Puerto Rico Shows the Power of Community Involvement in Protecting Waterways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opening Immigrants’ Eyes to Environmental Health in American Homes

By Kate Gibson

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

When Sophorn Sim first moved to the United States from Cambodia, she finally received medical treatment for her chronic lung problems, a legacy of an early childhood illness and years spent in a forced labor camp run by the Khmer Rouge. Despite treatment, Sophorn’s condition got worse: she started coughing up blood and had to use her emergency inhaler up to three times a week.

Like many new immigrants and refugees, Sophorn faced new health hazards in the United States for which she was ill-prepared and that exacerbated her condition. Her first apartment was covered with mold, to which her family responded by cleaning the entire apartment with bleach and without proper precautions. Not accustomed to the notion of different soaps for different uses, she used laundry detergent for bathing and washing her hair, irritating her scarred lungs and contributing to her worsening condition.

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Sophorn’s story, sadly, is not unique. Many refugee immigrant families, already living in areas with higher concentrations of poverty and less healthy conditions, are exposed to additional health hazards due to language and cultural barriers, lack of education, and misinformation spread through communities. For example, many immigrant families have settled in communities in close proximity to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the I-5 freeway that runs through Seattle, Superfund sites such as the Lower Duwamish River, mixed industrial/residential zones, and other potential sources of toxic exposures. Some new immigrants and refugees come from different climates and aren’t aware of proper ventilation practices for their new homes. Others have misconceptions about items that people who grew up in the United States take for granted, such as using Murphy’s Oil cleaner to wash dishes or to cook eggs, or confusing such items as Pine Sol with apple juice and Comet with parmesan cheese.

Thanks to an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant, and with the assistance of the American Lung Association’s Master Home Environmentalist Program, the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) significantly expanded its Healthy Homes program this year to reach more immigrants in a broader region. The program, coordinated by Sophorn, now an ECOSS staff member, is aimed at increasing awareness of indoor air quality among the Seattle area’s new immigrant and refugee populations—particularly Burmese, Bhutanese, and Somalian.

Through the program, ECOSS is reaching out to low-income, refugee, and new immigrant communities with free training, information, and green cleaning kits to improve indoor air quality and prevent harmful health effects associated with indoor air pollution. In partnership with the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila, ECOSS trained community members, who then planned outreach for their communities. In addition, they conducted home assessments, helping families in their homes with practical, low cost solutions.

For many participants, the information was eye opening. Often, new immigrants think of the United States as a healthy place with the best indoor air quality, and often assume that unsafe products would not be available in stores. For many, it can thus come as a surprise that training about product safety is even necessary.

Allan Kafley, who led outreach to the Bhutanese community, noted that many in his community had spent years in refugee camps where “pollution was much more obvious: dust in the air, particulates from at-home wool spinning businesses, and the charcoal briquettes used for cooking.” In sharp contrast, indoor air hazards in the United States—chemicals used in paint and cleaners, for example—are relatively invisible.

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The expanded Healthy Homes program has been a tremendous success so far, reaching over 500 individuals in the first year through presentations and in-home assessments. To Allan, the in-home assessments are particularly effective, allowing outreach coordinators to be much more specific and concrete than through group presentations. “I can point directly to the car cleaning chemicals that a father stores in his kitchen and tell him about the danger it poses to his family. This way, we see immediate results.”

Members of the Somali community loved that baking soda and vinegar can be used to both cook and clean, and that they can save money with greener cleaning supplies. “One single mother of nine said she used to have to buy all kinds of cleaners: some for the dishes, the floor, clothes. Now she is using healthier cleaning products and has more money to spend on her children,” said Somali Coordinator, Fahmo Abdulle.

ECOSS looks forward to reaching more new immigrants and refugees through this important ongoing program, as well as through word of mouth.

About the Author: Kate Gibson is the Communications/Fund Development Associate for the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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Collaborative Problem Solving: A Tool to Address Fracking Concerns

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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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Environmental Job Training Reaches Rural Alaska

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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).

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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.

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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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Nuestras Raíces: How we Turned Environmental Justice into Action

By Giovanna Di Chiro

Nuestras Raíces Clean Air Event, 2011

When I first started working with Nuestras Raíces, I was inspired by the passion and commitment of Holyoke, Massachusetts’ young Puerto Rican residents toward improving their community and respecting Madre Tierra (Mother Earth).  I thought EPA’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program would be a great resource for harnessing this passion, and we were fortunate to be awarded a CARE grant to support these goals.  For our grant project, Nuestras Raíces has focused on engaging young people to create awareness among our neighbors about the risk factors in the community related to indoor and outdoor air quality, water quality and mercury contamination from eating fish from the Connecticut River.

In addition to our focus on environmental health education and organizing, Nuestras Raíces is committed to promoting sustainable economic development to address the high rates of poverty and unemployment in our community. Our youth environmental leaders became more and more excited about the environmental issues we were focusing on in the CARE project. They asked us how they could turn their efforts to expand environmental awareness into jobs and careers that would help make a difference in the community.  To support their great idea, Nuestras Raíces applied for the Department of Labor’s Pathways Out of Poverty funding to start RootsUp, a green jobs training program. To date, RootsUp has completed three cohorts with 22 graduates placed in local energy and green building and manufacturing companies.

Soon it became clear, however, that simply churning out green jobs trainees was not enough; we also wanted to help create good career pathways for our young graduates. Nuestras Raíces’ growing expertise through CARE and other community environmental and health collaboratives allowed us to launch and become the majority owner of Energía, a “triple bottom line” green energy services company, committed to hiring and mentoring local young people.

Now in its second year of operation, Energía has hired and trained three work crews, purchased and retrofitted two grease-powered trucks, and to date has completed over 700 residential and commercial energy efficiency projects, reducing homes’ and businesses’ energy output and saving them money from lower utility bills.

Mark Tajima and Yamil Brito

One of the graduates of our RootUp green jobs program, Yamil Brito, who was promoted to crew leader, has described his burgeoning career at Energía as, “good for his future, good for the earth, and good for the community.” As it grows and thrives, Energía will provide a source of sustainable income generation for Nuestras Raíces, while creating jobs and making our community more sustainable.

About the author: Dr. Giovanna Di Chiro is Director of Environmental Programs at Nuestras Raíces, Inc. in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Research Associate at the Five Colleges Research Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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Environmental Justice Small Grants Making a Big Difference in Local Communities

By Sheila Lewis

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” This phrase has taken on new life in Cleveland, which has been plagued by these nasty parasites. Many families in the city are ill-informed about bedbugs, and some people have endangered their health trying to combat infestations with dangerous pesticides.

To address this growing public health concern, the EPA Environmental Justice Small Grants Program awarded the Cleveland Tenants Organization (CTO) $25,000 to educate tenants and landlords about how to prevent and safely control bedbugs. By the time the project is complete, CTO plans to help educate more than 10,000 residents on how to prevent infestations before they start, which, Mike Piepsny, Executive Director of CTO says, “can save a landlord tens of thousands of dollars.”

The CTO grant is one of the 47 awarded in October 2011 by the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice that is already making a big difference in communities across the country.

Far to the north of Ohio, a grant was awarded to The Zender Group in Anchorage, Ala. to educate and engage tribal leaders and villagers on effective ways to manage solid waste. For many Alaskan tribal communities, open dump sites are the only option for household and commercial wastes. These sites are a threat to public health and increase communities’ risks of contamination from hazardous materials and pathogens.

Since the grant was awarded, the Zender Group has reached almost 100 tribal/native organizations and hosted a tribal summit on solid waste, which was attended by representatives from 20 different tribes.

And, in New York City, WEACT is using their grant to educate residents about the dangers of lead exposure, a toxic metal that is especially dangerous for children and is prevalent in older housing, which is often in low-income communities. The project goal is to provide more than 600 families with information about how to ensure their homes are healthy and safe. The project, explains WEACT’s Ogonnaya Newman, “is an opportunity for engagement, empowerment and education because families are able to identify potential sources of harm and work on proactive strategies to address them.”

Since 1994, the EJ small grants program has provided more than $23 million to fund projects that help protect and improve people’s health and the environment in more than 1,200 communities across the nation.

About the author: Sheila Lewis has dedicated 30 years to federal service and has worked to support community-based efforts since 1999. She currently serves as the Grants Program Manager for the Office of Environmental Justice in Washington, D.C.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

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