Strength in Numbers: Tackling Environmental Challenges By Collaborating with the Neighbors Next Door

by Johnny DuPree

Rural communities in Mississippi face a seemingly insurmountable number of challenges to gaining access to a variety of resources. Access to healthcare and infrastructure is particularly difficult. In 2009, nearly one in five Mississippians lacked health insurance.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Mississippi has the highest rate of heart disease and cancer deaths in the country, and also ranks among the top for stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease related deaths.  Mississippians are extremely vulnerable to environmental and public health issues, and are at high risk for going without the basic necessities required for healthy lifestyles. Furthermore, the wide range of extreme weather events, most notably Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2008 flooding of the Mississippi River, has compounded the difficulties many individuals already face throughout the state.

Affordability is the main issue that plagues most rural Mississippi communities.  Community projects that require hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars are challenging at best, nearly impossible at worst. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that members of communities where the median income level for a family of four barely reaches $25,000, do not have the ability to meet the basic needs required for healthy lifestyles. Healthy food, access to health care, updated infrastructure, and uncontaminated water supplies are essential to every community, but are also very costly for many small Mississippi towns to tackle on their own.

The Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors has committed to the cause of environmental protection and economic stability for all communities. The formation of a network of more than 40 mayors with health care providers, private businesses, entrepreneurs, local legislators, and community members, has created an atmosphere of collaboration that promotes innovative ways of dealing with these challenges.  The backbone of this regional collaboration is that there is strength in numbers – that the issues facing these communities cannot be solved by a single town alone.

Our regionalized approach has allowed for the swapping and sharing of ideas, practices, resources, and strategies across communities.  Communities are beginning to pool resources that provide water, waste control, food, and electricity resources to all residents.  Take for example my city, the City of Hattiesburg, where we have agreed to share trucks and other similar resources with neighboring towns to facilitate the transport of needed materials. Other towns have committed to sharing water infrastructure to serve areas that are particularly isolated.  The Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors created Surplus Donation, a new initiative that allows for donations of surplus items between “active member mayor cities.”

Part of our action plan focuses on increasing community awareness and education about environmental issues in the state of Mississippi.  Others have taken notice of our successful collaboration. In 2014, the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors received a $1.4 million EPA grant to reduce lead exposure and mitigate the negative impacts of old, inadequate housing stock for low-income, minority families and children throughout the Mississippi Delta.  With the funding provided by EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreements Program, the MCMB will create a network of African American mayors, health care providers, and community members to develop a “Lead Contamination Action Plan” that will help to identify the homes that have significant exposures, work with area health care facilities to test children’s toys and clothing for lead residue, and develop and implement lead abatement measures.

This effort includes identifying and reducing sources of environmental health and safety risks across rural Mississippi communities. One well-documented example stems from the clustering of Mississippi’s swine concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) in low-income, minority communities—and the negative health impacts that accompany them. The waste from large-scale industrial hog farming can contain pathogens, poisonous heavy metals, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can reach nearby homes and drinking water sources. To make matters worse, the odors and fumes from the hog waste often drift to nearby communities, carrying with it respiratory and eye irritants including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Location and demographics should not prevent anyone from gaining the same access to important resources.  Rural Mississippi towns have found that resource pooling enables small, rural communities the opportunity to receive the utilities they need at a more reasonable cost.  We believe that if you can help people in Mississippi, you can help anyone in the United States. We have all of the issues here in Mississippi, if you can solve them here, you can solve them everywhere.

About the Author: Johnny Dupree, President of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, has served as Mayor of the City of Hattiesburg, Mississippi since 2001.  Prior to that, he served 10 years as a member of the Forrest County [MS] Board of Supervisors.

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A Commitment to Keep Our Waters Clean and Safe

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it gave EPA the responsibility to protect public health and the environment from pollution stemming from farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We take this charge seriously and have dedicated one of EPA’s six National Enforcement Initiatives to preventing animal waste from CAFOs from contaminating water. If not managed properly, animal waste can impair drinking water sources, transmit disease-causing bacteria and parasites, and pollute the rivers and lakes on which we all depend.

In 2011, an EPA review of a poultry CAFO owned by Lois Alt in West Virginia determined that when it rained, manure and other pollutants were discharging into a nearby creek that flowed into the Potomac River. The discharge required a permit under the Clean Water Act which would have defined safeguards to minimize pollution.

EPA issued an administrative order to address this pollution. The Alt CAFO then clarified existing management practices and adopted new ones in its operations to reduce runoff of manure, and then challenged the order in court. After EPA’s follow-up inspection and correspondence with Ms. Alt confirmed that the changes would reduce pollution, EPA withdrew the order and requested the court to dismiss the case because the dispute was over. It was time to move on and focus on more pressing issues of environmental and public health protection.

The district court nonetheless heard the case. After more than a year of legal proceedings, the district court issued a decision that offers an overly broad view of the Clean Water Act’s exemption for agricultural stormwater.

Although EPA thinks that the district court decision is wrong, we also think that it is time to stop spending resources on litigation about this CAFO. EPA is not going to appeal this decision; our resources are better spent remedying more serious, ongoing pollution across the country.

The briefs we filed in this case – and many others – state that Congress established CAFOs as point sources, and that when CAFOs discharge pollutants from the production area into waters of the United States, as the Alt operation did, the law requires permit authorization.

EPA stands by this position.

Pollution from CAFOs flowing into local waterways when it rains is an environmental and public health risk. The law gives EPA the authority to require that agriculture operations with large numbers of animals in a small area that discharge pollutants to U.S. waters obtain a permit, to reduce their environmental impact. EPA remains committed to working with the agricultural community to ensure compliance with this legal requirement and to pursue enforcement when necessary. One district court decision does not change either the law across the country or EPA’s commitment to protecting water quality.

A smart and strategic enforcement program requires us to make choices about where to spend our time for the biggest benefit to the public. We stand firm on this commitment to protect public health and the environment.

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.