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.

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Community-driven Revitalization: Tying it Together in Freeport, Illinois

by Melissa Friedland

The East Side of Freeport, Illinois, is a remarkable place. This African-American neighborhood has been home to families for generations. Residents have a strong sense of community and deep affection for the area. However, frequent flooding from the Pecatonica River has not just damaged homes but impacted the community’s economic vitality. The community also has vacant former industrial areas, petroleum contamination, and has been subject to illegal dumping at the CMC Heartland Superfund site. These have exacerbated the legacy of racial segregation, strained relationships with civic leadership, and diminished access to community amenities.

In 2013, community members began to tackle these challenges. Their goal: to make it possible for Freeport’s East Side to again support quality housing, thriving businesses, and public amenities. At the outset, stakeholders identified two key outcomes for the project – reducing flooding impacts and addressing floodway regulations. Properties in the neighborhood’s floodplain are subject to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state floodway regulations as activities such as rebuilding and improving housing and commercial space after flood events are considered. Residents have indicated that addressing these challenges could lay the foundation for pursuing additional neighborhood revitalization goals.

To help make this happen, EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) and Region 5 office sponsored a reuse planning process for the CMC Heartland site and other contaminated properties in the neighborhood. The year-long effort brought local residents and business owners together with city officials and federal agency staff.

Building trust and relationships was the first priority, as a legacy of poor communication and strained relations between the community and the local government threatened to derail progress. A pro-bono Cultural Competence training brought city staff and neighborhood residents together. Breakthroughs followed, as participants shared their experiences and people realized that everyone at the table was interested in addressing past challenges and ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for the East Side. The training was an early turning point that enabled participants to understand each other’s perspectives and plan for the future.

Reducing Flood Impacts

011080410 FEMA assists IEMA with flood assessments

With good working relationships in place, the work shifted to understanding where and how flooding was affecting the neighborhood. During several working sessions, residents and city staff developed a detailed map that incorporated community feedback about areas of concern as well as technical floodplain information. In a follow-up session, participants explored ways to manage stormwater differently. Where traditional gray infrastructure approaches rely on pipes, sewers, and other physical structures, green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality, and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency.

Participants then prioritized a set of goals for reducing flood impacts, including addressing areas where floodwaters enter homes and block street access, ensuring safe access to a neighborhood school, tackling areas of standing water, and designing green infrastructure features to beautify the East Side neighborhood and the Stephenson Street entrance corridor.

Addressing Floodway Regulations

East Side residents, city staff, and elected officials knew that engaging with FEMA was essential to reducing flooding impacts and supporting community revitalization. Parties developed a joint statement describing how the neighborhood’s economic vitality and housing quality have been impacted over time by its location in the floodway where residents contend with recurring major and minor flood events. East Side residents would like to work with FEMA on the best possible ways to maintain and improve their homes.

In a presentation to FEMA in 2014, the group invited agency staff to join a dialogue to focus on finding solutions. In addition, a plan that focused on flood impact reduction and neighborhood revitalization was developed with the support of the EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative and Region 5. More information can be found in the final report.

Through its work with communities, EPA’s goal is make a visible and lasting difference. The East Side project shows how these efforts can lead to new partnerships, vital innovations, and long-term revitalization.

About the author: Melissa Friedland manages EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, an EPA initiative that helps communities reclaim cleaned-up Superfund program sites.

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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The Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination: An International Human Right

by Danny Gogal

“Sure, I’ll serve as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreements.” That was my response to my Office Director this past April, although I knew very little of what this new responsibility would entail. However, I was intrigued by the potential opportunities to engage the international community on issues of environmental justice.

Fortunately, I had some previous exposure to international human rights processes in 2010, when the U.S. Government (USG) initiated its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of its human rights record. During this time, the USG was engaged in a concerted effort to meet with a wide range of interested parties throughout the country to get input and comments on efforts to provide for human rights. These included consultations with federally recognized tribal government officials and indigenous peoples.

Four years later, I found myself once again fully engrossed in our government’s preparation for its review by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). For the first time, EPA was asked to participate as an official member of the U.S. delegation. Although the USG completed and submitted its report to the CERD in June 2013, the presentation to the UN wasn’t until August 2014. The environmental section of our report highlights the re-establishment and activities of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (Section 28), a variety of environmental justice projects, such as federal agencies’ EJ strategies (Section 144), and EPA’s use of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in a pollution permit decision (Section 173).

The day before our presentation, the U.S. delegation met with U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (NGO) and tribes at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva. More than 80 individuals attended the three-hour meeting, which provided the opportunity for the NGOs, many of whom had submitted “shadow reports,” to share their perspectives on human rights in the United States and the USG’s implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The meeting and interactions after the meeting proved to be beneficial to many of the NGOs, as well as the U.S. delegation.

The meeting with the CERD was held over a two-day period, consisting of two 3 hour sessions which opened with remarks from the US Ambassador for Human Rights, Keith Harper. The key environmental issues raised by the CERD included:

  • Water shut-offs in Detroit and Boston
  • Impacts of resources extraction on water and drinking water
  • Pollution in foreign countries caused by multi-national companies
  • Addressing environmental and public health impacts to minority, low-income and indigenous communities living along the coasts, particularly the Vietnamese communities in Louisiana and indigenous communities.
  • General concerns included need for:
    • USG to actually seek “transformation” to address discrimination
    • Greater education within the United States about the ICERD and its principles

In its initial report, the CERD also expressed concern about “the large number of tribes that remained unrecognized by the Federal Government and the obstacles to recognition…, and ongoing problems to guarantee the meaningful participation of indigenous people…” These concerns drew my attention given EPA’s newPolicy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which speaks to how EPA works to provide the meaningful participation of state-recognized and non-recognized tribes, indigenous peoples, as well as others, in EPA’s decision making processes.

The CERD’s concluding observations highlighted their recommendation that the USG improve its protection of the environment and public health of minority, low-income and indigenous communities.

The upcoming USG UPR review, scheduled for May 11, 2015 also will likely bring attention to environmental justice and equitable development. This review also includes engaging with the public through various civil society consultations held throughout the country, including a consultation on environmental issues held October 7 of this year.

I am looking forward to once again engaging the NGOs, my fellow public servants, and the international community during this UPR process as we strive to identify ways to more effectively make a visible difference in vulnerable communities, particularly in environmental and public health protection. I also would be interested in hearing from NGOs about how valuable they find these international human rights processes. This work is proving to be a viable avenue for raising awareness and harnessing interest in environmental justice, both domestically and internationally.

About the author: Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background. He is currently serving as EPA’s lead for international human rights agreement, and has been working on tribal and indigenous peoples environmental policy and environmental justice issues for the past 28 years. He is the Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, and has worked in various capacities for the Agency’s environmental justice program over the past twenty-two years.

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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Sampling the Garden Soil

by Cliff Villa

It began with a concerned mom in Eugene, Oregon, raising a seemingly simple question: is the soil in my garden safe for growing food?

Joanne Gross, the stay-at-home mom posing the question, had reason to be concerned. The neighborhood of West Eugene, where she and her family were living, was ringed with air pollution from a variety of sources: energy production, chemical processing and manufacturing, wood products, traffic, and idling trains. The chemicals emitted from these sources are associated with a variety of health risks including asthma, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. And indeed, more than 60% of residents who participated in a local survey reported significant concerns about asthma and cardiovascular diseases, as well as increased incidences of headaches, fatigue, and other ailments potentially connected to air pollution.

The 97402 zip code that makes up West Eugene is home to 99 percent of the City of Eugene’s air toxics emissions. Of the 31 facilities reporting to the city’s Toxics Right-to-Know Program, all but one is located in this zip code. One facility, a wood treatment plant that uses creosote in its industrial process, operates 100 feet from the nearest home and just over half a mile from Fairfield Elementary School, which has the highest asthma rate for an elementary school in the Bethel School District. Reflecting local demographics, 35 percent of Fairfield’s students are Latino and 71 percent receive free or reduced school lunches.

To help gather information about environmental justice concerns in this community, EPA Region 10 awarded two Environmental Justice Small Grants to Beyond Toxics, a local community-based organization working in partnership with other community organizations. The grants supported statistical analysis, door-to-door surveys, community presentations, and other initiatives including a local “EJ Toxics Tour.” Beyond Toxics and its partners, including Centro Latino Americano, conducted community interviews and meetings in Spanish, and recorded the concerns of community members who might have been overlooked in the past.

These discussions engaged the attention of many government organizations, including the City of Eugene, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, the Oregon Health Authority, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. While some agencies worked on air permitting issues local health studies, brownfields assessments, and land use planning, we here in EPA Region 10 wondered how else we might contribute to enhancing the environmental well-being of this over-burdened community.

The simple question posed by concerned mom Joanne Gross and other community members prompted EPA’s response: find out whether it is safe for local residents to grow food in their gardens.

The My Garden – West Eugene project was designed to answer this question. We knew that we possessed the technical capacity to conduct soil sampling and analysis, and through the use of mobile laboratories, field equipment, and EPA and contractor personnel, it seemed possible that soil sampling and analysis could be conducted in the field, with results provided to community members almost instantaneously. We discovered that the concept already had been tested and proven a success in EPA Region 3, where staff had held “Soil Kitchen” events in diverse neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. Their Soil Kitchen events pioneered an innovative process involving community members collecting their own soil samples from their backyards and gardens and bringing their samples to the “Soil Kitchen” for real-time analysis by EPA.

Partnering with local organizations, including Beyond Toxics and the Active Bethel Citizens neighborhood association, as well as state and local agencies, we planned the My Garden event for Sunday, October, 19, 2014, to coincide with the neighborhood Bethel Harvest Festival. In the weeks leading up to the event, community partners helped assemble and distribute throughout the community 250 citizen sampling kits. Each kit included a metal spoon, the illustrated instructions, and a zip-lock bag for collecting and the delivering the soil sample to the mobile lab. Over the course of a lovely fall afternoon, community members, including concerned mom Joanne Gross, brought 38 soil samples to the EPA mobile lab and received both the analytical data and an explanation of what the data meant. The operation was overseen by EPA On-Scene Coordinator Dan Heister, assisted by many other technical and program staff and contractors. Importantly, the EPA team included a native Spanish speaker who could explain the sampling process and results to the more than one-third of Spanish-speaking community members who brought their samples in for testing.

In addition to establishing connections with community members and local agencies and organizations, the My Garden – West Eugene project provided reassuring news to Joanne Gross and all her neighbors participating in the event: of all samples analyzed, none indicated contamination at levels of concern for growing food in gardens.

About the author: Cliff Villa is an Assistant Regional Counsel for EPA Region 10 and an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law. At EPA, Cliff provides legal counsel to the Emergency Management Program and represents the Office of Regional Counsel on the Region 10 Environmental Justice Integration Team.

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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Port Arthur Texas – Climate Justice Hits Home


By Hilton Kelley

Texas is considered the “Energy State.” In 2013 it was the leading crude oil-producing state in the nation; its 27 refineries exceeding even the production levels of off-shore production. That year Texas was also the leading natural gas producer in the country. Port Arthur, Texas, my home, sits on the Louisiana-Texas border on the Gulf Coast, right in the heart of this Texas energy hub. Port Arthur also is home to four major oil refineries, four chemical plants, one petroleum coke plant, and an international chemical waste incineration facility.

Many residents of Port Arthur, particularly those in the low income community of color, in the city’s Historic west side, have been and continue to be disproportionately negatively impacted by carbon emissions, volatile organic compounds, and known carcinogens from these facilities. Based on a local door-to-door community survey, one out of every five households here has someone who suffers from chronic respiratory illnesses, many of whom are children. According data compiled by the Texas Cancer Registry, the county’s cancer incidence rate is 25% higher than the state average. We have a large number of people in our community who have been diagnosed with cancer and liver and kidney disease. A separate study by the University of Texas Medical Branch found that the residents of Port Arthur are four times more likely than people who live 100 miles away to suffer from heart and respiratory problems, nervous and skin disorders, and other illnesses. The health problems endured by my friend Paula and her family are examples of the devastating impacts pollution is having in my community.

Smoke rises from Deepwater Horizon

The question of how much pollution one community can bear takes on a whole new meaning when talking about climate change. The ferocity of recent hurricanes has been unexpected, bringing in storm surges that reached to the top of the 100-year levee. Due to rising sea levels, a portion of Highway 87 leading to Galveston along the Gulf Coast has not been open for years because large sections have been washed out. Vast amounts of coastal marshlands and wetlands, which serve as natural sponges that trap and slowly release storm waters, are contaminated largely due to oil spills, big ones like the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010, as well as smaller ones too. There is a massive sinkhole in the Louisiana wetlands which is possibly leaking chemical waste from a very large underground injection well.

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

Hurricane Ike over the Gulf of Mexico

The emergence of serious storms and other significant weather changes only exacerbates the problems we are dealing with. Like the Murphy Oil flooding following Hurricane Katrina, storm surges will wash chemicals from their confinement into our neighborhoods. It’s not just the major storms that wreak environmental havoc on coastal areas like ours that are home to oil and gas production facilities. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike (a Category 2 storm) caused hundreds of releases of oil, gasoline, and dozens of other substances into our air and water, facilities were damaged causing explosions and other catastrophes that only compound the suffering of my friends, neighbors and future generations.

The time to deal with climate change and related issues like chemical safety, chemical reduction, and community resiliency is now — people are dying because of over-exposure to dangerous substances. Human and wildlife habitats are being lost. Just as important, we are losing the culture and way of life of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast. We must do more to get local, regional, and State governments involved in the fight to reduce and combat climate change. Time is of the essence.

This must happen! Not next year, not next month, but right now.

About the author: Hilton Kelley is the Executive Director and Founder of Community In-power and Development Association Inc. In 2011, he received the prestigious Goldman Prize for his efforts on environmental justice.

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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A Call to Public Service: Civil Rights and Environmental Justice

As a child growing up in the 1950s in upstate New York, my days were filled with school, baseball, and playing in the woods. In my early years, I was mostly unaware of the broader social issues of the time.

Coming of age in the ‘60s, all of that changed.

The 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist yet, and it took more effort to keep up with current events back then. But as a young teenager, I began to pay more attention—and in 1963 the world came crashing in. The March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, and President Kennedy’s assassination suddenly made me aware of a greater struggle beyond the world I knew.

As I started high school, I tried to understand how these events fit together—but I couldn’t comprehend why, in the United States of America, it was a struggle to pass a law to assure equal rights. But justice finally prevailed and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Like the civil rights movement, the environmental movement was made up of ordinary people who faced injustice and focused public attention to confront it. Unbearable smog in Los Angeles and a burning river in Ohio were a wake-up call to Americans that pollution threatens our health, and that we have a responsibility to fight it.

Our nation’s major environmental laws were passed in the early 1970s, but they too were a struggle, with many critics claiming they would kill the economy.

Now, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, hindsight helps us appreciate where these years of struggle have led. As I got older, I came to understand that any problem worth tackling is difficult in the moment—but that we should do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Civil rights and environmental protection were hard-won out of the same desire for a stronger, more equal America. Both have transformed our nation for the better. Today, the air in Los Angeles is breathable. Fish swim again in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River. And despite the naysayers, the U.S. has cut air pollution 70 percent since 1970, while GDP has tripled.

But there’s still more work to do.

We have less pollution than we did in decades past, but the benefits of our collective cleanup are still unequal. Poor and underserved communities are still unfairly impacted by pollution—leading to illness and missed days of school and work that disadvantaged families can’t afford. Whether it’s smog that causes asthma, toxic chemicals that foul our water, or carbon pollution that fuels climate change, our job is to right that wrong.

That’s where civil rights and environmental protection converge today, and it’s why EPA’s commitment to environmental justice is so important. This summer, our country took a huge step forward. Although we limit pollutants like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, currently, there are no limits on carbon pollution from power plants, our nation’s largest source. Under President Obama’s direction, the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan will cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030. At the same time, we’ll cut other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.

During this 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act, we must recommit to justice in all its forms, and for us at EPA, this means making sure everyone has equal access to the benefits of our work, regardless of who they are or where they come from. I know our team is up to the task.

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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Clean Power, Cleaner Communities

By Jalonne White-Newsome

My daughter and I love to cook together, and one of our favorite shows is “Chopped,” where chefs come from across the country and are given 20 to 30 minutes to create an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert with a mystery basket of ingredients. This show is intriguing in that all the chefs are working with the same ingredients, but ultimately, the way they decide to transform the basket of ingredients is unique. While the Food Network was not the first thing on the minds of EPA’s rule writers, I believe the EPA is providing yet another opportunity for us to create a program that will not only be fulfilling, but enhance the quality of life for all.

At the end of July, environmental advocates across the country will be testifying at public hearings to make their voices heard about EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which sets state limits on the amount of carbon dioxide that can be produced from one of the largest sources of carbon pollution — power plants (or referred to in the plan as “electricity generating units”). This plan is the next big step in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan introduced last year, which set forth an agenda to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, build community resilience, and encourage energy efficiency.

Yes, this is a huge step forward in addressing climate change and there is a need for ALL voices to be heard, especially those of us who are disproportionately impacted by power plant emissions and numerous co-pollutants from exhaust stacks in our community. There is a need for us to not only be present at the public hearings across the country, but to start to engage with utilities, environmental agencies, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders – at the local and state levels – to ensure that equity is a major part of the state-implementation planning process for this proposed rule. Additionally, if you can’t speak at one of the public hearings, there are other ways to comment in writing. The comment period on the proposal is open until October 16, 2014, and you can click here for tips on how to effectively comment on EPA proposed rules and changes.

This rule, I believe, will be a game changer. It is a federal rule but, similar to other federal regulations that are crafted in the Beltway, the State environmental agencies have the responsibility of creating a unique ‘menu of options’ to meet state-based carbon dioxide emission goals. This ‘menu’ can include things like improving emission rates through technological upgrades from power plants, converting current coal-fired utilities to natural gas, enhancing state-level renewable energy requirements, and other options. So while having options on any menu is a good thing, it is also crucial that environmental justice and social justice advocates across the country help create the ‘best menu’ possible – at the state level – that will ensure that EVERYONE feels full and satisfied.


To understand how you can chime-in, WE ACT for Environmental Justice is hosting a webinar next Monday, July 21st to unpack the Clean Power Plan and highlight some of the key equity concerns that could arise. We know that there are many local environmental challenges that require time, energy, and resources that, quite frankly, do not leave much space to work on federal policy. However, it is my hope that environmental advocates across the country will listen in, and see how much we really have at stake if we do NOT get engaged. The EPA’s Clean Power Plan will have a local/state impact that – in one way or another – will probably touch on issues of energy, air quality, alternative fuels, civil rights, green jobs, and education which align with the work you already are engaged in.

Let us all be at the table and make sure we make the menu work for all of us. There’s a lot at stake.

About the author: Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is WE ACT’s Federal Policy Analyst, based in Washington, DC. Prior to joining WE ACT, Jalonne was the inaugural Kendall Science Fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), engaging in independent research on climate change adaptation and public health. While matriculating through the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University Of Michigan School Of Public Health, her dissertation research focused on understanding the public health impacts of extreme heat events, specifically related to indoor heat exposure and how the urban-dwelling elderly adapt to hot weather.



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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Journeys of Light: When Women Power Meets Green Power

“I am talking of a place…a fertile place, full of rice and wheat fields and ponds in the middle of those fields choked with lotuses and water lilies, and water buffaloes wading through the ponds and chewing on the lotuses and lilies. Those who live in this place call it the Darkness. Please understand, Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness.”

– The White Tiger By Aravind Adiga

By Neha Misra

A Sundari tree in the Sundarbans National Park

Sundarbans literally means “beautiful forest” in Bengali

I grew up in an India of Light, in the heart of urban Delhi with many privileges of a booming middle class brought by liberalization of the Indian economy in the early nineties. In 2005, for the first time, I got to see the India of Darkness up-close. I was working on a project for the Global Network on Energy for Sustainable Development in the Sundarbans region of India, one of the most biologically productive natural ecosystems on Earth, known for the world’s largest mangrove forests. While rich in biodiversity, Sundarbans is also one of the most densely populated and poorest parts of our world, and highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.

During my field research, I learned that having something seemingly as simple as a solar light bulb could mean so much to the people of Sundarbans. One story particularly made a deep impact. I learned how women who had solar light could, for the first time in their lives, go to sleep peacefully without worrying about a snake biting them in their mud homes in the thick of night. The presence of solar lights reduces the risk of this hazard. This connection between light and a peaceful sleep (and life itself!) was new to me. The contrast between the lights of Delhi, as I knew it (despite its perennial power cuts), and darkness of Sundarbans could not have been more profound.

A typical kerosene lamp in the developing world

A typical kerosene lamp in the developing world

Fast forward to late 2009. I was living and working in the midst of the bright lights of America. On the heels of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, I was distraught with the lack of significant progress addressing climate equity and its relation to extreme energy poverty. There are 1.6 billion people in the world without a single light bulb. Four out of five people lacking access to electricity live in rural areas. 70% are women and girls who spend up to 40% of their family income on inefficient and dangerous fuels like kerosene. And according to an IFC report, fuel based lighting is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars annually. Every day, women and children inhale smoke equivalent to two packs of cigarettes due to indoor air pollution. How can we create a bright future if women and girls around the world continue to live a life of darkness, and not one of possibilities?

Solar Sister Hawa leading a training session

Solar Sister Hawa leading a training session. Credit Solar Sister 2014.

My thoughts kept going back to Sundarbans. I wanted to be a part of a bottom-up solution. So I became a part of Solar Sister, a start-up social enterprise marrying “woman power” with “green power,” and doing so through market-based and locally driven innovation. Solar Sister combines the breakthrough potential of clean energy technology (like portable solar lamps, mobile phone chargers and, more recently, clean cookstoves) with a women-centric direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in Africa.

Since our small beginnings in 2010 training 10 women in Uganda as Solar Sister entrepreneurs, today Solar Sister has recruited, trained and mentored more than 724 women in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Sudan who have brought the life-transforming benefits of clean energy to over 113,550 Africans.

Solar Sister Valentina Tiem

Solar Sister Valentina Tiem. Credit Solar Sister 2014.

One Solar Sister at a time, we are bridging the wide rift between those living in light versus those in darkness whom I first saw in Sundarbans. For example, I met with Solar Sister Valentina Tiem from Hydom, Tanzania, a local leader and community health officer responsible for mobilizing women from more than 20 women’s savings groups in her community. Valentina is using income from her Solar Sister business to pay her children’s school fees, while being readily available to assist with child birth, all with her own solar light and charged mobile phone in hand.

Solar Sister is continuing to invest and expand its network of women entrepreneurs while significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and lowering air pollution exposure for countless families across Africa. Some key lessons for us: first, that engaging and empowering women leaders can have a transformational impact on transitioning our world from energy poverty to green prosperity. Second, cutting edge advances in technology, targeted skills training and capital must be matched to ensure that the products reach where they are needed the most. Third, achieving an impact at scale calls for innovative public, private, and people partnerships. This is not just one nation’s or one gender’s issue. It’s a human issue, and we all can do something to share the light.

About the Author: Neha Misra is the Chief Collaboration Officer of Solar Sister. She also serves as a Solar Suitcase Ambassador for We Care Solar, which is bringing solar power to remote maternal health clinics around the world. When not advocating for women’s role in clean tech, Neha is a poet and a contemporary folk artist, connecting the dots between creativity and social innovation for building a sustainable society. Follow her on Twitter: @LightSolar

Neha Misra spoke on the Environmental Protection Agency’s April 29th panel “Women as Climate Leaders: Building Resilience Across Our Communities”. This event was an important part of EPA’s Earth Month celebrations.


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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There’s Something Different about the Jordan River

By Seung-min Kang

Most people are fully aware that helping out our neighbors and the environment benefits everyone and deserves recognition.  However, the thought of doing a good turn or even getting recognized for it often is not enough to attract people’s interest or ignite their sense of stewardship. If it were, people would clean up their local river after work rather than watch TV.

To raise awareness and promote community engagement in the local watershed, the Jordan River Commission (JRC), in partnership with Salt Lake County and the Center for Documentary Expression and Art (CDEA) in Salt Lake City, Utah, developed an innovative idea for a new outreach program funded by EPA’s Urban Waters Small Grants Program. Their project offers an approach which is not only valuable in meeting water quality goals for the Jordan River Watershed, but unique in the way it captures the community’s attention and encourages their active participation.

Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) student, Rachael Ainsworth takes photos while on a field trip to the Jordan River

Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) student, Rachael Ainsworth takes photos while on a field trip to the Jordan River

The Jordan River flows west of the city, in an area populated by a number of low-income, ethnically-diverse neighborhoods in contrast with the City’s more affluent, less diverse east side. Within these neighborhoods, a quarter of the residents are school age, ranging from 5 to 19. However, the river had never been a safe and healthy place for these kids to play, nor could the community enjoy the riverfront because of continuing problems with mounting garbage and illegal dumping, as well as declining water quality.

JRC and CDEA decided to clean up this “diamond in the rough” to allow kids and their families the chance to enjoy up close and personal the beauty of a clean environment. The partnership took a unique path —  engaging neighborhood youth to positively impact water quality by increasing their awareness of the watershed and empowering them to make changes. Their 8-week long in-school Artists/Scholars-in-Residence program includes classes in environmental literature, photography, and writing. The program intentionally bucks the notion that all environmental learning programs are science-based.  Yet it introduces students to the connections between science and history, science and art, and ecology.

SLCSE students work on designing their projects for the JRC's website.

SLCSE students work on designing their projects for the website.

This is a great chance for students who are not interested in science to interact with the environment while learning new skills. In addition, student’s photographs, stories, poetry and other information are integrated into the partnerhip’s mobile website, which is accessible for many low-income residents whose only access to technology is through their cellphones.  Armed with just a smartphone, each student helps map the Jordan River trail and identify “interpretive stops” that provide information about the specific areas.  All of the spots on the trail have a numerical stop number where people can learn about each stop by typing its number into the website.

The information these students have gathered is now being made available to thousands of Salt Lake County residents to encourage them to explore the Jordan River. Moreover, people can alert officials about maintenance or water quality concerns by using the “Report an Issue” button on the website. Thus, by using popular technology, JRC and CDEA leave the door open for anyone to be involved in exploring, cleaning, and maintaining the river.

Everyone should have access to public rivers, and it is up to us to make sure that they are maintained for this generation and generations to come. This great program shows that people do care, and by empowering local students and using the right technology, JRC and CDEA are enabling affected residents to make a visible difference in their community and to take charge of protecting their watersheds.

The SLCSE class under a native Fremont Cottonwood tree

The SLCSE class under a native Fremont Cottonwood tree

About the author: Seung-min Kang is an intern in the Urban Waters Program in EPA’s Office of Water. She is from Seoul, Korea and attends Ewha Womans University, where she is studying English language and literature and plans to graduate in February 2015. Since she thought that she didn’t know anything about the environment, which is one of the critical social issues, she decided to work for EPA to challenge herself and learn. 

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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Collaborative Problem Solving: A Tool to Address Fracking Concerns


By Danny Gogal

The continuous passing of rumbling eighteen wheeler trucks, utility vehicles, pick-up trucks and cars witnessed on April 8, 2014, is a familiar site to those visiting or living in New Town, North Dakota. Located within the Fort Berthold Reservation, it is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes. The regular flow of traffic in such a remote town is the result of the burgeoning business of oil and natural gas extraction, made possible by advances in technology for accessing oil and gas in shale formations found deep in the Earth through horizontal drilling and the fracturing of rock, commonly referred to as hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I arrived in the afternoon to begin a three day training workshop on collaborative problem-solving, appropriate dispute resolution, and environmental laws. EPA supported the workshop in response to a TAT community-based representative’s request for an interagency meeting and training in North Dakota for tribes, indigenous organizations and tribal members on issues of environmental justice.

Untitled-3The unprecedented amount of oil and gas development has enhanced job opportunities, significantly lowered unemployment, and is bringing in substantial revenues to the TAT, resulting in the elimination of the tribes’ debt.  However, it is also straining the reservation’s infrastructure, overstretching the resources (personnel and financial) and capability of the TAT’s departments. This, of course, includes the environmental department, which is facing significant environmental and public health concerns, such as the proper disposal of hydraulic socks and fracking fluids, and concerns about the flaring of gas.

The TAT tribes’ government faces challenges that are experienced by virtually every other government: the need to grow their economy to obtain revenue to meet the needs of the community and to do it in a sustainable way.  This is not easy, and is even more challenging in Indian country due to the myriad of laws and regulations and the unique political status of federally recognized tribes.  However, experience has shown that sustainable development can be effectively accomplished when the key parties are meaningfully involved, the necessary tools are available and used, and an appropriate collaborative approach is utilized.

Untitled-1Approximately 40 tribal community-based representatives, TAT tribal government officials, academia, business and industry, state government representatives, traditional peacemakers, and federal officials from the departments of Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Bureau of Land Management, and Environmental Protection Agency, participated in the workshop.

The workshop provided training on collaborative problem-solving approaches, dispute resolution techniques, including mediation/negotiation processes, skills and tools, federal statutes that pertain to environmental and public health protection, grants/financial assistance programs, federal tribal and community-based programs, and federal Indian law and policy.  It also provided the participants the opportunity to enhance or build new working relationships and identify issues of mutual interest for which they can collaborate to address their environmental and public health concerns, as well as other quality of life interests of the TAT communities.

I am hopeful that one or more collaborative approaches will effectively be used to address the range of concerns facing the TAT communities.  I am encouraged by a participant’s statement on the evaluation form noting that a key benefit of the workshop was “meeting people to build collaborative relationships with.”  Additionally, at the Workshop, a tribal council member noted his support for a public meeting with oil and gas developers to enhance understanding of interests and concerns among the stakeholders on the reservation.

Finally, plans for the a public meeting of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG) to focus on the environmental justice concerns of federally recognized tribes and indigenous peoples is still being planned and is projected to be held in September 2014 in Bismarck, North Dakota.  I encourage tribal governments, indigenous community-based organizations, tribal members, and other interested parties to attend the meeting to discuss how we can work collaboratively to effectively address environmental justice issues in Indian country and in other tribal areas of interest.  Information on the IWG public meeting will be available soon on the IWG web site.

About the author:  Daniel Gogal has a public policy, environmental policy, and public administration background and has worked on tribal and indigenous environmental policy and environmental justice issues for over 25 years.  He is the Tribal Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice, where he has worked for the past twenty-two years.

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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