toxic waste

Pollution by Design: Reducing Pollution Through Organizing

By Penny Newman


Heavy rains cause overflow from toxic waste pits to run through a local Glen Avon school

Thirty five years ago, I joined a rag tag group of moms who gathered together to decide how we were going to stop the exposures from the Stringfellow Acid Pits, a permitted Class 1 toxic dump site that accepted chemical wastes from throughout California.  This was in response to an incident where the State of California, during a heavy rain period, released over one million gallons of liquid toxic waste into our community in order to relieve pressure on a the dam that was holding back 34 million gallons of hazardous waste. They did this without informing us, flooding our streets, and inundating our homes and school.  Our children splashed in the puddles, made beards and became snow men in the frothy mounds of gray toxic foam.

Untitled-23When we realized what had happened, we decided we’d had enough.  Concerned Neighbors in Action (CNA) formed to stop it. By 1980 we began to hear rumors of places like Love Canal and Times Beach, where communities were experiencing similar problems.  Putting our heads and hearts together we launched into a decade long battle to make the system respond to the health crisis that we, and other communities, were facing.  Our efforts changed laws, developed legal precedent and created new institutions.

In 1993, after stopping the exposures and winning a personal injury lawsuit with a $114 million settlement, CNA became the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) to broaden our work and bring focus to the underlying factors of polluted communities.  We learned that these situations don’t just appear by accident. They are the result of a system that seeks the lowest costs, which can lead to high polluting industries locating their operations in poorer communities and communities of color.  This is why CCAEJ has developed a mission of “bringing people together to improve our social and natural environment,” as recognition that the social environment—economic, political, education— determine the fate of our community’s environment and our living conditions.

If we do not have the power to influence decisions in those systems, they will be used to advance other interests.   It is not by accident that our small rural community ended up with the Stringfellow Acid Pits – it was a decision made by powerful interests taking advantage of the system.   The goal was to find cheap places to dump their poisonous wastes in a place that is out of sight—commonly called “remote disposal.” While we knew this by instinct, our feelings were confirmed when we uncovered a report commissioned by the State of California and written by a consulting firm.  It profiled the communities that would be the easiest to site polluting facilities.  In the summary they write, “all socioeconomic groupings tend to resent the nearby siting of major facilities, but the middle and upper socioeconomic strata possess better resources to effectuate their opposition.” 

Untitled-24In other words, pick the most vulnerable communities.  Understanding that poor communities and communities of color are targeted for pollution is an important factor in how to attack the problems. That’s why CCAEJ works specifically in Inland Valley communities like Riverside and San Bernardino in Southern California; which face some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country today.  Building power for these forgotten communities through leadership development, trainings, and actions; forcing the public and politicians to see the issues so they can’t be ignored or hidden; and flexing our political power is the true pathway to environmental justice.

Penny Newman is executive director and founder of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ), which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties. She began her fight for environmental justice with the battle of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, California’s worst toxic waste site. This 25-year battle of a small town against the pollution from the Stringfellow site is recounted in her book, “Remembering Stringfellow.” Ms. Newman has received numerous awards during her 27 years as an environmental activist, including Jurupa’s “Citizen of the Year.” Newman has also appeared on numerous television shows such as the “Remembering Your Spirit” segment of the Oprah Winfrey show. She was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Toxic Time Bomb.”

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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Solving the Solvent Problem: Part 1 of a 2-Part Series

by Walter Mugdan

If you’re like me, you’re interested in the etymology of words.  My job at the U.S. EPA involves cleaning up toxic waste sites.  Lots of the words used in my business are scientific and derive from Latin or Greek (neither of which I studied in school).

The chemistry term “solvent” comes from the Latin solvere, meaning to loosen or untie.  The same Latin root gives us other words – words that have both scientific and common meanings.  We solve problems, both mathematical and human … or at least we search for the solutions to those problems, assuming optimistically that they are in fact soluble.  The Declaration of Independence explains why we chose to dissolve the political bands which tied us to England.

In the scientific context, a solvent is a substance (typically a liquid, but not necessarily) that dissolves another substance, called a solute; the result is called a solution.  Life as we know it would not exist if nature had not made possible this chemistry trick.  The most common solvent on earth is water.  The world’s oceans, from which life arose, constitute a solution with thousands of solutes, many of them essential to life.  The most obvious is sodium chloride – salt – the primary ingredient of salt water.  More mundane water solutions are all around us, including virtually any flavored drink from coffee to lemonade to Gatorade to whiskey.

Today there are a zillion other solvents out there, and they are used in nearly every industry from the simplest to the most complex.  Some, like turpentine (distilled from the sap of pine trees) have been in use since ancient times.  But most have been concocted in the 250 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  From paint thinners to cleaning agents to manufacturing intermediates, solvents are ubiquitous in the industrial world.

Why is this relevant in an environmental blog?  And why does the title of this blog suggest that there is a solvent problem to which we need a solution?  Here’s why: like everything else in the industrial world, the use of solvents creates wastes; and until pretty recently those wastes have been poured, leaked, spilled, pumped and dumped onto the ground and into the water.  What’s more, nearly all of these solvents are bad for you, some extremely so.

Two of the most common are trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, PCE or “perc.”  TCE is used in a wide variety of industries, from extraction of vegetable oils to medical anesthesia, but it is most commonly used as a degreaser and cleaner for metals and electronics.  TCE was almost certainly used in making every iPod or iPhone or iPad you own (or covet).

Perc is most commonly used as dry cleaning fluid — it’s what provides that distinctive smell when you bring your clothes home from the cleaner.

Both TCE and perc are probable human carcinogens, and one or both are found well over half of the sites on the U.S. EPA’s Superfund list of the worst toxic waste sites in the country.   That list is littered with former dry cleaning establishments, many of which simply poured their used perc into the ground.   Here in the Big Apple there are literally hundreds of dry cleaners.  While most of them have not contaminated the soil and groundwater, if you’re reading this blog you’re probably not too far from a site where a dry cleaner has done just that.

Watch for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll consider how we can solve the solvents problem.

About the Author: Since 2008 Walter has served as Superfund director for U.S. EPA Region 2, managing the region’s toxic waste cleanup, emergency response and brownfields programs.  For the previous six years he was director of the region’s air, water, hazardous waste and environmental review programs.  He joined Region 2 in 1975 as a staff attorney doing air pollution enforcement work.  From 1991 to 2002 he held various supervisory positions in the region’s legal office, culminating as Regional Counsel.  In his private life he heads a small, local conservation group in northeast Queens.  He enjoys bicycling, kayaking and hiking; and since 2010 he has been moonlighting as an Executive Producer (read: source of funding) for his daughter’s nascent career as an independent film maker.

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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Science Wednesday: A Green Chemistry Moon Shot

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Chris Crane

I was born in the late 80’s and like many other members of my generation I often dismiss the idea that there are any challenges in this decade that compare to John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Moon speech: “We shall send to the moon…on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth…and do it first before this decade is out.”

What could compare to that?

After attending the 15th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference, I stand corrected. At the conference, EPA Assistant Administrator and “Father of Green Chemistry,” Dr. Paul Anastas gave a keynote on “Molecular Revolution.” While I was expecting something heavily laden with scientific terms, what I heard was a welcome surprise (in English)—especially to a young environmentalist dedicated to a sustainable future.

After taking a moment to marvel at what green chemistry has accomplished in its first 20 years, Dr. Anastas moved to address the hard questions of the future. “Today there exists an absurdity, despite our best efforts… it’s absurd that our products and processes are still of concern.” Manmade substances can cause developmental problems for the unborn, hardwire obesity in the womb, and decrease intelligence before a child is even born, Anastas explained.

Alluding to JFK’s historic speech, Dr. Anastas revealed an equivalent challenge for our generation: “By the end of this decade, we will achieve an end to unintentional manmade hazards and the full incorporation of safe and healthy molecular structures.”

There are three essential components to this goal: 1) Every student and practitioner must be trained in the principles of green chemistry. 2) Industry must use no toxic substances and produce no toxic waste. 3) All chemicals in all products must be known to be free of hazard.

Dr. Anastas is calling for a revolutionary transformation in the core functions of our institutions (moving from production with harmful side effects to sustainable production) and the beliefs that support those functions (that waste and hazards are no longer acceptable).

Despite my tendency to dismiss historical patterns, Dr. Anastas showed me how we are all faced with a modern day moon challenge as we try to create a sustainable world. It’s going to take similar levels of cultural, scientific, and political unity behind this goal if we are going to reach the moon.

About the Author: Chris Crane is an intern with the Science Communications team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is an environmental economics major at Colgate University.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations 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.

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.