Haskell Indian Nations University’s ecoAmbassadors Bolster Composting and Waste Reduction

By Travis Robinett

Not long ago, a student group called the ecoAmbassadors at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., set out to enhance the university’s composting system with the help of an EPA partnership and grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. I recently had the pleasure to see firsthand the successful implementation of these students’ hard work.

Haskell student Steven Peña asks about composting methods at a recent meeting between students, EPA Region 7 and KDHE at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Liz Blackburn, EPA tribal solid waste coordinator (right), is helping Haskell build a composting program from the ground up.

Haskell student Steven Peña asks about composting methods at a recent meeting between students, EPA Region 7 and KDHE at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. Liz Blackburn, EPA tribal solid waste coordinator (right), is helping Haskell build a composting program from the ground up.

Haskell University has improved its composting system this semester, with support from EPA and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Liz Blackburn, tribal solid waste coordinator with EPA Region 7’s Air and Waste Management Division, set up a meeting recently between Haskell students and Arthur Fink, KDHE composting expert, who was consulted on their plan. He explained how best to monitor and adjust the pile, helping waste break down into healthy compost. Food waste collection for the new system began in early March 2017.

Region 7 has assisted students in bringing composting to Haskell since 2015, building on previous joint efforts from a Memorandum of Agreement between EPA and the university. Blackburn said she’s proud to continue strengthening that partnership.

KDHE’s Arthur Fink gives expert advice to Haskell students on their composting plan recently. He’s standing beside wooden pallets for holding food waste as it breaks down, allowing airflow through the compost pile. The oxygen keeps food waste from decomposing in anaerobic conditions and emitting methane.

KDHE’s Arthur Fink (right) gives expert advice to Haskell students on their composting plan recently. He’s standing beside wooden pallets for holding food waste as it breaks down, allowing airflow through the compost pile. The oxygen keeps food waste from decomposing in anaerobic conditions and emitting methane.

“It’s exciting, because I think improving waste management is the best way to target pollution prevention and reduction,” she said.

In 2015, Haskell’s ecoAmbassadors set out to improve the school’s food-waste management with grant assistance through EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassadors Program. The composting system is a major piece of their waste reduction plan, which arose after fall 2015 assessments at Haskell’s dining hall showed how much food could be composted.

Haskell started composting shortly afterward with a one-bin system, but the students wanted to improve their methods. So they sought out ideas from a variety of places, including EPA and nearby Tribal Nations.

A compost thermometer shows the temperature under the surface. Compost piles can get hot. If the pile reaches about 140 degrees, the heat will kill most pathogens and denature any seeds. If it dips below 120 degrees, and food isn’t broken down, that’s the time to turn and mix the compost.

A compost thermometer shows the temperature under the surface. Compost piles can get hot. If the pile reaches about 140 degrees, the heat will kill most pathogens and denature any seeds. If it dips below 120 degrees, and food isn’t broken down, that’s the time to turn and mix the compost.

Based on what they learned, students built three adjacent bins with reused untreated wood pallets. The pallets allow for airflow, which keeps the compost from producing methane. Having three bins allows for older piles to break down while a new one begins.

According to EPA’s composting website, it takes anywhere from two months to two years for food waste to become dark, nutrient-rich compost. Fink said to help it break down, one key aspect to focus on is temperature. He brought a long composting thermometer, which measures the temperature underneath the pile’s surface.

“At 140 degrees Fahrenheit, most pathogens will be destroyed,” Fink said. “It also denatures any seeds.”

KDHE's Arthur Fink explains the benefits of adding the proper amount of wood chips to the compost pile recently at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. The wood draws moisture from the decaying food and helps it break down, though it shouldn’t be too dry when added to the pile.

Fink explains the benefits of adding the proper amount of wood chips to the compost pile. The wood draws moisture from the decaying food and helps it break down, but it shouldn’t be too dry when added to the pile.

If the temperature drops to 120 degrees and the waste hasn’t broken down yet, he said it’s time to turn the pile.

One of the big benefits of composting and diverting food, Fink said, is that food takes up a lot of landfill space and is heavy to transport. Also in landfills, food often breaks down without oxygen, giving off methane as a byproduct.

Steven Peña, a student in Haskell’s American Indian Studies Program, said he hopes this effort is successful enough that in two to three years, the university can build something more permanent with concrete.

“Also, composting is something you can use at home,” Peña said. “We’re hoping people here take this habit with them.”

About the Author: Travis Robinett has been a Student Intern at EPA Region 7 since June 2016. He is a second-year graduate student at the University of Kansas (KU), working toward a master’s degree in environmental assessment, and holds two bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English from KU. Travis has a passion for sustainability, public service, teaching, volunteering, and the great outdoors.

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

by Danny Gogal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor's Note: The 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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Science for Sustainable and Healthy Tribes

Cross-posted from It’s Our Environment

By EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy

Untitled-1Last week I signed the Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, which clarifies how EPA works with federally and state recognized tribes, indigenous community-based grassroots organizations, and other indigenous peoples to address their environmental and public health concerns.

American Indian communities have been inextricably tied to the natural environment for generations. From cultural identify to sustenance, many of those unique traditions endure. That’s why I’m so excited about the six tribal environmental health research grants to tribal communities and universities that we recently announced.

EPA is proud to have a long and rich history of supporting environmental and public health protection for all communities. These EPA supported grants will increase our knowledge of the threats posed by climate change and indoor air pollution, while incorporating traditional ecological knowledge to reach culturally appropriate and acceptable adaptation strategies to address these threats.

There is a unique need for tribal-focused research to identify those climate-related impacts and to reduce associated health and ecological risks. EPA has been actively engaged in supporting such research, and I’m thrilled EPA is providing grants to further that work. The grants will support the study of the impacts of climate change and indoor air pollution on tribal health and way of life. Grantees include:

  • The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium located in Anchorage, Alaska will be looking at ways to assess, monitor, and adapt to the threats of a changing climate to the sustainability of food and water in remote Alaska native villages.
  • The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in La Conner, Washington will be examining coastal climate impacts to traditional foods, cultural sites, and tribal community health and well-being.
  • Yurok Tribe in Klamath, California will be identifying, assessing, and adapting to climate change impacts to Yurok water and aquatic resources, food security and tribal health.
  • Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana will research climate change adaptation and waterborne disease prevention on the Crow Reservation.
  • The University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will examine ways to improve indoor air quality and reduce environmental asthma triggers in tribal homes and schools.
  • The University of Massachusetts-Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts will measure indoor air quality in tents as related to wood smoke exposures and identify potential health risks in remote subsistence hunting communities in North America.

The health of our communities depends upon the health of our environment. These grants will help build prosperous and resilient tribal communities both now and for future generations. Like the enduring memories of my tour of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and tribal environmental program in North Dakota, they will have an impact long after my service as EPA Administrator.

About the author: Gina McCarthy currently serves as the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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.