Environmental Justice from a Physicians Perspective

By Representative Donna Christensen

Before coming to Congress, I started my career as a family physician in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).  While justifiably referred to as ‘America’s Paradise,’ a closer look reveals the story of how people and the environment are inextricably linked—and also how industry has impacted the health of both. Comprised of four small islands, the USVI has been impacted by a disproportionate amount of pollution from an oil refinery, two power utilities, and two substantial landfills, which until recently, were poorly managed.

While working in St. Croix, I was able to have a first-hand look at how our community members were affected by various sources of pollution, because they were my patients.  Many had concerns about the incidence of cancer and upper respiratory diseases in communities and their loved ones. It was from these very patients that I learned more about the challenges faced by fenceline communities.  More importantly, I understood my role as a civic leader and how I could use what I learned about the burden of pollution to more effectively advocate on behalf of my constituents.

The case of the Bovoni community on St. Thomas serves as yet another interesting opportunity to examine issues regarding people and pollution.  Poor planning prevailed and a landfill was placed within the midst of a well established residential area.  With smarter planning, this could have been avoided all together.  Local leadership especially has a responsibility to be aware of the impact of dumps, oil refineries, power plants and other possibly polluting industries, as well as the cumulative impacts they can have on communities’ health.  Everyone has a right to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink —and everyone has a role to play in protecting the health of our people and the environment.  The sooner we realize this, the better off we all will be.

About the author: The Honorable Donna M. Christensen is serving her eighth term as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is the first female physician in the history of the U.S. Congress, the first woman to represent an offshore Territory, and the first woman Delegate from the United States Virgin Islands.

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You are the True Expert about Your Community

By Teri Blanton

The community that I grew up in rural Southeast Kentucky was a federal Superfund site and learning that the water in the community I lived in was polluted was my first experience with the need to advance environmental justice. That was the beginning of my understanding of what environmental justice is and the importance of engaging communities to have a voice in the environmental decisions that affect where they live.

Teri at a Rally

Over the years I have learned a lot of lessons about how to meet with people and educate them about how they can stand up for their right to a healthy and sustainable community. For example, when reaching out to people, you can’t communicate from a place of anger, because it will not reach anyone. Instead, you must be aware of your own feelings and have the ability to control them to interact effectively with others.

Also, when you talk to people about what environmental justice is you need to make the human connections clear. For example, when I talk to people in our rural communities about the effects of mountaintop mining, I remind them that mountaintop mining production has been linked to many possible public health problems that have a direct effect on people’s lives, including a 42% increase in birth defects, according to one study. But, statistics by themselves are just numbers. Effective leaders know that in order to draw out empathy from others, they must focus on the human impacts pollution can have on the places we live, work, play, and pray.

My organization, the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, initiated The Canary Project that aims to expand awareness among Kentucky’s residents about the pollution that can result from coal production in our communities. The project is named after the old mining practice of bringing canaries into the mines to check for toxic gases. When the gases became too dangerous for the canaries, the miners knew to leave the mine. As we say, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of environmental injustices. We must build awareness, because everyone on this planet deserves clean air, clean water, and healthy communities.

About the Author: Teri Blanton is currently a Canary Fellow, and the past Chair for the citizens group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. A survivor of a Superfund toxic waste site near her home in Harlan County, Kentucky, Teri has worked to educate communities and advocate for pollution prevention across the country for the better part of the last 20 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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Empowering Citizens is What Environmental Justice is all About

By Reggie Harris

When I think of environmental justice and what it is really all about, I think of the residents of Chester, Pennsylviania and their shining example of what is truly possible for communities to achieve.

Chester is located approximately 15 miles southwest of the City of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. I became acquainted with the issues in this city during a visit to the EPA Region Region 3 Office by a concerned minister from the community. That pastor, Reverend Dr. Horace Strand, met with EPA regarding issues related to a controversial proposed permit.  Reverend Strand pointed out that there were clusters of hazardous waste facilities in Chester, and that many of the people were concerned for their health and well being due to the large number and variety of facilities that they felt were polluting their community.  Reverend Strand also asked the question, “How much pollution is too much for a community?”  At that time, 90% of the waste being managed in the county was being managed in Chester, a community whose population comprised 13% of the population of Delaware County.

After the compelling discussion, the Regional Administrator decided that a risk study should be conducted to assess the multiple sources of risk in Chester. The study brought together local residents, with city, state and federal agencies in an effort to conduct a comprehensive risk study for that community. The multi-stakeholder work group held numerous public meetings and work group sessions to refine the study and to develop a plan for action.After the compelling discussion, the Regional Administrator decided that a risk study should be conducted to assess the multiple sources of risk in Chester.

The stakeholders responded with a number of proactive initiatives designed to address concerns. The state put an on the ground- inspector in place, hearings were held on permits, voluntary risk reductions activities were enacted; and most importantly, the residents initiated a number of actions on their own to address concerns. The residents had also established their own partnerships to address concerns, and in fact expanded those partnerships to include a wide range of stakeholders who came together to work collaboratively to address concerns.

Reverend Strand and residents of Chester became an active and engaged force in their community. They have developed working relationships with the various stakeholders in the area, and are proactively undertaking multiple initiatives to improve the quality of life and to improve the health of the community. Their work has included Lead Poisoning Prevention activities, a CARE Grant addressing asthma concerns, local issues related to permitted facilities, informational and educational sessions for residents regarding local issues, and a host of other interactions where they have shared their experiences and knowledge with other communities.  For me, this is what environmental justice is all about.

About the author: Reggie Harris is currently the Regional Environmental Justice Coordinator and a toxicologist in the Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice in EPA Region 3. He has also served as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Masters of environmental studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching a graduate level Environmental Justice course. Over the years he has worked collaboratively with partners domestically and internationally on issues of related to the exposure and risk characterization; and assessment of risks to communities of concern.

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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A Breath of Fresh Air After 35 Years

By Susana Almanza

Historically, communities of color, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Native-Americans, have been disproportionately affected by industrial pollution. At the same time, our communities have not benefited equitably from these industries. As we look into our own backyard here in East Austin, we see a power plant, fuel storage tank farms, refineries, lumber companies, and high tech industries which emit their pollutants into the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth that sustains us.

Susana addressing the Austin City Council

We believe a safe and healthy environment is a fundamental right for all people. That is why we in PODER-Texas worked on land use polices and have been successful in the adoption of a City of Austin Overlay Ordinance to provide public notification and participation of the siting of industries with commercial and industrial zoning in East Austin. Our efforts also led to the relocation of a gas Tank Farm, which had been emitting toxic chemicals in the community for over 35 years that were causing chronic illnesses for neighborhood residents.

From this experience, as well as many others, I have discovered that local, state and federal agencies have the ability to impact environmental justice and that community organizations must work to help government agencies create outcomes that benefit the community. That is the lesson I want to pass on to all people who are working on environmental justice.

Today we are faced with a common issue of survival and a crisis of life for this living planet Mother Earth. Any threat to the environment endangers all of us. As an indigenous person, our traditional culture enables us to view the Earth and her resources as living entities to be honored. I believe we are at a point where we must act to save and restore Mother Earth for all peoples and cultures.

About Susana: Susana is the current director for PODER-Texas. PODER’s mission is redefining environmental issues as social and economic justice issues and collectively setting our own agenda to address these concerns as basic human rights. We seek to empower our communities through education, advocacy and action. Our aim is to increase the participation of communities of color in corporate and government decisions related to toxic pollution, economic development and their impact on our neighborhoods.

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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Building Bridges for Sustainability and Environmental Justice

By Sue Briggum

I’m sharing this video because in my experience, when members of the business community sit down with community members and environmental justice leaders; listen, learn and share candid conversation, they learn a lot about being a better neighbor and a better company.  At Waste Management, our engagement with community and environmental justice leaders over many years has given us critical insights into how we need to shape our business plan to focus on recycling and renewable energy and become part of a more sustainable future.  If a company wants to be sustainable, it must be a constructive community partner and an advocate for environmental justice.

There are many businesses committed to constructive engagement with community and environmental justice leaders and governments, which have been working together in the Business Network for Environmental Justice. I would encourage community members to reach out to members of the business community and begin the dialogue – and encourage businesses to do the same. The message I want to convey through this video is simple: Pragmatic conversations among stakeholders are the best forums to shape sound public policy.

About the author: Sue Briggum is Vice President of Public Affairs for Waste Management.  Sue served on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s NACEPT Superfund Advisory Committees in 1994 and 2004; Title VI of the Civil Rights Act Advisory Committee; Compliance Assistance Advisory Committee; and  Environmental Justice Advisory Council (as Council or work group member) from 1994 to 2012. She co-chaired both terms of the National Environmental Policy Commission, convened at the request of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

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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Check out our new Video Series Commemorating 20 years of the Agency Working on Environmental Justice!

By Charles Lee

Since EPA first started working to advance environmental justice in 1992 by creating the Office of Environmental Equity (later renamed the Office of Environmental Justice), a lot of work has been done to reduce health disparities, improve public engagement, and create healthy, sustainable communities. This work didn’t happen overnight. It took hard work and dedication from organizations, individuals, businesses, and government officials all working to create communities that are healthy places for families to live, learn, work, and play.

After twenty years there is still work to be done, but people are continuing to make progress toward accomplishing it. So, when we in the Office of Environmental Justice decided to do a video series to commemorate the 20 year milestone, we thought the focus should be on the lessons learned from people who have been working in communities over the last 20 years. We asked them how they approach developing solutions to environmental and health issues in communities and we asked which moments in their efforts to advance environmental justice have changed the way that they think about solutions to environmental and health problems in communities. We also asked them to share why these lessons are important for the next generation who will receive the torch and continue to move it forward to achieve the goal of environmental justice.

This video series features people who have been putting “environmental justice in action” for the better part of their lives, as well as people who are just getting involved with the issue, including insight from representatives of non-profit organizations, government officials and students. Our goal is to inspire you with their stories, help transfer their knowledge best practices, and start the conversation about working for environmental justice for the next 20 years.

The first video features Vernice Miller-Travis, who documents the early years of her work to help form the nonprofit West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. Her message is simple: Sometimes it’s better to use honey instead vinegar. If you treat people with respect, then you get that respect back.

Watch the video, share it, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section. That’s what expanding the conversation on environmental justice is about!

About the author: Charles Lee is currently EPA’s Deputy Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice. He is widely recognized as a true pioneer in the arena of environmental justice and helped to create the field. He is the principal author of the landmark 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. He also spearheaded efforts to establish the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and to issue Executive Order 12898 on environmental justice.

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.