Chemical Spill in West Virginia Offers Opportunity to Learn About and Improve Chemical Safety in America

By Maya Nye

On the early morning of January 9, a citizen complaining of a strong “black licorice” smell alerted officials to a chemical leak at the Freedom Industries site that seeped into West Virginia’s Elk River a mile and a half upstream of the state’s largest water intake.  It wasn’t until hours later that a ban was placed on water use for over 300,000 people across nine West Virginia counties.  Schools shut down. Hospitals cancelled non-essential surgeries.  Restaurants were forced to close leaving many people out of work.  The local economy nearly ground to a halt.

Untitled-1The chemical that leaked from the Freedom Industries site, crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is used in the processing of coal-fired energy production.  It is one of 62,000 chemicals that were grandfathered in under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), many of which can pose serious consequences for human health.

This is not a new issue in West Virginia: chemical contamination has been a concern in this area for a long time.  This 25-mile stretch of West Virginia’s Untitled-2Kanawha River has been nicknamed “chemical valley” for its chemical manufacturing industry.  In fact, many incidents in this valley over the years have served as the focal point for reform to national chemical safety and security policy, including a 1985 aldicarb oxime leak that led to national Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Laws and the implementation of the United States Chemical Safety Board.  In the wake of this latest spill, the communities around the Elk River in West Virginia also have an opportunity to spur action on chemical safety.

In response to the incident, the West Virginia State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring greater regulation of aboveground storage tanks in zones surrounding drinking water intakes, as well as requiring updated source water protection plans.  This is a good start towards improving the safety and security of drinking water supplies.

However, this incident could provide the basis for further action at the national level. That’s why in February, I travelled with my colleague Stephanie Tyree with the West Virginia Community Development Hub to Denver to join our Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform partners at the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) Conference to seek national support for our home state of West Virginia.  As a result of our testimonies, the NEJAC responded to our request and agreed to advocate on our behalf for a listening session of the President’s Executive Order 13650 to be held in Charleston, West Virginia.

Untitled-3The public has a right to know what dangers exist in their communities in order to make informed decisions about their individual health and the health of their families. It is now mid-April, more than 90 days since the spill, and the crisis is still not over.  The odor is still faintly detected in some homes.  Schools have recently gone back to serving tap water to the dismay of many parents, and most people are not bathing in or drinking the water for fear of unknown health risks. We hope that the West Virginia incident will better inform chemical safety and security laws across the country and ensure that they protect families and workers in all communities.

Maya Nye is the President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety (PCACS), a 501c4 non-profit community organization active in community affairs for over 30 years dedicated to promoting international human rights pertaining to chemical safety through education and advocacy.  

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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

Putting Sustainability within Reach of Environmental Justice Communities

By Carlton Eley

Untitled-1I am an urban planner who works on environmental justice at the EPA. I believe certain things to be true: professional ethics require speaking up for citizens who may not have a voice in local decision-making; public service is a public trust; and expansive strategies are required for encouraging sustainable communities.  Also, I believe equitable development is one of the key solutions for making a visible difference in communities.

No task is more important to the future of sustainability in the U.S. than equitable development.  Equitable development expands choice and opportunity, encourages sustainable outcomes, and improves quality of life while mitigating impacts from activities that society considers beneficial.  As a result, the approach advances environmental justice.


In recent years, the term “place-based” has become a popular watchword among planners, urban designers, and other stewards of the built environment.  In many ways, equitable development is a place-based approach for encouraging environmental justice.  Although the public is accustomed to discussions about environmental justice framed in the context of the law, public health, and waste management, the planning and design professions are equally important means for correcting problems which beset communities overburdened by pollution and remain underserved.

When the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) published its 1996 report Environmental Justice, Urban Revitalization, and Brownfields:  The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope, it clearly outlined the nexus between environmental justice, land use, and sustainability.  Not only did this report identify the environmental benefits of urban redevelopment, but the report also emphasized that the best outcomes from urban redevelopment would come about through an inclusive process.

Obviously, the NEJAC was ahead of itself.  Since 1996, researchers, advocates, allied professionals, and community builders have demonstrated that equitable development does not shift attention from making communities better.  Instead, it results in better community outcomes, especially for underserved populations and vulnerable groups.

Susana Almanza of PODER, Diane Takvorian of the Environmental Health Coalition, State Representative Harold Mitchell, Jr. of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and many more are ‘citizen planners for equitable development’.  The outcomes from their successful projects are evidence of what happens when citizens are audacious in their attempts to do well while doing good.  Because of their examples as well as through the leadership of organizations like PolicyLink, supporters of environmental justice are learning about a broad range of community activity for fixing challenges rooted in a failure to plan, a failure to enforce proper zoning, or the persistent legacy of unequal development.

We have come a long way in understanding, implementing, replicating, and scaling-up equitable development.  Still, more work will need to occur in order to realize full appreciation of the role equitable development plays in the framework of sustainability.

Untitled-3In the interim, public demand for a balanced discussion on sustainability is not being overlooked.  The U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice is organizing the workshop, “Equitable Development:  Smarter Growth through Environmental Justice.” The workshop will be held at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Denver, Colorado, on February 13, 2014.  Equally important, the NEJAC will revisit the themes of equitable development, environmental justice, and sustainability when it meets in Denver on February 11-12, 2014.

Finally, the Environmental Justice in Action Blog will explore the topic of equitable development through a series of posts in advance of the conference in Denver.  The dialogue about environmental justice for the next twenty years starts here.

Carlton Eley works for EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  He is an urban planner, sociologist, and lecturer.  Carlton is credited for elevating equitable development to the level of formal recognition within U.S. EPA as an approach for encouraging sustainable communities.  He interned with EPA’s Environmental Justice Program in Region 10 as an associate of the Environmental Careers Organization in 1994.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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

Government by the People: Looking Back at the NEJAC After 20 Years

By Richard Moore

Richard Moore 2

Richard speaking at 1991 People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit

20 years ago, when I was appointed as one of the first members to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), I remember very clearly we decided that we wanted to make this a different type of government advisory council. The NEJAC was established by the EPA in order to obtain advice and recommendations from a diverse group of stakeholders involved in environmental justice. This was a big deal for the environmental justice community because it helped give legitimacy to the decades-long fight for the EJ movement. And so when the first board of the NEJAC convened we made a decision that we were going to make this advisory council truly representative of the people.

We wanted to lift up the voices of the grassroots, and make sure that the issues that were being addressed by the Council were the issues that people on the ground in our communities were facing. When we convened our first meetings, we made it clear to communities across the country that we were going to make sure that their voices would be heard. And sure enough, in those early meetings hundreds of concerned residents showed up to testify about the problems their communities were facing, and to hear what EPA and other Federal agencies were doing to address the disproportionate impacts that were happening across the country.


NEJAC Public Comment Session

I remember the revelations that people had when they heard others from cities and towns far away talking about the same problems they were facing in their own backyards. It was transformative. The people in these meetings learned that the pollution in their neighborhoods wasn’t an accident, it was happening everywhere and in some cases it was deliberate. More importantly, they also saw what types of solutions were being tested across the country to address these injustices.

From these public comments the Council also started forming recommendations to deal with the disproportionate pollution problems we were facing. We proposed to the EPA a grant program that specifically focused on providing financial support to benefit communities with environmental justice concerns. We also recommended EPA provide expert support to help give communities equal representation when controversial permits or government actions were being proposed. These recommendations were the foundations for the EJ Small Grants Program and the Technical Assistance Grants.

In 1995, the EPA and NEJAC co-sponsored a series of dialogues across the country that provided an opportunity for environmental justice advocates and residents of impacted communities to give input on revitalization of abandoned properties called “brownfields.” Out of these public dialogues, the NEJAC developed “The Search for Authentic Signs of Hope” report. A consistent theme throughout the report was the importance of seeking and including communities in decisions and planning. Taking these recommendations into consideration, EPA took a number of actions to improve its Brownfields program. For example, EPA agreed to create a Brownfields Job Training Grants Program, which now spends over $3 million annually in low income and minority communities.

When we first convened the NEJAC 20 years ago we didn’t want to play by the rules. We wanted to make a new type of advisory council that would vigilantly fight for the rights of every resident to be heard by the government. Over the years the Council has elevated community concerns and made recommendations on many vitally important issues; from school air toxics monitoring and gulf coast restoration, to US/Mexico border issues and tribal consultation. Let’s hope that the Council maintains that spirit, and continues to expand the conversation around environmentalism over the next 20 years.

About the author: Mr. Moore served as the Executive Director of Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (Southwest Network), in Albuquerque, New Mexico, from 1993 to 2010. Mr. Moore has served on numerous government and nongovernmental committees and panels, including chair of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), and member of the National Council of Churches EcoJustice Task Force and the Congressional Black Caucus National Environmental Policy Commission. In 2010 Moore transitioned from director of SNEEJ to Senior Advisor. He currently is the program director for Los Jardines Institute in Albequerque New Mexico.  

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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

You Can Help Make Better Government Policies

By Victoria Robinson

As the designated federal officer for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), I’m happy to announce that EPA is inviting nominations to be considered for appointment to the NEJAC, a federal advisory committee.

Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act in recognition of the fact that federal agencies benefit significantly when they receive advice from voices outside of the government. EPA established the NEJAC in 1993 to provide independent and timely advice and recommendations to EPA about integrating environmental justice into the agency’s work. Through meeting with the public and consolidating advice from members who represent a broad range of viewpoints, the NEJAC provides recommendations that incorporate community and other stakeholder perspectives and helps the government do a better job of considering environmental justice in the agency’s everyday activities.

While each member may bring a different perspective to committee meetings, the one thing all NEJAC members share is a passion for environmental justice.  They each want to make a difference in their communities and in other communities across the country. Through their work on the NEJAC these individuals have been instrumental in formulating nearly 700 recommendations to EPA about a wide variety of major public policy issues. For instance, NEJAC recommendations have influenced a variety of EPA’s programs and policies, including the Brownfields program, permitting processes,  consultation with tribes and interactions with indigenous communities, and monitoring of air toxics around our nation’s schools. That is why I am always excited to welcome new leaders onto the NEJAC, because I know that they will bring the energy and ideas necessary to keep building upon these important efforts.

The NEJAC is made up of approximately 26 members who are appointed from a broad spectrum of stakeholders representing community-based groups, business and industry, academic and educational institutions, state and local governments, indigenous organizations and federally-recognized tribal governments, and non-governmental and environmental groups. Within each of these sectors, members that can offer technical perspectives on subjects such as  public health, climate change adaptation, environmental financing, equitable development, and community sustainability, are sought that reflect the issues and subjects currently being evaluated by the NEJAC.

You can submit your application for membership to the NEJAC by downloading this electronic form and following the instructions to submit your application. In order to fill the anticipated vacancies by May 2012, nominations should be received by February 20, 2012. For additional details regarding the nomination process and to learn more about the NEJAC, please visit justice/NEJAC/index.html, or call the EPA Office of Environmental Justice at (202) 564-2515.

Consider the NEJAC – it might be a perfect fit.

About the author: Victoria Robinson is the Designated Federal Officer (DFO) for the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a federal advisory committee. Since 2003, she has been responsible for the day-to-day management of the NEJAC, managing the committee in accordance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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