Equitable Development

A Brighter Future for My Community and Yours: A Mayor’s Perspective

By Lisa A. Wong

(c) 2015 Sentinel & Enterprise. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Digital First Media.

(c) 2015 Sentinel & Enterprise. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of Digital First Media.

Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is a wonderful community that built its foundation along the Nashua River. The town flourished along the banks of this great river until the industry and jobs moved south, leaving behind abandoned mill properties that deteriorated into brownfield sites. When I first decided to run for Mayor, I had one clear vision: to promote economic growth in a manner that also improves the community’s environment and public health. The projects that I have undertaken as Mayor have been based in economics, but also in promoting environmental and health equity for all the community.

My time in office has taught me a number of things, but two really stand out. First, I have come to realize that problem solving doesn’t necessarily require more spending, but it does require innovative spending. Second, government cannot solve problems alone — you have to engage the citizens of the community to develop solutions that will improve everyone’s lives. By working with my community to connect them back to the river and focusing on environmental justice challenges, we have made a better, more sustainable future for all. Today, the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, prospers because we are working together to promote a cleaner environment so that all of our citizens can collectively share in that brighter future.

As chair of the Environmental Justice workgroup for EPA’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC), there is a lot to reflect on for Earth Day 2015. The LGAC is a federal advisory committee comprised of 30 elected and appointed officials of state, tribal and local governments who meet regularly to advise the EPA Administrator about environmental and public health issues that affect local government. Recently, the LGAC produced the EJ Best Practices for Local Governments report that highlights best practices that local governments have undertaken in communities to address environmental justice and sustainability.

The LGAC understands that communities with environmental justice concerns face many challenges when it comes to human health and the environment. Indeed, these communities are impacted more by environmental damage and health disparities than other communities. In our report, the LGAC highlighted several findings:

  • EJ communities need a forum to discuss and collaborate on solutions
  • EJ communities need access to resources to address community problems
  • EJ communities lack the basic infrastructure for clean drinking water, stormwater, wastewater, and utilities to meet citizen needs and promote economic prosperity

My colleagues on the LGAC are very excited to share our stories about addressing such environmental challenges to promote environmental equity for all. Our LGAC members have developed innovative strategies to close economic, environmental, and health disparity gaps. In the blog posts to follow in the coming weeks, we will present examples illustrating where local governments have made advances in closing the gap of environmental and health disparities. I sincerely hope that by sharing our stories, it will inspire individuals and local leaders to take on these challenges. It is only through a continuing and meaningful dialogue at the community level that problems can be addressed and solutions found that will benefit everybody, both in terms of economics and the environment.

About the author: Hon. Lisa A. Wong is currently serving her fourth term as Mayor of the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Before then, she worked for the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority where, as director, she managed several urban renewal projects to revitalize the city.

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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Bringing Human Rights Home: Engagement and Environmental Justice

By Jessica Sblendorio

When most Americans think about human rights, they tend to think of the concept at a global level, even though there are many social and environmental justice issues right here in the United States that affect many of our neighborhoods and families. Environmental justice is an ever-growing movement that highlights issues such as health, access to safe drinking water, and housing that are at the heart of treaties and laws focused on human rights. Thus, at its core, environmental justice is about the intersection of human rights, the environment, and how people can equitably access the resources they need to survive. “Bringing human rights home” is a critical part of focusing on human rights issues here in our own neighborhoods in the United States and plays an important part of the global movements for environmental justice and international human rights.

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

U.S. Delegation Presents Report to CERD

An important mechanism for addressing and remedying human rights issues is through international treaties. Unfortunately, most Americans tend to have a very low level of awareness of such treaties and how they can be used to effect change here in the United States. As part of the United Nations (UN) treaty-monitoring process, countries report to UN treaty monitoring bodies about how they are protecting human rights and addressing issues submitted by members of civil society – those non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest the interests and will of citizens. The United States participates in this process for the treaties that it has signed and ratified, thus becoming U.S. law. Some of these treaties include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, both of which conducted reviews of the United States’ compliance with these treaties during 2014.

As a student working in the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Miami’s School of Law, I was able to contribute to a “shadow report” on immigrants’ rights that highlighted examples of challenges with implementation of the ICCPR. Many organizations and members of civil society use these companion reports as opportunities to highlight issues where the government and society can work together to address human rights violations and improve compliance with treaties. This engagement is important for addressing human rights not only on a global level, but here at home as well.

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

US Delegation to CERD Meets with Civil Society

Working on the shadow report, I came to realize the importance of engagement between stakeholders — both civil society and government. This summer during my internship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), I had the opportunity to experience what stakeholder engagement is like from the perspective of government. I also learned about how engagement by all stakeholders makes the conversation meaningful and productive for all parties. One of the projects I worked on was to help plan a recent meeting between civil society and government representatives on environmental issues in advance of the 2015 UN Periodic Review of human rights records. This consultation was held in Berkeley, California on October 7th, 2014. These types of meetings are important for both federal and civil stakeholders to engage with one another in a forum where environmental issues that are at the heart of “Bringing Human Rights Home” can be discussed.

This meeting came on the heels of a recent meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. For the first time, the EPA had a government representative at the CERD meeting in Geneva, which occurred this past August, to address the environmental issues raised by Committee members.

The realization of the importance and necessity of addressing the human health and environmental issues of minority and low-income residents, and their relationship to human rights, is becoming more and more prominent but it is dependent upon active and sustained engagement from both the government and civil society at large. Different avenues of stakeholder engagement are important to educate both citizens and the government to show the relevance of these issues and identify the methods and opportunities to make a visible difference in vulnerable communities. I feel honored to have been a part of this process, which opened my eyes to all the participation among stakeholders in this crucial process to inform the government’s perspective.

About the author: Jessica Sblendorio was recently a summer law clerk at EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. She is a law student at the University of Miami School of Law, and will be graduating in Spring 2015.

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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Taking a Seat at the Table: Your Involvement in the Future of Our Legacy Cities

By Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP

America’s Legacy Cities were once industrial powerhouses and hubs of business, retail, and services scattered across New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. Their factories provided jobs, and downtown areas were alive with department stores, professional offices, and financial institutions that served large regions. Since the mid-20th century, however, these cities have seen sustained loss of jobs and population, and now face daunting economic, social, physical, and operational challenges. This loss has fallen disproportionately on minority and low-income neighborhoods that have seen a greater degree of disinvestment and abandonment. But the revitalization of these neighborhoods in collaboration with, and for the benefit of, their residents is not only an imperative of equitable redevelopment but also enshrined in the Federal statutes that guide it.

Earlier this year, I attended the Historic Preservation in America’s Legacy Cities Conference which focused on public policies, programs, and planning issues associated with Legacy Cities and challenges managing shrinking populations, changing demographics, physical alterations, loss of resources, and declining tax bases. Participants agreed Legacy Cities need to revitalize their communities in the 21st century.

While many agree that change is inevitable, there are those who have not fully accepted that planning for change should be inclusive and take advantage of all available tools. Looking back over the last twenty years, the non-inclusive planning practices of the past resulted in older, minority, and low-income neighborhoods bearing the brunt of the negative impacts of dynamic physical and socio-economic changes – changes that were prompted, in part, by federal actions.

Dr. Clement Price, Vice Chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency established by Congress to advise the President and Congress and oversee the Section 106 review process, moderated a provocative panel discussion entitled Identifying, Celebrating, and Preserving African-American Landmarks. The presentation was timely as many were grappling with how to protect historic properties, particularly those in communities of color. They wanted to be clear about what qualifies African-American landmarks for the National Register of Historic Places. Is the criteria used by the National Register in evaluating historic properties appropriate for an ethnically and racially-diverse nation? Should African American or other ethnic landmarks be evaluated based on their physical characteristics or on the stories drawn from the history of these properties?

When considering how to best engage the broader public in federal planning, environmental review policies are typically applied. The two major federal environmental reviews required for major actions are the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). NEPA requires federal agencies to integrate environmental values into their decision making processes by considering the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and reasonable alternatives to those actions. NHPA is intended to preserve historical and archaeological sites in the United States.

Before implementing federally-funded activities such as abandonment, demolition, and property alterations in Legacy Cites, agencies must comply with their NEPA obligations and with NHPA. Since many cities use federal funds to develop public-private partnerships, the scope of federal environmental reviews can be broader for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Notwithstanding the dictates of Title VI, the provisions in NEPA and NHPA require federal agencies to “stop, look, and listen” in project planning.

Residents and officials within communities must be better educated about NEPA and NHPA if they are to avoid a repeat of the failures of ‘Urban Renewal’ in the 1960s. These environmental reviews require the participation of the public; review of the “purpose and need” statement; consideration of alternatives, and selection of a preferred alternative or outcome. NEPA requires agencies to disclose environmental justice issues in their environmental documents, information that is vital to residents in communities that may be disproportionately affected by federal projects. While this is one of several key provisions in NEPA, it is important for the public to remember that environmental justice is equally about the built environment as it is about the natural environment.

In a similar manner, Section 106 of NHPA requires agencies to identify and evaluate historic properties within the project’s area of potential effects, in coordination with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPO). Further, Section 106 is a consultative process in which diverse stakeholders, including civic groups, neighborhood groups, churches, anchor institutions, professional organizations, affinity groups, and the like, must discuss various options to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on historic properties.

Dr. Price said that “to live, work, and play in Legacy Cities is an act of faith and perseverance.” Residents and other stakeholders must exercise their rights to comment on the merits of federal projects which have the potential to change their sense of their physical and social community. It is an essential part of the laws that have been in place for decades.

Information about the ACHP can be found at www.achp.gov, including the report, Managing Change: Preservation and Rightsizing in America. Information about the White House Council on Environmental Quality and NEPA can be found at CEQ website.

About the author: Charlene Dwin Vaughn, AICP, is a certified planner employed with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). She received her Master’s Degree in Urban and Regional Planning from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As an Assistant Director in the ACHP’s Office of Federal Agency Programs she manages historic preservation reviews and program improvements of federal projects that provide financial assistance; issue permits and licenses; and issue approvals.






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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Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Environmental Justice: Majora Carter on Creative Leadership

By Sherrell Dorsey  


Click to watch video

I had the privilege of interviewing Majora Carter—the TED Talk sensation whose Greening the Ghetto presentation catapulted her work in environmental equity into global recognition and made even the most apathetic to green living consider the consequences of climate and community neglect. Carter’s public narrative and highly visible media persona represents only a small sample of how she is self-actualizing leadership in the work towards building sustainable communities one day at a time.

Charting her own path, she has set aside the proverbial soapbox for innovative entrepreneurship in environmentalism while meeting the challenges facing under-resourced communities today. She founded Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx) in 2001, to do just that. SSBx played a major role in training local young residents to clean up massive areas of abandoned open space and transform it into the South Bronx Greenway, which has significantly increased the recreational space, expanded the waterfront access, and improved transportation safety in the South Bronx.

However, during this time she started to see the integral connection between the environmental injustices in the Untitled-1community, and the lack of sustainable jobs that help avoid unwanted pollution in the community. That’s why her new agenda is an endeavor that establishes a framework for financial literacy and entrepreneurship within the Hunts Point community. Carter has her sights set on eliminating the “digital divide” by dipping into the burgeoning technology sector with her new project, StartUp Box #SouthBronx.

The growing gap between the poor and rich in society has been evidenced by the digital divide—a concept that refers to a portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet.  Without access to technology, entire communities are left behind. Increasingly, computer literacy and the internet have become pathways for higher education, employment and entrepreneurship.

In the Bronx, where the median income is $34,300 (compared to $57,000 for NY State), less than 40 percent of residents have access to broadband internet. As the technology sector begins to grow, both the internet and mobile technologies provide economic development opportunities for those with the 21st century digital skills needed for the jobs that are coming.

Untitled-3With the launch of StartUp Box, Carter plans to leverage the new technology and education project to tap underutilized talents in inner cities. To do this, they have partnered with New York City-area computer games industry leaders to train local youth for quality assurance testing service jobs. This is an excellent way to train young people in jobs that will be relevant well into the 21st century, by providing them with exposure to a range of software development skills without advanced math or computer sciences education requirements.

Not only does this provide jobs to youth in areas where there may be few opportunities, but it also attracts software services businesses and other high tech investors by creating a local workforce with world-class tech, design, financial literacy, and entrepreneurship education.

Carter has established a rubric formula for creating sustainable impact that serves as a model for current and future leaders in social entrepreneurship seeking to scale their solutions to meet the needs of the communities they work in. Although she has accomplished so much to advance environmental justice, equity, and opportunity across the country, she says her work is just beginning. “We look at what is out there and not try to level the playing field. We have to get people on the field. Forget about leveling. They’re still in the parking lot. They’ve got no ticket to get into the stadium.”

Sherrell Dorsey is a writer, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Recently, Sherrell was awarded a Zoom Fellowship in public policy and serves in the office of Mayor Bill Finch in the City of Bridgeport where she leads the implementation of indoor air quality programs across the school district and coordinates the city’s green jobs task force. She contributes frequently to Inhabitat.com and Triple Pundit.


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 Planning to Overcome Injustice!

By Carolina Martinez

“I had no idea we had the right to make changes in our community; that we could say: we don’t want this here because it’s bad for our health.”- Maria, resident of Barrio Logan, a neighborhood in San Diego.

R_AIR3MAIN_trucks_slfMaria’s child came home one day to tell her he was having difficulty breathing at school during his gym class. Shortly after, his doctor diagnosed him with the beginning stages of asthma. Maria, like many parents in her neighborhood, made the connection between her son’s respiratory problems and the warehouse with dozens of heavy duty trucks travelling daily on her block. She lived across the street from heavy pollution, and now her family was suffering the impacts.

Unfortunately, her story isn’t uncommon. In fact, Barrio Logan is the highest at-risk community in San Diego and in the top five percent in the state for hazards of toxic pollution. As an urban planner I can relate to Maria, but I think most people in environmentally compromised communities don’t know they can have a say about the layout of their neighborhood.

However, residents can — and should — play an active part in the community planning process. And now, with Environmental Health Coalition’s (EHC) groundbreaking video, Creating Healthy Neighborhoods: Community Planning to Overcome Injustice, you have the tools to step up and create positive neighborhood change more than ever! We developed this 20-minute video that uses real-life examples to illustrate a seven-step process we can all use to participate in community-led planning and become better advocates for our neighborhoods and win healthy community visions.

Residents like Maria literally live and breathe the effects of environmental injustice in their neighborhoods. No one is better qualified to recognize and propose solutions than local community members, but the planning processes can feel intimidating and land-use policy often sounds like a foreign language. Residents need to know they have a voice, and with Creating Healthy Neighborhoods, families just like Maria’s learn to speak out in the policy and planning processes impacting their community.

EHC Title Creating Healthy CommunitiesSo how can you get started steering your community towards a better future? How can you ensure your children grow up in a healthy, safe neighborhood? With this video (available online and on DVD in both Spanish and English) Environmental Health Coalition walks you through the seven steps to successfully pursue environmental justice for your community through community-engaged planning while highlighting true stories from community members just like you.

When we created this revolutionary tool we wanted to make something to help advocates gain a fuller understanding of their communities and take action to create healthier, more vibrant and livable communities. And although we’ve only just released it, at the conferences and events we have presented the video at, I have seen people who had little initial knowledge of these issues become very enthusiastic about the community planning process. In fact last week was the first time we presented it to our most involved members in EHC and they loved it! They relayed that the video was engaging and easy to understand, and they are excited to use this video to educate their neighbors on healthy land use principals.

People throughout the country endure impacts of toxic pollution every day because of poorly planned land-use policies, but it does not have to be this way, and you have the power to change it. So remember: community planning is power. Understanding how to become involved in land-use and planning processes in your community is first step towards a better community for your family today and for generations to come – What will you change?

About the author: Carolina Martinez is a Policy Advocate at the Environmental Health Coalition.  She is responsible for supporting residents in National City, a low-income majority Latino community, advocate for land use policies that respect their priorities, improve health, and are consistent with environmental justice principles.

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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Environmental Job Training Reaches Rural Alaska


Map Illustrating Where the Diverse Geographic Areas that Alaska Indigenous Groups Live

By Lynn Zender

At the Zender Environmental Health and Research group, our vision of environmental justice is rooted in the philosophy that solutions must rely on community-based participatory efforts. We are a small non-profit organization based in Anchorage, Alaska and primarily serve what are arguably the most remote communities in the United States— the approximately 180 rural Alaska Native villages off the State’s road system. These Villages of 50 to 1,000 people can be reached only via small plane from one of the regional hubs.  The lack of trained technicians that can address and mitigate the severe solid waste conditions and risks presented at waste disposal sites is a major issue here, as are the very poor economies and lack of income to sustain environmental programs.

And that’s exactly why EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training (EWDJT) grant program has been so helpful for us. This grant program helps low income and minority communities with unemployed or severely under-employed populations gain the skills needed to obtain employment in the environmental field.  This EPA grant program melded perfectly with the issues we are working on. Recently, our organization was very fortunate to receive funding from this EPA grant program to develop our Rural Alaska Community Job Training Program (RACEJT).


RACEJT students receiving instruction during a metal salvaging tour.

RACEJT is unique because we train residents for work in their home villages, which helps prevent rural “brain drain” and erosion of community integrity.  Gaining several certifications related to hazardous materials handling and job safety means that students can be hired by contractors that manage site cleanup, water hookup, landfill, road, facility renovation and other environmental projects. Without these skills, villages are forced to hire contractors with their own crews and the local Alaska Native economies gain virtually nothing from these projects.


RACEJT student geared for oil spill response training.

Over 88% of RACEJT graduates have been able to find permanent or part-time work.  In both cases, we’ve learned that any income can make the difference and help families retain their lifestyles and continue to live within their ancestral lands.  In these traditional hunting and fishing villages, a day of work can pay for gas to allow a hunter to provide moose, seal, caribou, or other game for his or her family and community, and for artists to search for ivory and other traditional materials used in making creations that they are able to sell and support their family.

One of the beauties of RACEJT is how many of our students gain self-esteem and confidence by succeeding in completing our rigorous program. Many graduates have found back their ways after stumbling on alcohol and other hardships that are all too common in rural villages.  Another lesson we’ve learned is the need to frame the program and students’ responsibilities in the context of Alaska Native cultures.  We invite Elders and other Alaskan Native mentors to evening dinners who offer great praise and encouragement to students working hard to return and help their community protect health and the subsistence way of life.

To those of us who manage the program, each student is a hero for taking on their challenging village environmental health problems, and we let them know it. Students like Brandon Tocktoo, David Olanna, Eric Alexie, and Brandon Willams have returned to their councils and educated their communities about the serious health risks posed by their open burning and uncontrolled dumps.  Chad and Garret Anelon, and Kenneth Charlie have gone back to their villages and instigated infrastructural improvements in their environmental programs. Kacey John has helped to clean up contaminated soil at her school and weatherized homes. Harvey Nusingaya has led the tank farm maintenance for his Tribal Corporation’s oil development program.  All of these students and many more are able to continue their customary and traditional practices and thus contribute to their community’s subsistence and wellness.

About: Lynn Zender is the Director of RACEJT, and Executive Director of Anchorage–based Zender Environmental Health and Research Group.

The EPA’s Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, was created in 1998, partly as a result of recommendations raised by the National Environmental Justice and Advisory Council’s (NEJAC) Waste and Facility Siting Subcommittee to provide training and workforce development opportunities for local, unemployed residents of predominantly low-income and minority communities disproportionately affected by brownfields and other polluting facilities. Click here to read more!

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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President Obama’s Proclamation on Environmental Justice

By Lisa Garcia

Earlier this month I was very excited to share President Barack Obama’s official Presidential Proclamation commemorating February 11, 2014, as the 20th Anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice. While this may seem purely symbolic, the proclamation is much  more than a symbolic gesture.  It is a very visible statement from the White House firmly re-committing this Administration’s dedication to making sure that we, “live up to the promise that here in America, no matter who you are or where you come from, you can pursue your dreams in a safe and just environment.”  This commitment has been echoed throughout EPA and other agencies, and indeed the entire country during this anniversary month.

As a federal employee, I understand the important role the federal government plays in advancing environmental justice, but I also believe that the only path to a healthier and more resilient country is through the hard work and leadership of communities and individuals. This reaffirmation by the President  sets the stage for all of the U.S., states, and tribal governments to continue to work together, side-by-side, to ensure that we continue to deliver on the letter and spirit of the executive order signed 20 years ago this month.



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downloadTwo decades ago, President William J. Clinton directed the Federal Government to tackle a long-overlooked problem. Low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and tribal areas disproportionately bore environmental burdens like contamination from industrial plants or landfills and indoor air pollution from poor housing conditions. These hazards worsen health disparities and reduce opportunity for residents — children who miss school due to complications of asthma, adults who struggle with medical bills. Executive Order 12898 affirmed every American’s right to breathe freely, drink clean water, and live on uncontaminated land. Today, as America marks 20 years of action, we renew our commitment to environmental justice for all.

Because we all deserve the chance to live, learn, and work in healthy communities, my Administration is fighting to restore environments in our country’s hardest-hit places. After over a decade of inaction, we reconvened an Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group and invited more than 100 environmental justice leaders to a White House forum. Alongside tribal governments, we are working to reduce pollution on their lands. And to build a healthier environment for every American, we established the first-ever national limits for mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants.

While the past two decades have seen great progress, much work remains. In the years to come, we will continue to work with States, tribes, and local leaders to identify, aid, and empower areas most strained by pollution. By effectively implementing environmental laws, we can improve quality of life and expand economic opportunity in overburdened communities. And recognizing these same communities may suffer disproportionately due to climate change, we must cut carbon emissions, develop more homegrown clean energy, and prepare for the impacts of a changing climate that we are already feeling across our country.

As we mark this day, we recall the activists who took on environmental challenges long before the Federal Government acknowledged their needs. We remember how Americans — young and old, on college campuses and in courtrooms, in our neighborhoods and through our places of worship — called on a Nation to pursue clean air, water, and land for all people. On this anniversary, let us move forward with the same unity, energy, and passion to live up to the promise that here in America, no matter who you are or where you come from, you can pursue your dreams in a safe and just environment.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim February 11, 2014, as the 20th Anniversary of Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice. I call upon all Americans to observe this day with programs and activities that promote environmental justice and advance a healthy, sustainable future.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this tenth day of February, in the year of our Lord two thousand fourteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.


About the author: Lisa Garcia is the Senior Advisor on Environmental Justice to 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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Dynamic Redevelopment for Everyone


Mariposa is home to a diverse group of residents who benefit from neighborhood events, nearby amenities, and proximity to public transit. Photo courtesy of the Denver Housing Authority.

By Brett VanAkkeren

Since the mid-1990s, communities have used smart growth development strategies, such as reinvesting in areas that have been neglected or abandoned, to improve the health and welfare of residents.  These strategies make fiscal sense because communities can reuse existing infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, for new construction; environmental sense because communities can clean up and reuse abandoned sites instead of paving over farms and open space; and  economic sense because new development can attract new jobs and investment.

While reinvestment can create desirable places that attract new residents, it can also displace existing residents who can no longer afford to live there. The question in underserved communities is how to grow in ways that benefit both new and existing residents.  The answer lies in equitable development.

denver light railEquitable development is the integration of environmental justice with smart growth development strategies. (See Carlton Eley’s blog post from December 18.) Ideally, the result leads to affordable housing, easy access to nearby jobs and services, affordable public transportation, the removal of environmental health hazards, access to healthy food, and safe ways to walk and bike to everyday destinations.

In Colorado, the Denver Housing Authority supported equitable development by building an affordable housing complex called the Mariposa District near a light rail station. While planning for the Mariposa project, the Authority conducted a Cultural Audit, a health Impact Assessment, a pedestrian quality audit, and three environmental design charrettes that led to intensive community involvement. These tools allowed community members to have meaningful input into decision-making in their community. Other cities can use these tools to replicate Mariposa’s success.

(Watch a video about the Mariposa District, winner of EPA’s 2012 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement in the category of Equitable Development.)

The 2014 New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, February 13-15 in Denver, will offer opportunities for activists, community developers, local government officials, and many others to learn how communities can integrate environmental justice approaches into smart growth and community development programs. The conference kicks off with a half-day equitable development workshop on February 13.  Tours on February 13 and 16 will take participants to see a variety of equitable development projects in the Denver area, including the Mariposa district. Several conference sessions also will focus on equitable development.


Click to read the report

You can find other useful resources on equitable development and smart growth strategies in a report  by EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities (OSC) and Office of Environmental JusticeCreating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities:  Strategies For Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice And Sustainable Communities, as well as OSC’s Smart Growth and Equitable Development web page. Using equitable development approaches, smart growth practitioners all across the country have helped address the challenges of redevelopment in disadvantaged communities. By attending the New Partners for Smart Growth conference to hear from leaders in this work, you can learn new approaches to take back to your community to help it flourish in ways that benefit everyone.

About the author: Brett VanAkkeren, EPA Office of Sustainable Communities, has worked on smart growth issues at EPA for more than 15 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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Sustainability for All

By Deeohn Ferris

Untitled-2In many of our communities, if sustainability is going to be sustainable, our nation’s green economy and the investments that flow from those policies must reflect the undeniable fact that all communities are not at the same starting point.  In far too many of our neighborhoods, people who are raising families and working hard to make ends meet face a combination of environmental, social and economic challenges that result in grave hardship.  If the race to sustainability is a race to the top, some of our communities can take the elevator.  Others only have stairs, and some of them have asthma too!

Regarding what’s going on locally and on-the-ground, equitable development is the central point from where the hard issues within sustainability must be dealt with up front.   The real on-ramp to sustainability means recognizing and addressing the inter-relationship of the challenges in our communities. Negative environmental impacts, disproportionate impacts, vacant properties, brownfields, health disparities, blight — these conditions are ubiquitous in neighborhoods where people of color and people with low incomes and less wealth live, work, learn, worship, and play.  Achieving equitable and sustainable development means thoroughly rebuilding our communities – not just the bricks and mortar – but really rebuilding the country’s social and economic fabric.

Untitled-2Thus, to make a fairer starting line for all in our country, we need to recognize opportunities to support the communities that have the greatest proportion of pollution and public health problems. For example, minimizing health disparities by deliberately providing fairer access for health care in low income and minority communities would save these residents billions of dollars in averted medical costs and gained productivity. Ameliorating such persistent inequities is critical for bringing about stability in communities—increasing fair access to housing choices, better schools, better jobs, sustained economic growth – and thus improving their overall ability to achieve community sustainability.

All across the country, dedicated folks are working to address these disparities.  But people of color and low-and-moderate income populations are still struggling for opportunity. Reversing this unfortunate trend necessitates a national transition to sustainability and the emerging green economy, which provides important new ways to tackle community revitalization as well as opportunities to do so in an equitable manner. Some examples of green economy priorities and tools that could address these disparities include:

  • Ensuring the right to a clean, safe environment for everyone.
  • Establishing inclusive decision making structures that provide resources and facilitate community engagement in planning and investments.
  • Making certain that decision-making is democratic, transparent and fair.
  • Distributing the economic and health benefits of energy conservation through green housing and retrofits.
  • Creating jobs that are safe, green and upwardly mobile.
  • Emphasizing workforce preparedness, development, and training.
  • Providing financial and other incentives that encourage entrepreneurship and local ownership of renewable energy and renewable energy technologies.
  • Guaranteeing that there are sufficient transportation options, including affordable public transit that gets people to jobs.
  • And ensuring the highest quality education and food security for all of our children.

Untitled-3Which neighborhoods are built and rebuilt and how they are built and rebuilt have far-reaching consequences in the race towards sustainability. Prioritizing historically disadvantaged and distressed communities to engage and benefit from sustainability outcomes is an investment in the future.  I believe everyone in our nation should have the same opportunity to flourish.  But achieving such a lofty goal requires community sustainability with conscious linkages to social and economic equity goals, green economy tools and environmental justice.

About the author: Deeohn Ferris is President of Sustainable Community Development Group, a not-for-profit national research and policy innovator dedicated to advancing sustainability and public health through equitable neighborhood development, smart growth and the green economy.  She is a former EPA enforcement lawyer, now a renowned provider of equitable development expertise and technical assistance that tackles sustainability in communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods.   Deeohn was on the ground floor of drafting the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 and the first Chair of NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee.   

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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