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

By Mustafa Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean Air Event

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The 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.

Embracing Environmental Justice: Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of E.O. 12898


By Administrator Gina McCarthy

EPA’s mission to protect public health and the environment is driven by a fundamental belief that regardless of who you are or where you come from, we all have a right to clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthy land to call our home. At the heart of that belief is our unwavering pursuit of environmental justice for minority, low-income, and tribal communities that have been long overburdened by environmental threats.

February 11, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” We’ve accomplished a lot over the past two decades—not only EPA, but all federal agencies, state and local governments, tribes, community leaders, and partners in academia and business. We established the Office of Environmental Justice, the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council—one of the federal government’s most prolific advisory committees. We’re expanding outreach and enforcing laws to defend public health and hold polluters accountable. We’re highlighting ground breaking and life-altering stories through our EJ in Action Blog. And we’re investing in communities through innovative grants and expanding technical support to bring about greener spaces where we live, learn, work, play and pray.

EPA Grant Awarded to Clean Anacostia River in Washington, DC

EPA Grant Awarded to Clean Anacostia River in Washington, DC

That’s why I’m proud to declare February 2014 as Environmental Justice Month at EPA, highlighting our progress while also launching a yearlong effort to focus our environmental justice leadership and reaffirm our commitment to do even more. This effort supports our top priority to make a visible difference in the communities where we serve — because we know that local progress doesn’t just guide our actions; it’s the best measure of our success.

A critical step is making good on our Plan EJ 2014 commitments, our roadmap for integrating environmental justice throughout EPA’s policies and programs. It’s already helped us to better consider how the costs and benefits of our decisions impact those most vulnerable among us. Our Regions will continue expanding their on-the-ground work to support communities. And along with our federal partners, we’ll continue developing analytical and educational resources to advance environmental justice through the National Environmental Policy Act.

Untitled-3But we know there’s much more to do.  Too many communities of color, low-income families, and tribal populations are still overburdened with higher rates of asthma, heart disease, cancer, and strokes resulting from dirty air, unsafe drinking water, and more. Devastating impacts of climate change disproportionately threaten those least able to do to anything about them. Environmental and public health threats are barriers to economic mobility, holding back millions of families striving for middle-class security and a chance to get ahead. EPA has a central role in the President’s efforts to break down those barriers and expand opportunities for all Americans.

So throughout the year, tune in to EPA to find out more about the great events that are going on across the country to commemorate this historic milestone, and to find out about the exciting developments going on in EPA and across the government to advance environmental justice.  As EPA Administrator, I’m proud to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of our pursuit of environmental justice by recommitting our agency to the pursuit of equal opportunity for all—our most fundamental American ideal.

About the author: Gina McCarthy currently serves as the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

Pollution by Design: Reducing Pollution Through Organizing


By Penny Newman

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Heavy rains cause overflow from toxic waste pits to run through a local Glen Avon school

Thirty five years ago, I joined a rag tag group of moms who gathered together to decide how we were going to stop the exposures from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a permitted Class 1 toxic dump site that accepted chemical wastes from throughout California.  This was in response to an incident where the State of California, during a heavy rain period, released over one million gallons of liquid toxic waste into our community in order to relieve pressure on a the dam that was holding back 34 million gallons of hazardous waste. They did this without informing us, flooding our streets, and inundating our homes and school.  Our children splashed in the puddles, made beards and became snow men in the frothy mounds of gray toxic foam.

Untitled-23When we realized what had happened, we decided we’d had enough.  Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA) formed to stop it. By 1980 we began to hear rumors of places like Love Canal and Times Beach, where communities were experiencing similar problems.  Putting our heads and hearts together we launched into a decade long battle to make the system respond to the health crisis that we, and other communities, were facing.  Our efforts changed laws, developed legal precedent and created new institutions.

In 1993, after stopping the exposures and winning a personal injury lawsuit with a $114 million settlement, CNA became the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) to broaden our work and bring focus to the underlying factors of polluted communities.  We learned that these situations don’t just appear by accident. They are the result of a system that seeks the lowest costs, which can lead to high polluting industries locating their operations in poorer communities and communities of color.  This is why CCAEJ has developed a mission of “bringing people together to improve our social and natural environment,” as recognition that the social environment—economic, political, education— determine the fate of our community’s environment and our living conditions.

If we do not have the power to influence decisions in those systems, they will be used to advance other interests.   It is not by accident that our small rural community ended up with the Stringfellow Acid Pits – it was a decision made by powerful interests taking advantage of the system.   The goal was to find cheap places to dump their poisonous wastes in a place that is out of sight—commonly called “remote disposal.” While we knew this by instinct, our feelings were confirmed when we uncovered a report commissioned by the State of California and written by a consulting firm.  It profiled the communities that would be the easiest to site polluting facilities.  In the summary they write, “all socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.” 

Untitled-24In other words, pick the most vulnerable communities.  Understanding that poor communities and communities of color are targeted for pollution is an important factor in how to attack the problems. That’s why CCAEJ works specifically in Inland Valley communities like Riverside and San Bernardino in Southern California; which face some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country today.  Building power for these forgotten communities through leadership development, trainings, and actions; forcing the public and politicians to see the issues so they can’t be ignored or hidden; and flexing our political power is the true pathway to environmental justice.

Penny Newman is executive director and founder of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She began her fight for environmental justice with the battle of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California’s worst toxic waste site. This 25-year battle of a small town against the pollution from the Stringfellow site is recounted in her book, “Remembering Stringfellow.” Ms. Newman has received numerous awards during her 27 years as an environmental activist, including Jurupa’s “Citizen of the Year.” Newman has also appeared on numerous television shows such as the “Remembering Your Spirit” segment of the Oprah Winfrey show. She was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Toxic Time Bomb.”

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.

Smells Like Progress: Growing Up in Cancer Alley

By Dr. Beverly Wright

My journey towards understanding environmental justice began during my early years growing up in the area known as ‘cancer alley’ in Louisiana. After I learned about the disparties of pollution problems in poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color, people who looked like me, I dedicated my life to overcoming these injustices. Now, as an educator, I understand my role and its importance in stimulating the minds of young people, propelling them into becoming involved in their own destiny. Exposure to, and involvement in advocacy work does just that. I am gratified to have a hand in nurturing the next generation of environmental justice advocates and professionals.

On the frontlines today, there is no greater challenge to our future, or should I say to our continued existence, than the issues surrounding climate change and global warming. Furthermore, people of color and the poor (specifically where I live, African-Americans) are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and therefore their involvement in the solution is critical. After attending several international climate summits over the years, I found the presence of African-American youth and students to be quite limited, and in recent years I have resolved to change that dynamic.

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This is what has driven me to organize a collaborative with the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and to launch the 1st Annual HBCU Student Climate Change Conference held this year. Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice hosted the 1st Annual HBCU Climate Change Student Conference entitled Bridging the Gap Between Climate Change Theory and Experience. Over 100 students from 10 universities, as well as faculty, staff, and environmental leaders from across the country came together to discuss the devastating effects climate change is having on vulnerable communities.

Conference participants toured East Plaquemines Parish, a coastal Louisiana community that has been devastated by four hurricanes and the BP oil disaster since August of 2005. Rev. Tyronne Edwards, President of Zion Travelers Cooperative Center in Braithwaite, LA, discussed grassroots recovery efforts that his organization has been involved in since Hurricane Katrina.

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One of the sessions brought together a diverse panel of presenters including nationally recognized environmental justice researchers, a hip-hop activist, community organizers, and emerging HBCU climate justice student leaders to address campus sustainability, the socio-economic impacts of climate change, community resilience and adaptation, public health, flood risk management, and mental health implications of disasters.

The three day conference also included an undergraduate and graduate student poster session, and climate change sessions for middle school students from the Dillard University Emerging Scholars – STEM Program.

I’m so proud of the conference and the transformation I saw in the young people who attended. The HBCU students, many of whom are from vulnerable communities, were challenged to become the next generation of leaders in environmental and climate justice advocacy. I wake up each day focused on affecting such transformation. It is my belief that democracy requires an educated populace, and that the survival of the Earth will require an environmentally conscious citizenry. It is our job as educators to make this a reality.

About the author: Dr. Beverly Wright is a professor of Sociology and founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), formerly at Xavier University, now at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. The DSCEJ is one of the few community/university partnerships that addresses environmental and health inequities in the Lower Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, known as Cancer Alley. For over fifteen years, she has been a leading scholar, advocate and activist in the environmental justice arena. 

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.

Can One Community Organization Change an Entire City?

By Dr. LaToria Whitehead

I first met Dr. Mildred McClain as a doctorate student.  I didn’t know it at the time, but the very first conversation that I had with her regarding environmental health disparities in Savannah lead to a five year partnership between the federal government and a community-based organization.  Wearing two hats at that time, I had both a desire to increase lead testing for children in Savannah as a federal employee, and as a student I wanted to understand how an environmental justice organization could accomplish this task. Working with Dr. McClain in this partnership powerfully changed my perspective on how to do both.

Untitled-2Dr. McClain was the founder and director for the Harambee House Inc./Citizens for Environmental Justice (CFEJ). She has been a human rights activist for over 40 years and she initially started the Savannah-based organization as a small focus group in 1991 to fight on behalf of a local subdivision built on contaminated site.  Eventually CFEJ would bring justice and awareness, both locally and nationally, about issues from chemical industries to food deserts to job development.

Like many EJ organizations CFEJ began with a sentiment of moral obligation to the community,  but there is something very special about how this organization works.  As a student, I was a bit naïve about the process of engaging communities. Working with CFEJ, I witnessed how she effectively engaged with the community and listened and responded to their concerns. I was able to see how her hard work and passion led to the trust, respect, and admiration of the Savannah community for Dr. McClain.

She was also very kind and considerate, and brought me along for the journey. I witnessed politicians opening their doors to her, and because I accompanied her, they spoke with me as well. Community leaders and people who resided in these communities their entire lives embraced me and talked with me, a complete stranger, because of her. As a result of the partnership there was an increased awareness about childhood lead poisoning and an increase in the number of children that were tested for high blood lead levels. There was also a new awareness among politicians about a lead ordinance in Savannah, which has been on the books since 1973, and a political taskforce was created by CFEJ to ensure that the ordinance is sufficiently enforced.

As a student, these experiences would forever change my understanding and approach to environmental justice from learning side-by-side with a real EJ champion. There is a multifaceted approach to achieving what we all call environmental justice.  Alongside this approach, comes trust, respect, honor, knowledge, empowerment, long days and long nights.  This description is not only symbolic of environmental justice, but it also embodies the character of Dr. McClain. After interviewing many people in Savannah, the common theme of all of these conversations was about how enlightenment and empowerment from CFEJ helped change their communities.  Among many other lessons, I’ve learned that trust and relationships are fundamental in the EJ world. Thank You, Dr. McClain.

About the AuthorDr. LaToria Whitehead is an Environmental Justice Officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health. She’s also an adjunct professor of Political Science for Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

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.

Injecting Knowledge to Cure Injustice

By Dr. Sacoby Wilson

Growing up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I had a fondness of the Big River and the love of the environment.  Unfortunately, I was aware that some communities did not enjoy the same level of environmental quality that others did.  I grew up near a concrete plant, waste water treatment plant, oil facility, and power plant in the background.  My father was a pipefitter who over the years worked at nuclear power plants, oil refineries, coal fired plants and was exposed to many contaminants.  These experiences, combined with my diagnosis at age 7 with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease, really drove me to explore why some communities were burdened by hazards and unhealthy land uses and how exposure to environmental stressors can lead to negative health outcomes.

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I was inspired to use my interest in science and environmental health for environmental justice after meeting Drs. Benjamin Chavis and Robert Bullard in the early 1990s. These professors taught me the value of getting out of the ivory towers of academia and getting into communities to spread knowledge to push for positive change. Since then, I have been a passionate advocate for environmental justice working in partnership with community groups across the United States. Through this work, I have learned that the use of science to empower through education, paired with community organizing and civic engagement, is the key to alleviating environmental injustices.

One of those individuals who helped me understand the importance of getting communities into the research process was Omega Wilson.  Wilson’s Group, the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) has  fought against environmental injustice, infrastructure disparities, and the lack of basic amenities for the last twenty years.  WERA leaders have used a community-driven research approach known as community-owned and managed research (COMR) to address environmental injustice in their community.  COMR focuses on the collection of data for action, compliance, and social change.  In combination with EPA’s collaborative-problem-solving model, WERA’s work provides a blueprint for other communities to use partnerships, stakeholder engagement, action-oriented research, and legal tools to achieve environmental justice.

Untitled-2As a professor who learned through my mentors, I also firmly believe in inspiring the next generation of academics to take their tools and research into communities that need it the most. Currently, I am building a program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) at the University of Maryland-College Park. CEEJH is building off existing work of leaders in the DC Metropolitan region to address environmental justice and health issues at the grassroots level; we use community-university partnerships, capacity-building, and community empowerment to address environmental justice and health issues in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Following in the footsteps of WERA, I plan to inspire young people to be bold, courageous, and become advocates for environmental justice.

About the author: Dr. Wilson is an environmental health scientist with expertise in environmental justice and environmental health disparities. His primary research interests are related to issues that impact underserved, socially and economically disadvantaged, marginalized, environmental justice, and health disparity populations. He is building a Program on Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) to study and address health issues for environmental justice and health disparity populations through community-university partnerships and the use of CBPR in Maryland and beyond.

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.

Chicagoland is Breathing a Little Easier

By Kimberly Wasserman

I’m from South Lawndale, also known as Little Village, a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. It is a predominantly Mexican-American, low-income community that faces a number of environmental burdens.  And, although we were suffering the impacts of pollution and other stressors that affect our health, Little Village community residents weren’t fighting the pollution.

That’s where the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) comes in. LVEJO is an organization that has been working to protect people’s health and the environment in our community, through democracy in action. I first crossed paths with LVEJO while working as a computer teacher at the Little Village Boys and Girls Club. When the club faced closure, the staff and students rallied with the help of LVEJO to keep it open because it serves an important role as a place for local youth to gather, learn, and play. Attracted to community organizing, I later took a position with LVEJO. That was after my first son was born, who  had his first asthma attack when he was just three months old. Now, two of my three kids suffer from  asthma.

In 2002, a Harvard School of Public Health study validated what Little Village residents had long suspected; air pollution from the antiquated Fisk and Crawford coal plants in our neighborhoods was linked to over 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks each year, as well as heart attacks, bronchitis and other ailments.  In order to fight this epidemic on a larger scale, LVEJO helped form the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, made up of 50 community, public health and environmental organizations.  The coalition’s tireless efforts eventually led to a victory, with the closure of the dirty, inefficient plants this past September.  Now, we are working to make sure the former plant sites are properly cleaned up before any redevelopment takes place.

Working for LVEJO, I have also focused on training young people to stand up for environmental justice and the many issues we still face in Chicago. One of our campaigns is to create more green space in the community. Currently, Little Village is ranked #1 for the worst deficit of open space; no new parks have been built there for 75 years.  But, we are encouraged by a proposed new nature walkway on an abandoned rail line and plans for a new 24-acre park, designating 6 acres for urban agriculture to open up access to fresh produce.

We will continue to fight for justice in Little Village, and in the meantime we can breathe a little easier thanks, in part, to the efforts of many people in our neighborhoods who are willing to organize and stand up for the health of our community.

About the Author: Kimberly Wasserman grew up in the Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, the same community where she currently lives and works. She began her work with LVEJO as a part-time organizer, but eventually moved up to full time. As part of her current position, Wasserman is responsible for coordinating all LVEJO campaigns, ensuring that all leaders and bases are an active part of the campaign, and executing the campaign. She is also responsible for building the necessary relationships to ensure that the campaigns move forward.

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.

Strong Leaders Matter

By Mustafa Santiago Ali

Leadership is important. In the many years I have worked on environmental issues, I have never seen such a rapid transformation around the agency’s work on environmental justice, as I have observed under the leadership of former Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. During her tenure I have witnessed a refocusing of efforts, and a new enthusiasm throughout program offices, regions, and other federal agencies related to environmental justice.

Lisa (left), Cheryl (center) and Hazel (right)

Administrator Jackson’s video, her final as EPA Administrator, is very important for our video series commemorating the 20th anniversary of environmental justice in EPA, because she chose to talk about another great leader in the EJ movement, Hazel Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was affectionately known as the “Mother of Environmental Justice” for her tireless work in the field of social justice for over 40 years. Mrs. Johnson founded the nonprofit “People for Community Recovery” in 1979 at the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on the Southside of Chicago where she lived, in order to address the disproportionate environmental and public health impacts inside her community.

Over the last 20 years, I was privileged to meet Mrs. Johnson a number of times, and hear numerous stories about her guidance and leadership in helping to create the movement that we now call environmental justice.  She lived by the principal that communities should have the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.  One of the things I will always admire about Hazel Johnson was her enduring tenacity for creating positive transformation in communities.

As a trailblazing activist, Hazel brought national attention to EJ and inspired countless other leaders to devote their lives to these issues. In many ways, she helped shape the way we understand the relationships that exist between pollution problems, non-compatible land uses and low-income and minority communities. Because of Mrs. Johnson’s early work around “toxic doughnuts,” a term she used to define the numerous polluting facilities that encircled her community – researchers are now looking at the cumulative impacts that many neighborhoods are facing, and this represents a major shift in assessing risk.

Over the years her work touched and involved many different people, including a young community activist named Barack Obama who helped work on a project to clean up asbestos in Altgeld Gardens properties. Her work with other EJ activists lead to President Bill Clinton signing Executive Order 12898 which focuses federal attention on the environmental and human health conditions in minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities.

This video underscores the importance of leaders as a part of any movement, and I want to thank both former Administrator Jackson and Hazel Johnson for their commitment to the protection, revitalization and restoration of all communities. Their legacies will continue to grow in present and future generations.

About the author: Mustafa Ali currently serves as the Associate Director for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.

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.

Environmental Justice is About Government Engaging with Communities on a Personal Level

By Edith Pestana

Edith Meeting with Community Members in Bridgeport, CT

I learned early on in my career in public service the importance of sitting down with communities to truly understand the environmental burdens they sometimes face.  It is extremely valuable for those of us who serve in government, like I do for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), to spend time with folks in their neighborhoods in order to hear and witness firsthand the disparities people sometimes experience in areas overburdened by pollution. You can’t be effective in government if you do what I call “arm chair environmental protection” which literally means that you never leave your office to see firsthand what communities experience.  You also deprive yourself of creating meaningful and rewarding relationships that improve services and benefit the neighborhood community members.

My DEEP colleagues and I have spent a great deal of time sitting with people in their homes, in their places of worship, and in their surrounding environments.  And, from these experiences, we have learned that meaningful communication is crucial to being effective, resolving issues in communities and doing good environmental and public health work.

I remember one particular case when agency management and staff met with people in their homes and learned that residents in their neighborhood couldn’t open the windows in their homes, have a backyard barbecue or hold a block watch meeting because of the terrible odors emanating from a nearby landfill. The visit led to state enforcement action and more importantly, the beginning of an understanding that affected policies and programs and changed the culture of the agency. Throughout the years, this cultural change in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has enabled us to have better communication with the public and a better understanding of and empathy for the issues faced in communities. We have also been able to successfully build long-standing relationships with environmental justice leaders in Connecticut.

In another case, when we heard about illegal dumping that was happening in the inner cities of Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford, Conn., we visited the communities and saw firsthand how the trash was devastating these neighborhoods. It invigorated us to partner with the residents and other stakeholders to clean up the trash. This not only led to redevelopment and reinvestment, but the gains from these relationships included the early resolution of potential  issues before they become problems and a quicker response in the areas of enforcement, remediation, and permitting in these communities.

All communities have the right to be heard by their government representatives and to participate in the government process in ways that influence positive changes in the neighborhood and improve their quality of life. The best way for officials to ensure that local communities are being heard is to go into the communities and listen!

Edith Pestana, is the Administrator of the Environmental Justice Program for the State of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.  Since 1994, she has been responsible for the management of the state environmental justice program including design, policy and regulatory development and implementation. She serves on numerous boards and commissions’ including the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, and is a member of the USEPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

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.

Are you getting the basic amenities your taxes paid for?

By Omega Wilson

Many African American communities, like the Mebane, North Carolina community where I grew up, and tribal areas, lack access to basic public health amenities.  The denial of or lack of access to “up-to-code” infrastructure (safe drinking water, sewer collection, paved streets, sidewalks, and storm-water management) contributes to disparities in health. Long-term exposure to deficient infrastructure often leads to disproportionately adverse health effects in low-income and minority communities than are evident in predominantly higher-income communities.

Infrastructure code standards are paid for by taxpayers, regulated by federal agencies (under the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act etc.), and maintained by state and local governments. However, in low-income and minority communities, homeowners may not get a return on their property, income, and sale taxes in the form of “basic amenities” that other higher income areas take for granted.

Removal of 20,000 Gallon Underground Petroleum Storage Tanks

In 1994, when the North Carolina Department of Transportation revealed plans for the construction of 27-mile highway through two African American communities in Mebane, our residents became aware that federal laws prohibited the use of federal money to destroy houses, churches, and cemeteries without fair compensation. Homeowners already had been denied basic amenities for decades and leaking underground storage tanks, that threatened our well water and ground water, had yet to be cleaned up.

As a result, we organized the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) to challenge the planned 8-lane interstate corridor. Residents learned from U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials that every taxpaying community is entitled to basic amenities guaranteed by the government. WERA translated this “common knowledge” into a list of public health disparities and drafted administrative complaints at DOJ under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and referenced the environmental justice Executive Order 12898 of 1994. DOJ asked six branches of the federal government to investigate the oversight of civil rights and public health guidelines during the  highway planning process that had been going on for 16 years, without opportunities for public input.

As a result, there has been a moratorium on construction of the highway since 1999, in order to ensure that actions to mitigate the potential impacts of the construction are put in place. Additionally, more than 100 African American homeowners have had sewer lines installed for the first time, even though homes have been within two-to-three blocks from the municipal sewer treatment plant since it was constructed in 1921. Property owners were required to dig up underground storage tanks and dispose of them. And, federal matching block grants were distributed to rehabilitate houses and repair sidewalks and streets.

My experience working to improve local health and environmental conditions by ensuring that communities have access to infrastructure that reduces health disparities has taught me that we should each ask ourselves: is my community getting the basic amenities our taxed paid for?

About the author: Omega R. Wilson is President of the West End Revitalization Association (WERA) of Mebane, N.C. Founding board chairman in 1994 when WERA incorporated as 501-( c)(3) non-profit community development corporation (CDC). He led board and staff through capacity building as a community-based environmental protection (CBEP) organization under U.S. EPA guidelines. Wilson is a former member of the U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), and Advisory Committee for the Environmental Leadership Program – Southeast Regional Network, and he is also a member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Wilson’s educational background includes media and communications, community organizing, and environmental justice leadership.

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.