars of climate change resources will go.

It’s evident that minority, indigenous and low-income communities not only care about the impacts of climate change, but have been leaders in creating solutions. They believe strongly that as a nation, we can address climate change with common-sense, comprehensive strategies. In that process, they will help us build healthier and more sustainable communities, as well as a stronger more inclusive economy beneficial to all citizens.

Charles Lee is the Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mr. Lee is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice, as the principal author of the landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race 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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Chemical Spill in West Virginia Offers Opportunity to Learn About and Improve Chemical Safety in America

2014 April 15

By Maya Nye

On the early morning of January 9, a citizen complaining of a strong “black licorice” smell alerted officials to a chemical leak at the Freedom Industries site that seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River a mile and a half upstream of the state’s largest water intake.  It wasn’t until hours later that a ban was placed on water use for over 300,000 people across nine West Virginia counties.  Schools shut down. Hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries.  Restaurants were forced to close leaving many people out of work.  The local economy nearly ground to a halt.

Untitled-1The chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries site, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used in the processing of coal-fired energy production.  It is one of 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), many of which can pose serious consequences for human health.

This is not a new issue in West Virginia: chemical contamination has been a concern in this area for a long time.  This 25-mile stretch of West Virginia’s Untitled-2Kanawha River has been nicknamed “chemical valley” for its chemical manufacturing industry.  In fact, many incidents in this valley over the years have served as the focal point for reform to national chemical safety and security policy, including a 1985 aldicarb oxime leak that led to national Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Laws and the implementation of the United States Chemical Safety Board.  In the wake of this latest spill, the communities around the Elk River in West Virginia also have an opportunity to spur action on chemical safety.

In response to the incident, the West Virginia State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks in zones surrounding drinking water intakes, as well as requiring updated source water protection plans.  This is a good start towards improving the safety and security of drinking water supplies.

However, this incident could provide the basis for further action at the national level. That’s why in February, I travelled with my colleague Stephanie Tyree with the West Virginia Community Development Hub to Denver to join our Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform partners at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Conference to seek national support for our home state of West Virginia.  As a result of our testimonies, the NEJAC responded to our request and agreed to advocate on our behalf for a listening session of the President’s Executive Order 13650 to be held in Charleston, West Virginia.

Untitled-3The public has a right to know what dangers exist in their communities in order to make informed decisions about their individual health and the health of their families. It is now mid-April, more than 90 days since the spill, and the crisis is still not over.  The odor is still faintly detected in some homes.  Schools have recently gone back to serving tap water to the dismay of many parents, and most people are not bathing in or drinking the water for fear of unknown health risks. We hope that the West Virginia incident will better inform chemical safety and security laws across the country and ensure that they protect families and workers in all communities.

Maya Nye is the President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), a 501c4 non-profit community organization active in community affairs for over 30 years dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.  

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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Addressing Crucial Water Issues in Our Communities

2014 April 3

Reposted from EPA Connect Blog

By Nancy Stoner

This year, we here at EPA celebrate the 20th anniversary of President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, which directed federal agencies to address environmental disparities in minority and low-income communities. We’ve certainly accomplished a lot since the order was signed, but sadly, too many people still breathe dirty air, live near toxic waste dumps, or lack reliable access to clean water. But we continue to make progress in all of those areas, and here in EPA’s Office of Water, I’m proud of how we’re helping communities across America—both rural and urban—addressing their most crucial water issues.

Last fall, I was in Laredo, Texas and visited a community near the U.S.-Mexico border called the colonias, which until recently did not have regular access to clean water. Thanks to funding from EPA’s U.S.-Mexico Border Infrastructure Program, 3,700 people in the colonias now have access to a modern sewer system. We also have a program that provides funding for the planning, design and construction of wastewater infrastructure for American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Providing access to clean water to people who have never had it before is one of the most important things we have the power and resources to do.

In 2012, I traveled to Baltimore to help announce funding from EPA’s Urban Waters program that’s being use to educate residents in the Patapsco watershed about the benefits of water conservation and give people the know-how to reduce water usage at home. Urban waterways can provide myriad economic, environmental and community benefits, and EPA is helping dozens of communities across the country reconnect with these important, valuable resources.

Our drinking water program is also providing substantial funding to help improve small drinking water systems across the country, which comprise more than 94% of the nation’s public drinking water systems. Small systems, those that serve fewer than 3,500 people, face unique financial and operational challenges in providing drinking water that meets federal standards. Last year, we provided close to $13 million to help train staff at small systems and give them tools to enhance system their operations and management practices.

This year, I’m proud to celebrate 20 years of EPA’s work to make a visible difference in communities across the country. We’ve made so much progress over the last two decades, and I know we’ll make even more over the next 20 years.

About the Author: Nancy Stoner is EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator in EPA’s Office of Water. Since February 1, 2010, Nancy Stoner has been serving as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water. Ms. Stoner’s extensive career in environmental policy and law began in 1987 as a trial attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Most recently Ms. Stoner served as the Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Water Program. Ms. Stoner is a 1986 graduate of Yale Law School and a 1982 graduate of the University of Virginia.

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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