Environmental Justice Comes to Salt Creek

By Michael Wenstrom

Several years ago I traveled to Pueblo, Colorado in response to a request from a local resident. I was asked to sit in on a meeting to hear a discussion about the presence of a legally-permitted auto dismantling yard and aluminum smelter in a residential neighborhood. The neighborhood was Salt Creek.

Salt Creek Neighborhood, Pueblo, Colorado

Salt Creek Neighborhood, Pueblo, Colorado

The Salt Creek neighborhood contains about one hundred homes and is predominantly Latino. Most of the residents are third generation Americans of Mexican descent. Someone in the community reached out to the Region 8 Environmental Justice Program to ask for help, not knowing just what “environmental justice” was, but knowing something needed to change.

Among Salt Creek residents, there was little understanding of what government did and how and why they made the decisions they made. In this case, residents knew that things were happening in and around their community that were wrong and they wanted to know what to do to protect themselves.

Salt Creek is flanked by a steel mill which emitted more than forty percent of Colorado’s airborne mercury, and by a major coal-fired power plant and, additionally, was home to the smelter noted above.
As I sat in that meeting, in the basement of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, listening to the community share their concerns, little did I know that this would be the beginning of a fifteen year-long odyssey. This meeting was the first of many.

Over time I learned that Salt Creek residents are strong and proud people. They persisted, even in the face of adversary.

The EJ Program began to work to help the community find its voice. We co-sponsored community meetings and invited local businesses, representatives from the city and county and from law enforcement. We talked (in English and Spanish) about what the community cared most about. In most cases, the invited guests listened and learned. In some cases, they tried to deflect the concerns and occasionally, they attempted to bully or confuse the residents. But, Salt Creek would not be deterred.

Among other things, EPA brought a Collaborative Problem Solving grant to the community, engaged with our RCRA Program to address nearby contamination, facilitated meetings with the steel mill and under an enforcement action,  $400,000 in community-based Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) benefitted the neighborhood.

Together, over the years, we saw the steel mill dramatically reduce its mercury emissions, and the local power utility implement ground-breaking emissions controls. Oh, and, yes, the aluminum smelter was moved to a more appropriate location.

In that time, I became friends with some remarkable people, who began to raise their voices and make their community safer, cleaner and healthier. And, on a personal level, I was both proud and humbled by the fact that, together, we were able to make a real difference in the lives of community residents. Through collaboration, persistence and caring, I and my EPA colleagues were able to help a community transform itself.

The attached video is one example of how one Salt Creek resident helped to effect this transformation. Nadine Triste used her common sense, her network of neighbors and, support from the EPA to make a difference. Because of Nadine, and others like her, Salt Creek is forever changed.

 

About the author: Michael Wenstrom has been working in the Region 8 Environmental Justice Program for almost twenty years. In that time, he has focused on working in communities facing an amazing variety of environmental insults and challenges. Most recently, he has been assisting Region 5 in its ongoing work to assist the residents of Flint, Michigan to address their immediate concerns relating to the water crisis and other threats to their environment and their health.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Free is free. But Hungry is hungry

By Mike Frankel

I was in line at the supermarket and two women in front of me were talking about their lack of freezer space.  Like many supermarkets, if you spend X dollars by a certain date before Thanksgiving and before Xmas you get a free a turkey, ham or lasagna.

One of the women demanded, “Why can’t they just give us cash? I still have the free turkey from Thanksgiving, and we go to my daughters now for the holidays. So what am I going to do with another 13-lb. bird?”

“Well, you could take the ham,” her buddy suggested.  “But I understand. And at our age who needs the salt. Besides, my freezer is just as jammed.  But free is free!!”

There isn’t a lot of privacy in the checkout line. And as I looked ahead, I saw the banner across the inside store window: “A Proud Partner – Philabundance,” my area’s largest hunger-relief
organization serving nearly 90,000 meals a week. “Ladies, excuse me. What about donating those free freezer fillers to Philabundance?”

I explained that while their kitchens were well-stocked, one-in-six people in Philadelphia and one-in-seven across the country don’t know where their next meal is coming from and are “food insecure.”  At the same time, the average American family wastes nearly 400 lbs. of food a year.  And as a country we waste a staggering 38+ million tons of food each year. And when you throw food into a landfill it rots quickly and produces toxic gases that are
bad for the environment and contribute to climate change.

By this point, the cashier had stopped ringing and was joining the conversation. “Yes — the store gives a lot of food each week to Philabundance, and some other local food cupboards. If you’d like,  I can ask the manager to send your free birds along with this week’s shipment.”

They looked a little skeptical. I chimed back in. “You could also ask your clergy if they know of families or charities in need of food this holiday season and every day.” This seemed like a good idea and my new acquaintances asked how I knew so much about hunger and food donation.

“Well, I work for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and part of my job is to help spread the word about food donation and food recovery – not usually in checkout lines – but if it works…In fact I have met the owners of this store through my job and they – like thousands of other stores, colleges, stadiums and people – are doing their part to protect the environment, save money and stamp out hunger. Now you can help too.”

About the author: Mike Frankel just celebrated his 20-year anniversary at EPA. He works as a Communications Coordinator in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office and works on a variety of programs including the Food Recovery Challenge (www.epa.gov/frc).

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Finding Value(s) in our Stories and Waters

By Emily Simonson

I’ve never had so many people wanting to talk to me in my life than I did while working the USA booth at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. Drawn in by the flag towards the outside of our booth space, people browsed the EPA materials on the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, the Agency’s efforts on climate change, and guidebooks on protecting drinking water sources, materials from USAID and the State Department. A steady stream of people – the general public and conference go-ers perusing the displays at the conference exhibition – were keeping me busy.

“I love New York. I used to study there.”
“In Mexico, water is an important women’s issue, but we need to find ways to engage men.”
“I want to learn how rural and urban governments can work together to manage water here in Ecuador.”
“What can you do for the river in my city?”

 While the topics ranged from polite conversation to details on projects and technical information, a few themes struck me. Boiling it all down, each conversation was about values: opportunity, equity, participation and democracy, striving to do better.

Coming from my ORISE fellowship with the Urban Waters Program at EPA, I was in Quito to learn, volunteer at the USA booth, and support a program partner, the Caño Martín Peña Community Land Trust (CLT) from San Juan, who had just won the 2016 World Habitat Award. I got even more out of the experience than I’d hoped.

As part of the group that scheduled the programming for the USA areas, I’d arranged for members of the CLT to present their work in the exhibition space. The CLT’s story of community members organizing to grant land tenure to those living along the Martín Peña channel while working with partners to reclaim the channel from decades of pollution really reflected the values people had expressed all day. Several of those in the audience stuck around to talk with members of the CLT, because their story resonated with challenges they were facing in their own communities.

The CLT’s story and mission reminds me that water is central to both urban livability and sustainability. When people envision a better community they often talk about access to water for recreation, drinking, health and sanitation, and business. The ways people access and interact with water (especially in our cities) can reveal so much about the progress we’re making towards building cities that reflect the values we can all agree upon.

I really appreciated that our booth and the rest of the exhibition spaces were open to the public. The candid conversations happening there revealed just as much, and possibly more, as the high level conference sessions about what it’s going to take to realize the equitable, sustainable, and democratic cities of tomorrow that our communities deserve.

Moments like the ones I experienced do not just put into perspective that the issues we work on at EPA transcend the country’s boundaries. The knowledge and models we contribute at events like Habitat III are shared in a language that also crosses borders and is spoken by people of many citizenships– it’s the language of our values, our daily patterns of living, and our aspirations and actions for our communities.

The Habitat III Conference focuses on the future of our planet’s cities and how to implement the New Urban Agenda, a document on urban sustainability created by contributions from governments and civil society organizations from around the world. EPA lent expertise to this document on several topics, including lead, water, and food waste issues.

About the author: Emily Simonson is an ORISE Participant with the Urban Waters Program in EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds. Emily enjoys travel, hiking (urban and scenic), running, and reading.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.