EJ

Navajo Nation Highlights the Value of the Environmental Justice

by Arthur “Butch” Blazer

About the author: Butch Blazer serves as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment. Previously, he had served as the first Native American appointed as “State Forester” of New Mexico. [cross-posted from the USDA Blog on January 29, 2016]

 

thur “Butch” Blazer and colleagues on a tour of Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona led by Michelle Curry. Diné College is a community college serving the Navajo Nation.

Arthur “Butch” Blazer and colleagues on a tour of Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona led by Michelle Curry. Diné College is a community college serving the Navajo Nation.

I recently traveled to New Mexico and Arizona to visit with local Navajo government leaders, Tribal College officials, and community members to hear about life on the Navajo Reservation. Michael Burns, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was also there to discuss an important new collaboration, the College/Underserved Community Partnership Program (CUPP).

CUPP develops partnerships between underserved communities and geographically close colleges and universities to provide technical support through faculty, students and staff at no cost to those communities. One of my top priorities is for USDA to help EPA expand the CUPP program to involve Tribal communities and colleges to advance the cause of environmental justice.

The first step in establishing these community-to-college relationships is asking community members what type of assistance they need. We help bring everyone together and facilitate how to better meet these local needs in a creative way that also provides hands-on, real-world experience for the students and faculty in the region.

Mr. Burns described some exciting examples of CUPP program successes so far, such as how Tuskegee University architecture students developed an alternate transportation plan for the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail area that also improves access for families to food, health facilities and employment opportunities in rural Alabama.

In New Mexico, we met with the leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation. The Navajo chapter leaders were interested in how we could bring the CUPP program to their communities and involve students from local Tribal Colleges in delivering assistance. Community members also explained that bringing in Tribal College students would provide great role models for other Tribal youth and help develop strong mentoring relationships as well.

We hope to have several Tribal college CUPP partnerships by the spring 2016 semester.

The Navajo chapter leaders also told us about progress being made thanks to a recent USDA Rural Business Development Grant. The grant to Capacity Builders Inc., a local nonprofit, helps them deliver training for chapter officials and community members on how to identify, nurture and fund local business opportunities. This work helps the six chapters support and invest in businesses that create well-paying jobs and improve the quality of life for Tribal families. This is one of 28 such grants totaling $4.3 million Rural Development invested in Tribal communities to support business and regional economic development last year.

In Michigan, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently used 2014 Farm Bill conservation programs to help two Anishinaabe tribes increase production of wild rice. Wild rice, or manoomin, serves as a staple of the Anishinaabe diet and is culturally and spiritually important to them. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service and the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships are collaborating on nutrition projects that reduce high rates of food insecurity and help Latino communities meet their health goals through La Mesa Completa.

Support for CUPP along with investments and technical assistance like these highlight just a few of the many ways that USDA partners with local organizations to meet the goals in the Department’s 2016-2020 Environmental Justice Strategic Plan—and ensure that the place someone is born doesn’t determine her destiny.

Our draft Environmental Justice Strategic Plan for 2016-2020 and information on how to submit your comments are available on our Environmental Justice homepage and we encourage your input. The public comment period ends Feb. 14, 2016.

Michael Burns from EPA and USDA Deputy Undersecretary Arthur “Butch” Blazer meet with leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation regarding Federal environmental justice programs.

Michael Burns from EPA and USDA Deputy Undersecretary Arthur “Butch” Blazer meet with leaders of the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Shiprock, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad, Tsé Daa K’aan and Upper Fruitland chapters of Navajo Nation regarding Federal environmental justice programs.

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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Making a Visible Difference through Citizen Science

By Laura Stewart

About the author: Laura Stewart is an Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the EPA Region 10 office.

My first citizen science project was in 1999; working on a United Nations-funded project in Swaziland. In a poor community near a paper mill, we worked to address environmental and local health concerns due to the plant’s emissions. As a result of the youth-led project, the factory extended the height of its smoke stakes to disperse the emissions, which improved air quality. Seeing this interplay between environmental science and social justice changed my life.

Me (in all black) with the Swaziland "bucket brigade."

Me (in all black) with the Swaziland “bucket brigade.”

Today, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related jobs are some of the fastest growing sectors in the United States, growing to an estimated 9 million jobs by 2022.

Despite this projected growth, diversity in these fields is decreasing. Since 1991, 12 percent fewer women are earning computer science degrees. According to a National Science Foundation report, 8 percent of Hispanics and 4 percent of African Americans earned bachelors degrees in engineering, and currently people of color make up less than 20 percent of staff in the nation’s environmental organizations.

I believe these trends are creating the potential for a fundamental problem in trying to solve environmental and health challenges – how can we make a visible difference in low-income and minority communities when people from those communities are not taking part in STEM? I believe using citizen science at the community level provides a great answer to this problem.

Citizen science is the involvement of regular people in the discovery of scientific knowledge. Citizen scientists come from all walks of life, harnessing the power of information towards a common goal.

Here at EPA, I’m working on a community-based research project testing the beta version of a new EPA resource, the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST). C-FERST is a web-based environmental information and mapping tool that EPA researchers are developing where communities can identify, understand, and address local-scale sources of environmental exposure, thus becoming a part of the expanding pool of citizen scientists:

  • In Tacoma, Washington we used C-FERST with local government, a nonprofit organization, and a local college to look into food access, houselessness and infant mortality.
  • At Portland Community College, students assessed disproportionate impact, environmental justice concerns and air quality.
  • At Concordia University, social work students used the tool to interpret the real-life implications of environmental data for an upcoming project that focuses on creating safer, healthier, and more educated communities.
  • At Groundwork Portland, youth in a summer employment program used the tool for a livability study. By using C-FERST information about brownfields and air quality, students were able to inform their field research and advocate for equitable development practices in one of their city’s urban growth corridors.
  • In Seattle, we partnered with Antioch University to train their Masters of Urban Environmental Education graduates to use C-FERST to develop culturally-responsive curricula. As part of a STEM summer program at Garfield High School in Seattle, C-FERST was used to teach high school and middle school children of color about environmental justice issues including food justice, urban blight, and transit access. Students learned to conduct a community assessment, create and upload GIS map layers, and envision interim uses for vacant properties in their community.

Citizen Scientiest Groundwork Portland

I believe citizen science dares us to recognize how power imbalances affect the unique experiences of communities and people’s abilities to positively change their communities. Citizen science gives us the opportunity to return that power back into the hands of communities, potentially changing lives, not just the immediate results from science projects, but engaging members of these communities in the long term power of STEM disciplines and what they can bring to their communities.

What is your community doing to make a visible difference through citizen science?

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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EJSCREEN: A Tool for Putting Environmental Justice into Action

By Matt Tejada

Too often, America’s low-income and minority communities bear the brunt of our country’s pollution. These environmental and public health threats make it harder for kids with asthma to learn in school, and for people impacted from pollution to lead active and healthy lives.

There are many ways EPA is working to protect these overburdened communities. For the past two years, we’ve been using a screening and mapping tool called EJSCREEN to inform our work, whether its grant writing, policy decisions or enforcement. Today we take an important step forward by sharing EJSCREEN with the public, to broaden its impact, provide greater transparency in how environmental justice is considered, and to foster collaboration with partners.

EJSCREEN uses high resolution maps combined with demographic and environmental data to highlight places that may have higher environmental burdens and vulnerable populations. EJSCREEN can help you better understand the pollution burdens facing a community that has a high proximity to traffic, for instance, and also has a high proportion of people who are in poor health, have reduced access to care, lack resources or language skills, or are at susceptible life stages. This kind of data is essential for government agencies, non-profits, and any stakeholder working to make a positive impact in American communities affected by pollution.

EJSCREEN combines environmental and demographic information into “EJ indexes,” giving the user a way to measure impacts to better understand areas in need of environmental protection, health care access, housing, infrastructure improvement, community revitalization, and climate resilience.

We’ve been collaborating with our state and local partners for a while to make sure EJSCREEN is robust and actionable. Many states and stakeholder groups are eager to use it, but EPA is not mandating that state governments or other entities use the tool or its underlying data. Further, the tool shouldn’t be used as a basis for identifying areas as EJ communities, nor is it an appropriate standalone tool for making a risk assessment. It’s meant to inform decision making, so we all can make more complete and appropriate decisions in our goals to protect against pollution.

We hope you will participate in using the tool and provide us feedback on how we can make it better, both for use within EPA’s work but also for use by everyone in the United States.

About the author: Matthew Tejada is the Director of 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.

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EJ2020: Defining New Goals for the coming years

By Mustafa Santiago Ali

Realizing environmental justice for all people, regardless of their race, income or educational status is a long journey. It will not come overnight, but EPA made an important step forward recently with Plan EJ 2014. That five-year strategic plan laid a foundation for integrating environmental justice in EPA’s programs by developing basic guidance in rulemaking, permitting and enforcement, and basic tools such as EJ Legal Tools and EJSCREEN. Now it is time to build on this foundation and expand collaborations with our partners toward making a bigger difference in the overburdened communities we serve.

That is why we are developing EJ 2020, our next strategy to advance environmental justice in EPA’s programs. EJ2020 will:

  • Deepen environmental justice practice within EPA programs
  • Strengthen our collaborations with partners
  • Demonstrate progress on outcomes that matter to communities

Today, we start community and stakeholder engagement on EJ 2020. We are already learning from the initial input on areas that we have yet to fully address. By engaging our partners at the state, tribal, local, and federal levels we’ve developed ideas like integrated and area-wide planning, green infrastructure, and advanced environmental monitoring. They’ve helped us understand the need to meet the challenge of climate change, and ways to demonstrate progress that matters to communities.

We have heard from local governments who have identified best practices in how they are addressing environmental justice. Communities from Santa Barbara, California to Bridgeport, Connecticut are coming up with solutions in areas such as green infrastructure, brownfields, climate adaptation, health disparities, reducing air emissions from the movement of freight, and issues in rural communities.

We are benefiting from everyone’s robust experience learned over several decades of work.

There are a number of powerful examples of what can happen when collaborative partnerships come together between federal, state, and local governments, communities, and other stakeholders. One of those inspiring stories is the Salt Lake City Children’s Environmental Health & Environmental Justice Initiative which is working with nine neighborhoods in central and west Salt Lake City, Utah. This project brought together more than a dozen local, state, and community-based organizations with the purpose of making a visible difference in their communities. They designed a unique community engagement model to fit the needs of the neighborhoods, created a profile report characterizing community environmental and health concerns, and created an environmental data map for the West Side community. This work has allowed the community to play an important role in the design of the West Salt Lake Master Plan. As a result of the community’s active participation in the process, they have been able to increase attention on:

  • Supporting/funding community initiated ideas through the Community Implementation grants
  • Creating increased mobility and transit use options through a city-wide discount transit pass
  • Aligning city and school district opportunities through a Community Learning Center Strategy
  • Increasing understanding of affordable housing choices through a Housing needs assessment

By honoring the culture of a community and including their voices and ideas in the planning process, we can create healthier and more vibrant communities and truly make a visible difference that is rooted in the values and priorities of our most vulnerable neighborhoods.

This effort shows how critical it is for EPA to strengthen our collaborations with the communities we serve, our government partners, and all stakeholders. We hope that everyone committed to achieving the goals of environmental justice will work with us to produce a vision and plan for EJ 2020 that is relevant to the opportunities and challenges of our times.

Several years ago, I learned that we cannot solve all the intractable problems associated with environmental justice right away, especially during a period of rising demands and dwindling resources. I am reminded of the old adage that if it was so simple, it would have been solved a long time ago. Therefore, we must be strategic. We need your best thinking about key things we should focus on to most effectively and realistically advance our common goal of achieving beneficial outcomes for our most overburdened communities.

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

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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Local “Change Agent” a Catalyst for Transformation

by Blase Leven

Jack Crumbly meeting with representatives from potential funding organizations; organized by KSU TAB, on April 1, 2015.

Jack Crumbly meeting with representatives from potential funding organizations; organized by KSU TAB, on April 1, 2015.

Harriet Tubman, one of America’s greatest change agents, is credited with saying that “every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” I don’t doubt that Harriet’s words echo loudly for Jack Crumbly, who is working in four of the poorest counties in Arkansas to address high levels of school dropout rates, swelling prison populations, and poverty.

Jack is a retired school administrator and former Arkansas state senator who is leading an initiative to renovate a closed school contaminated with asbestos into a second-chance regional high school and vocational training center known as the STRIVE (Special Training in Remedial Instruction and Vocational Education) Institute of Technology. Last spring, Jack and some of the STRIVE board members attended a workshop I helped to arrange through the EPA Technical Assistance to Brownfields (TAB) Program. Since then, I’ve worked with my colleague Oral Saulters, who is the point of contact for TAB in Arkansas, to provide information about how to get the closed school eligible for federal cleanup funding. We also helped coordinate “funder’s meetings” to identify one-time startup funds.

Over the past several years, Jack and several other retired teachers and administrators have acted on their passion to improve the situation for at-risk youth in Eastern Arkansas, forming a state-approved educational non-profit organization, and creating partnerships with nine school districts that will supply the funds and bus transportation needed to operate the school. The Lee County School District deeded the former Anna Strong Elementary School, named for another Change Agent who labored to provide quality education to the African American citizens of Lee County and who was widely recognized for her efforts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s TAB Program funds technical assistance to communities and other stakeholders on brownfields issues with the goal of increasing the community’s understanding and involvement in brownfield cleanup and revitalization, and helping to move brownfields sites forward toward cleanup and reuse. The TAB program at Kansas State University works every year with more than 100 communities in EPA Regions 5, 6, 7, and 8. We provide free advice to change agents like Jack on how to go about re-purposing abandoned or inactive properties with environmental issues. If we can’t help, we can usually find someone who can.

If successful, Jack’s project will give 125 graduating students each year and 31 permanent staff a chance to add more than $1 million to local economies in new consumer spending and tax revenues, and will save more than $3 million a year in state funds by diverting adjudicated juveniles away from the pipeline-to-prison system and instead towards productive employment. The monetary value to the greater community would be far surpassed by the value to successful graduates and their families, based on similar initiatives in other states.

I’m hoping that the help we give might be the nudge that makes all of Jack’s hard work pay off. Until then Jack will be making the rounds in the morning, picking kids up on the street and hauling them to the closest school; and in the afternoons he’ll be cleaning out the abandoned school with any helpers he can find. Amazing!

Are you a change agent in your community or want to be one? It’s a lot of work but there are resources out there to help. If you would like to learn more about how the TAB program can help in your community, come to two afternoon TAB events on September 3rd at the Brownfields 2015 Conference.

About the author: Blase Leven is the Technical Assistance to Brownfields (TAB) Program Coordinator at Kansas State University. At KSU, he has managed and served on technical assistance and outreach teams for a number of EPA-funded programs since 1997.

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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Puerto Rico Shows the Power of Community Involvement in Protecting Waterways

Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

Deputy Assistance Administrator Mike Shapiro talking with Harvey Minnigh, Cristina Maldonado (CEPD), and Graciela Ramirez (CECIA-InterAmericana) about the progress of the construction of a filter for the community of Mulas Jagual in Patillas, Puerto Rico.

By Mike Shapiro (cross-posted from It’s Our Environment)

Growing up, I remember playing along the mud flats by Newark Bay and pondering why the water nearby was so dark and sticky. I later learned that the water and mud flats were contaminated with oil and other substances. While Newark Bay is still far from clean by our current standards, today when I return to my home town I can see progress from the cleanup and restoration that is taking place.

Our work with communities to improve water quality makes a big difference. I flew to Puerto Rico in February to visit two projects that have made tremendous strides in improving the health of communities there – thanks to dedicated project leaders who empower local people and collaborate with local and federal government agencies to protect their waterways.

My first visit was to Mulas Jagual in Patillas, where the city and its residents are building a filter to treat water that will serve 200 households. This is an incredible accomplishment for a community that only a few years ago was taking water from a local river and piping it directly to their homes without any treatment. Through an EPA grant, they received training and technical assistance from a university in Puerto Rico. They learned about chlorination and formed a board to help manage their community water system.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

Deputy Assistant Administrator Mike Shapiro stands with Jose Font from the EPA Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, community leaders and members of Project ENLACE, a government organization whose mission is to implement the $744 million land use and development plan for Cano Martin Pena.

My second visit was to the Martin Pena Channel, a 3.75-mile tidal channel located within San Juan Bay. During the early 20th century, substandard dwellings were built within the wetlands bordering the channel, using debris as fill material. Over 3,000 structures now discharge raw sewage into the remains of the channel. Poorly maintained sewer systems result in flooding, regularly exposing 27,000 residents to polluted waters. In 2014, we awarded a grant of $60,000 to design a new stormwater drainage system. We’re currently working with our federal partners on a major dredging project that would restore water flow within the channel.

Administrator Gina McCarthy declared February to be Environmental Justice Month. It’s important to provide minority and low-income communities with access to information and an opportunity to better protect their health. Clean water is a vital piece of the puzzle for the health and safety of all Americans.

About the author: Mike Shapiro is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water where he performs a variety of policy and operational functions to ensure the effective implementation of the National Water Program.

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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It Takes an Extended Village

By Michael Burns

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, Georgia at the Lithonia City Hall.

MBA Students from Clark Atlanta working with the city of Lithonia, GA at City Hall.

There is an old Nigerian proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Its basic meaning is that a child’s upbringing is a communal effort, in which the responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger, extended family. Even the wider community gets involved, such as neighbors and friends. This proverb, and many others like it, focuses on the values of community, unity, cooperation, and sharing.

Today’s modern village is more than just an actual geographic place where individuals and families live, work, and play together. For underserved communities like Lithonia, Georgia, the horizons of the contemporary village extend beyond the town line to include colleges and universities, some local and some not so local. Through efforts like the College-Underserved Community Partnership Program, this wider community of students and professors are being engaged to build long-term partnerships with small municipalities and provide no-cost technical assistance to help the towns accomplish their planning goals.

With the success we had in getting Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College onboard, I began reaching out to other schools to participate. I had met Lithonia Mayor Deborah Jackson shortly after she was elected, and really wanted to provide a partner for her to help her city move forward. I reached out to Dr. Charles Richardson from Clark Atlanta University to see if he could work with Lithonia. As I was in his office discussing the possibility with him, one of his MBA students walked in to talk about what they would be working on the upcoming fall semester. Dr. Richardson turned and looked at the student and said “Shake hands with Mr. Burns, he just gave you your class project for this semester.” And just like that, another school was added.

Clark Atlanta University’s MBA students formed an Organizational Development Planning Team to help “rebrand” the city. They developed an organizational structure that allocated different responsibilities not only to members of the Lithonia Business Alliance Group but to local residents as well. They established membership guidelines, governance principles, and scheduled guidelines for meetings and events to keep things well organized. They identified benefit sets for members and potential collaboration opportunities that would ultimately help increase community involvement. They also identified marketing tactics for the association and business members of the business alliance.

They did a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis of the city’s economic situation and provided valuable recommendations to the city to help it move forward.

  • They worked with the City to help rebrand to improve their ability to promote the city.
  • They worked with local businesses, and provided recommendations on how they could work better together, and how the city could help them move forward.
  • They provided recommendations on how to attract business to become a part of the city.
  • They also worked with the City to help them identify grants to address their brownfields site in the downtown area.

We often talk about the benefit the program provides to our underserved cities and communities, but the value to the students who participate is also great. For these students, the CUPP Program has given them an edge in competing in the marketplace for jobs and opportunities. One of the students had this to say:

“This [project] personally helped me in my career to be organized, to be an intelligent decision maker, and to most importantly take a risk to make a real difference! I am extremely proud of Clark Atlanta University for recognizing talent when they see it and they certainly saw something in Dr. Charles Richardson who pushed us to our limits and encouraged us to work smart. Thank you Clark Atlanta University! Thank you Dr. Charles Richardson! Thank you to the City of Lithonia, GA!”

Efforts like CUPP illustrate that it takes a modern, extended village not constrained by geography to make a difference. It’s a timeless reminder that a community will thrive if the whole of society works together. We are not just making a visible difference in communities; we are making better students entering the workplace. Both sides are winners!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

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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Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

by Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

Standing Sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama

Raw sewage outside a home in Lowndes County, Alabama (source: http://eji.org/node/629)

When most of us think or speak about people who lack access to adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment — if we think or speak of them at all– it usually brings to mind folks in developing countries half way across the globe. Just as an upcoming United Nations Summit on development goals seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” we want the people of those countries to have the basic human rights that we may take for granted daily at our taps and toilets. Unfortunately, we often overlook communities in our own backyard who lack access to clean water and sanitation.

Here in the United States, communities that lack access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation can be found in colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, in rural Alaska Native Villages, in Appalachia, and in the Black Belt of the southern U.S. In EPA’s Sustainable Communities Branch of the Office of Wastewater Management, we focus on these communities.

Last year, we visited Willisville, a small, historic, rural community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia, considered one of the wealthiest counties in America. Yet in unincorporated Willisville, many of its largely low income, African-American families lived without indoor plumbing, relying instead on privies and outhouses, and drawing their water from shallow wells, as their ancestors had done since the community’s founding just after the Civil War. In 1998, the Loudoun County Health Department found that the majority of homes in Willisville had inadequate drinking water supplies, and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Additionally, the poor soil quality was not compatible with the installation of traditional septic systems, while more costly alternative systems were out of the price range of residents.

Bringing adequate infrastructure to Willisville had presented funding, planning, and installation challenges. In 2007, a joint venture of the County, the local water authority, and the community, provided an on-site community wastewater collection and treatment system that replaced outhouses and failing drain fields. The County covered most of the cost of connecting homes to the system, drilling new wells, and adding bathrooms, kitchen sinks, and washing-machine hookups. Yet even with these improvements, additional challenges remained. Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes, for example, would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, due to the determination of key individuals, Willisville residents were able to work with the County and nonprofit organizations to modify the tax base to allow residents to afford the new services.

Unfortunately, the situation that had plagued Willisville can be seen in other communities around the country.

Take for example, Lowndes County, Alabama, a mostly rural minority community with a 27 percent poverty rate. In 2002, it was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or were using an inadequate one. In addition, 50 percent of the existing septic systems did not work properly. The community had been built on highly impermeable clay soils that do not quickly absorb water, making installing sophisticated and advanced septic systems very cost prohibitive. It was not uncommon to see raw sewage in fields, yards, and ditches. Inadequate wastewater management became a public health hazard and an environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. In 2011, the situation was the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry.

In 2010, EPA entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management plan for rural Lowndes County. The grant demonstrates the use of affordable or new technologies in an effort to address the inadequate disposal of raw sewage in Lowndes County. The grant not only signifies an important first step to improving the area’s basic sanitation services, but it provides a model to help protect water quality and human health in this community and others around the country.

Most people living in the United States enjoy access to safe water and sanitation. Yet, there are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County for which the opposite is true. Providing funding and technical assistance to underserved communities can help them tackle the complex issues of improving their water and wastewater infrastructure. But it’s not a task that can be undertaken by a single individual. These efforts will require multi-stakeholder engagement and the collaboration of public, private, and academic partnerships with the affected communities to achieve environmental justice. We’ve seen the success first hand, and we know it’s possible.

Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

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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Building Partnerships Between Colleges and Underserved Communities

By Michael Burns

During my 30-plus years with the federal government, I have held many great positions, such as Deputy Director of the Army Reserve Base Operations Division, and Executive Director of the Navy’s Southeast Region. I have enjoyed each and every position, but I never felt that I was giving back to communities as much as I would have liked.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Students from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College explore downtown development opportunities with the City of Ashburn master planner.

Five years ago, I worked for the National Park Service, and attended a meeting with various federal agencies to work together on American Recovery and Reinvestment Act projects where we met with the Mayor of Hayneville, a small town in southern Alabama. The Mayor described how she had many infrastructure issues to address, but expressed concern about her city’s capacity to pass federal audit requirements that come with the funding needed to address the issues. She said a Certified Public Accountant told her it would cost about $20,000 to ensure she passed the audit. For a small, poor town of 1,080, such a fee was beyond their means. I thought about it, and remembered that a university only thirty minutes away could possibly help them. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was unable to follow through with the idea.

Many small, underserved communities, like Hayneville, are in need of resources to improve their environment and quality of life. However, they often lack the technical expertise in engineering, transportation, and infrastructure planning to pursue initiatives in a progressive and sustainable manner.

Eighteen months later, I was talking to folks from EPA Region 4 about this idea of connecting underserved communities with the talents of college students and faculty. They asked if I would be willing to collaborate with EPA. I agreed, and began to reach out to colleges and universities.

With no budget or funding to provide to the schools, it was tough going! Our first breakthrough came when the U.S. Department of Energy agreed to provide stipends to students through its Massie Chair of Excellence Program at Tennessee State University. The students worked with the City of Cooperstown, Tennessee, helping it upgrade its financial recordkeeping and develop an economic development plan. With this effort, we were able to prove that the college-community partnership concept was not only valid, but we could help make a difference in small, underserved communities. But the lack of funding continued to plague our efforts.

Our biggest advance came when Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, a small college in Tifton, Georgia, agreed to provide economic development plans for two small cities in Georgia with no financial support from the federal government. The College understood the value of giving its students such a rich experiential learning opportunity in which they could take what they learned in the classroom, apply it to real world problems, and come up with real-world solutions. The school also understood that such opportunities were more important than simply extending financial support to these cities. Just as critical was that the program gave their students a leg up when looking for employment after graduation – they not only could talk in interviews about what they learned, but about what they had DONE. In addition, the school is now an important pillar of the community. It is looked upon as an organization that can and has made a visible difference in these communities.

The briefing the school gave the communities about concepts and plans for economic development was fantastic! It has offered to help these communities develop grant proposals to move forward, and get the resources they need for improvements.

As a result of the growing success of the program, I was hired at EPA Region 4 to expand EPA’s College/Underserved-Communities Partnership Program (CUPP), which develops long-term partnerships between local colleges and universities and underserved cities and communities. Through the program, schools provide technical support to communities at no cost to them. Small rural communities are able to use this assistance to address important issues – like energy savings projects, land reuse, and economic development – that will support the long-term viability of their communities.

We continue to add colleges and universities to this effort, and in future blog posts we will talk about plans and projects that are moving these underserved communities forward. We are also looking for schools that wish to voluntarily be a part of this program. Do you know a school, or does your school want to make a difference in the lives of those who need the help the most? Let us know!

About the Author: Michael Burns is Senior Advisor to the Regional Administrator for EPA Region 4 in Atlanta, Georgia. Previously he worked for the U.S. National Park Service, where he served as the Acting Superintendent of the Tuskegee Institute Park and worked with communities in Alabama.

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: A Fight for Equal Opportunity

By Gina McCarthy and Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr.

(Cross-posted from EPAConnect)

Fifty years ago, Americans facing racial injustice marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest discriminatory voting laws. It was a watershed moment in the Civil Rights Movement, influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and forever redefining and improving our cherished values of freedom and fairness. February marks Black History Month—a time to reflect on past injustice, and refocus efforts on injustices that persist.

Today, too often, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are disproportionately burdened by pollution and health risks. Those same communities are excessively vulnerable to the devastating floods, fires, storms, and heatwaves supercharged by climate change. To make matters worse, the carbon pollution fueling climate change comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants that cause chronic disease and chase away local businesses and jobs. Power plants, our biggest source of carbon pollution, are often located in these areas, casting their shadow over communities already vulnerable to environmental health hazards.

Pollution and climate impacts are a barrier to economic opportunity, blocking the path to middle-class security. President Obama calls ensuring America’s promise of opportunity for all a defining challenge of our time; however, it’s impossible to climb any ladder of opportunity without clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to live on.

That’s why at the core of EPA’s mission is the unwavering pursuit of environmental justice. The Hip Hop Caucus joined the fight for Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that underscored communities facing risks from climate impacts: low-income families and people of color.

With President Obama’s leadership, EPA is ramping up efforts to cut air and water pollution, expanding public outreach, enforcing laws to defend public health, and holding polluters accountable. And through President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, EPA is taking historic action to fight the economic and public health risks of a changing climate by cutting carbon pollution from power plants.

Organizations like the Hip Hop Caucus are critical to climate progress by ensuring at-risk communities are a part of the conversation—and part of the solution. To balance the ledger of environmental disenfranchisement, we must confront today’s risks with a focus on communities that need it the most.

We’re moved by the words of Jibreel Khazan spoken in Greensboro, NC on the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro Four sitting down at the lunch counter inside the Woolworth store on February 1st, 1960:

“Climate change is young people’s ‘lunch counter moment’ for the 21st century. When my three classmates and I sat down at that lunch counter to end segregation we did not know what the outcome would be. We simply knew that we had to act. We had to take bold action for necessary change to come about. It is in the tradition of civil and human rights struggle that young people today are calling for action on climate change. It is the biggest threat to justice and opportunity our planet has ever seen.”

Fighting for environmental justice, and climate justice, echoes the spirit of America’s great civil rights leaders; it’s a spirit fueled by our moral obligation to leave our children a world safer and rich with opportunity. History proves even the most wrenching strains on justice can be unwound, with a committed, diverse, and vocal coalition of people calling for change. That’s why EPA, the Hip Hop Caucus, and organizations around the country are fighting for climate justice—so we can further fairness and opportunity for all.

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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.