By Matthew Marcus
After interning in the Office of Environmental Justice this summer, I reflected on how environmental justice issues affect my beloved home city of Philadelphia. There are pockets of communities throughout Philly that face challenges such as poverty, unemployment, a lack of educational opportunities and crime. They also face many environmental concerns such as foul air from cars and industry and polluted streams disproportionately affecting poorer neighborhoods. However, Philly is rising to this challenge in unique and creative ways, and deserves praise for its efforts.
For instance, Philadelphia is addressing waterway pollution in innovative ways. Philly has old water infrastructure that combines storm water pipes with sewage lines, and during periods of heavy rainfall or snow melt, the volume of wastewater in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or wastewater treatment plant. When this happens, combined sewer overflow (CSO) and discharge sewage goes directly to nearby water bodies. These overflows can contain not only storm water, but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris.
To address this problem, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), with support from the EPA, developed a strategy called Green City Clean Waters (GCCW) to mitigate this problem while remaining in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Traditionally, this would be done by building more “grey” infrastructure: bigger pipes underground that do nothing for the community. The PWD has instead opted for a green infrastructure approach that simultaneously addresses many community needs. Howard Neukrug, PWD commissioner, told me that environmental and economic justice issues in poor urban areas are so closely related that they must be understood and tackled together.
Green Infrastructure (GI) consists of designing urban buildings and spaces that allow storm water to permeate into the soil rather than runoff into the pipes. Usually this takes the form of bioswales, rain gardens, or green roofs that convert impervious surfaces to pervious ones. This green process/technique improves water quality and protects community residents from exposure to raw sewage, which is a long-term investment in public health and clean water. So far, more than 100 construction projects have been completed, converting more than 600 acres of impervious surface to green infrastructure. The result of this project will include 5-8 billion gallons of CSO avoided per year, as well as the restoration of 190 miles of wetlands, and 11 miles of streams that flow adjacent to surrounding low-income communities.
The projects’ benefits transcend water. GCCW is attempting to integrate all aspects of community planning to produce a favorable outcome to the environment and people. One can see these benefits emerging in the New Kensington neighborhood. A large block was turned into a beautiful GI site, a LEED platinum high school was built; and now a grassroots movement has begun to make this area the greenest point in Philly. Students’ work has improved in the new school, and the community has something to cherish together.
Another example is the Herron Park Spraygound. Formerly an old dilapidated pool, it’s been transformed into a green square with sprinklers throughout the playground. Children run through the fountains safely in this beautiful green oasis on hot summer days, and on rainy days, the water infiltrates into the soil. To the community, the sprayground adds beauty and a safe recreating spot, and to the PWD, it reduces river pollution. GCCW’s approach to sustainability is beginning to affect all parts of life, and environmental justice is addressed. I am hopeful that this great work will continue in Philly and provide an example nationally to address urban EJ challenges.
About the author: Matthew Marcus interned with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice the summer of 2013. He is currently studying his Masters of Applied Geosciences at the University of Pennsylvania.