by Cliff Villa
It began with a concerned mom in Eugene, Oregon, raising a seemingly simple question: is the soil in my garden safe for growing food?
Joanne Gross, the stay-at-home mom posing the question, had reason to be concerned. The neighborhood of West Eugene, where she and her family were living, was ringed with air pollution from a variety of sources: energy production, chemical processing and manufacturing, wood products, traffic, and idling trains. The chemicals emitted from these sources are associated with a variety of health risks including asthma, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. And indeed, more than 60% of residents who participated in a local survey reported significant concerns about asthma and cardiovascular diseases, as well as increased incidences of headaches, fatigue, and other ailments potentially connected to air pollution.
The 97402 zip code that makes up West Eugene is home to 99 percent of the City of Eugene’s air toxics emissions. Of the 31 facilities reporting to the city’s Toxics Right-to-Know Program, all but one is located in this zip code. One facility, a wood treatment plant that uses creosote in its industrial process, operates 100 feet from the nearest home and just over half a mile from Fairfield Elementary School, which has the highest asthma rate for an elementary school in the Bethel School District. Reflecting local demographics, 35 percent of Fairfield’s students are Latino and 71 percent receive free or reduced school lunches.
To help gather information about environmental justice concerns in this community, EPA Region 10 awarded two Environmental Justice Small Grants to Beyond Toxics, a local community-based organization working in partnership with other community organizations. The grants supported statistical analysis, door-to-door surveys, community presentations, and other initiatives including a local “EJ Toxics Tour.” Beyond Toxics and its partners, including Centro Latino Americano, conducted community interviews and meetings in Spanish, and recorded the concerns of community members who might have been overlooked in the past.
These discussions engaged the attention of many government organizations, including the City of Eugene, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, the Oregon Health Authority, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. While some agencies worked on air permitting issues local health studies, brownfields assessments, and land use planning, we here in EPA Region 10 wondered how else we might contribute to enhancing the environmental well-being of this over-burdened community.
The simple question posed by concerned mom Joanne Gross and other community members prompted EPA’s response: find out whether it is safe for local residents to grow food in their gardens.
The My Garden – West Eugene project was designed to answer this question. We knew that we possessed the technical capacity to conduct soil sampling and analysis, and through the use of mobile laboratories, field equipment, and EPA and contractor personnel, it seemed possible that soil sampling and analysis could be conducted in the field, with results provided to community members almost instantaneously. We discovered that the concept already had been tested and proven a success in EPA Region 3, where staff had held “Soil Kitchen” events in diverse neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia. Their Soil Kitchen events pioneered an innovative process involving community members collecting their own soil samples from their backyards and gardens and bringing their samples to the “Soil Kitchen” for real-time analysis by EPA.
Partnering with local organizations, including Beyond Toxics and the Active Bethel Citizens neighborhood association, as well as state and local agencies, we planned the My Garden event for Sunday, October, 19, 2014, to coincide with the neighborhood Bethel Harvest Festival. In the weeks leading up to the event, community partners helped assemble and distribute throughout the community 250 citizen sampling kits. Each kit included a metal spoon, the illustrated instructions, and a zip-lock bag for collecting and the delivering the soil sample to the mobile lab. Over the course of a lovely fall afternoon, community members, including concerned mom Joanne Gross, brought 38 soil samples to the EPA mobile lab and received both the analytical data and an explanation of what the data meant. The operation was overseen by EPA On-Scene Coordinator Dan Heister, assisted by many other technical and program staff and contractors. Importantly, the EPA team included a native Spanish speaker who could explain the sampling process and results to the more than one-third of Spanish-speaking community members who brought their samples in for testing.
In addition to establishing connections with community members and local agencies and organizations, the My Garden – West Eugene project provided reassuring news to Joanne Gross and all her neighbors participating in the event: of all samples analyzed, none indicated contamination at levels of concern for growing food in gardens.
About the author: Cliff Villa is an Assistant Regional Counsel for EPA Region 10 and an adjunct professor at Seattle University School of Law. At EPA, Cliff provides legal counsel to the Emergency Management Program and represents the Office of Regional Counsel on the Region 10 Environmental Justice Integration Team.