Empowering Citizens is What Environmental Justice is all About

By Reggie Harris

When I think of environmental justice and what it is really all about, I think of the residents of Chester, Pennsylviania and their shining example of what is truly possible for communities to achieve.

Chester is located approximately 15 miles southwest of the City of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. I became acquainted with the issues in this city during a visit to the EPA Region Region 3 Office by a concerned minister from the community. That pastor, Reverend Dr. Horace Strand, met with EPA regarding issues related to a controversial proposed permit.  Reverend Strand pointed out that there were clusters of hazardous waste facilities in Chester, and that many of the people were concerned for their health and well being due to the large number and variety of facilities that they felt were polluting their community.  Reverend Strand also asked the question, “How much pollution is too much for a community?”  At that time, 90% of the waste being managed in the county was being managed in Chester, a community whose population comprised 13% of the population of Delaware County.

After the compelling discussion, the Regional Administrator decided that a risk study should be conducted to assess the multiple sources of risk in Chester. The study brought together local residents, with city, state and federal agencies in an effort to conduct a comprehensive risk study for that community. The multi-stakeholder work group held numerous public meetings and work group sessions to refine the study and to develop a plan for action.After the compelling discussion, the Regional Administrator decided that a risk study should be conducted to assess the multiple sources of risk in Chester.

The stakeholders responded with a number of proactive initiatives designed to address concerns. The state put an on the ground- inspector in place, hearings were held on permits, voluntary risk reductions activities were enacted; and most importantly, the residents initiated a number of actions on their own to address concerns. The residents had also established their own partnerships to address concerns, and in fact expanded those partnerships to include a wide range of stakeholders who came together to work collaboratively to address concerns.

Reverend Strand and residents of Chester became an active and engaged force in their community. They have developed working relationships with the various stakeholders in the area, and are proactively undertaking multiple initiatives to improve the quality of life and to improve the health of the community. Their work has included Lead Poisoning Prevention activities, a CARE Grant addressing asthma concerns, local issues related to permitted facilities, informational and educational sessions for residents regarding local issues, and a host of other interactions where they have shared their experiences and knowledge with other communities.  For me, this is what environmental justice is all about.

About the author: Reggie Harris is currently the Regional Environmental Justice Coordinator and a toxicologist in the Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice in EPA Region 3. He has also served as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Masters of environmental studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a graduate level Environmental Justice course. Over the years he has worked collaboratively with partners domestically and internationally on issues of related to the exposure and risk characterization; and assessment of risks to communities of concern.

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