Do you Know if your Waterway is Polluted?

Doug Norton

Pollution in the Potomac River

“How’s My Waterway?” Can you answer this question about your favorite vacation lake, or the river where you walk with your dog?  Are streams in your community polluted, and what’s being done about it if they are?

Most people don’t know – and are surprised to learn – that the answers have been publicly available for years.  But publicly available doesn’t always mean easily accessible and understandable.

For decades, the Clean Water Act has required tracking of water pollution problems and restoration progress across the nation. EPA public databases include detailed information about the condition of local streams and lakes, pollutants, where they come from, and progress on fixing the problems.

As an Office of Water scientist, I regularly use these databases in national and state studies of water pollution trends and restoration strategies. But even I had trouble answering the simple question: “How’s My Waterway?”  These data systems weren’t designed to provide a quick look at local waters or to provide a simple explanation of what the data really mean. Chances are most people would be baffled by EPA’s complex databases and scientific information.  They might say, “But all I really want to know is:  How’s MY waterway?  And please tell me in words I can understand.”

Map View of How's My Waterway

My project team created an exciting solution to this dilemma as part of EPA’s Water Data Project, which makes important water information more widely known and available to the general public.  We developed How’s My Waterway as a simpler pathway through the same EPA database.  You can instantly get localized information about waterways in map and list format by simply entering a zip code or place name.  Anyone can check on local waters anywhere in the nation in seconds—even at the water’s edge, for those using smart phones.

Users can pan across the color-coded map that shows how common are the polluted, unpolluted, and unassessed waters.  Waterway-specific details include the local pollutants and progress on clean-up plans.  Plain-language descriptions about each pollutant explain where it comes from, whether it harms the environment and human health, and what people can do to help.  Related links go to the technical database if needed or to other popular sites about beaches, drinking water, fish advisories and other water topics.

How’s My Waterway may especially help those communities where there are less resources to access and decipher complicated information from EPA’s data systems.  Learning about locally polluted areas may help people avoid illnesses from swimming or eating contaminated fish, and reading the plain language descriptions can help anyone understand risks and causes.  With better information, people are safer and communities are more able to take action.

What’s the health of your waterway?  Now you can find out.

About the author: Doug Norton is a watershed scientist with EPA’s Office of Water who studies national pollution patterns, helps states restore polluted waters, and designs tools to help improve public understanding of water pollution issues.

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.

Public Health Solutions to Advance Environmental Justice

By Ryan Fitzpatrick

Before attending law school I lived in Mid City New Orleans, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.  The neighborhood kids would frequently come over after school to hang out, talk, or get some help on their homework.  Being involved in their lives, I was struck by how often they would fall ill, forced to stay home from school and fall behind on their studies, often with respiratory problems.  Parents would take their children to the ER, but only for emergencies.  Living in a neighborhood that saw 6-8 foot high flood waters during Katrina (and the subsequent mold problems that followed in its wake), while adjacent to a major interstate, certainly didn’t help these kids in their quest to stay healthy.

Since joining the Office of Environmental Justice as a summer law clerk in June, I have been working extensively with the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and its Team-EJ work group, to more closely align agency efforts in sustainability and environmental justice.  The Partnership represents the Administration’s recognition of the interconnectivity of housing, transportation, and the environment when it comes to developing sustainable communities. The Partnership through Team EJ has worked with communities to integrate the concept of environmental justice into sustainability programs, and is now integrating public health as well.  This makes sense. People living in communities bearing a disproportionate impact of pollution often face disproportionate health burdens, an injustice that is exacerbated when they also lack adequate access to health services.

The Partnership’s recognition of the importance of reducing health disparities in conjunction with community stakeholders to achieve environmental justice comes at an exciting time in public health. The Affordable Care Act has provided $11 billion to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) from 2010-2015. HRSA is using this money to develop new and expanded federally qualified health centers, and the creation of a comprehensive National Prevention Strategy. Access to healthcare is crucial for achieving environmental justice in low-income and minority communities.

Working together, federal agencies with related missions can bring rapid and lasting change to overburdened and underserved communities across the country, like the Mid City community I was a part of.  The Partnership’s expansion into public health, and its model for interagency collaboration can go a long way toward directing critical health resources into the environmental justice communities that lack them. You can click here to find more about how the partnership is working to expand access to affordable care, and here for more resources to expand your communities’ access to basic healthcares services.

About the Author: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a third year student at The George Washington University law school, and a law clerk at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  Prior to entering law school, Ryan served a year as a volunteer construction supervisor with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, through the AmeriCorps National Direct program.

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.

EPA Seeking Feedback on Beta Tool to Address Community Environmental Issues

By Dr. Valerie Zartarian and Dr. Andrew Geller

Communities and individuals are faced with exposure to many different kinds of pollution, like lead, air pollution, water pollution, and toxics in fish. People want to understand their health risks and how to prevent them. As communities move to protect their neighborhoods, the issues can seem too numerous, with too few experts and limited access to information that can limit meaningful involvement.

In EPA’s Office of Research and Development we are designing the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST) and related research to address these challenges. C-FERST is being developed to increase the availability and accessibility of science and data for evaluating impacts of pollutants and local conditions, ranking risks, and understanding the environmental health consequences of your community.

By putting this environmental information in the context of community assessment roadmaps, C-FERST will assist communities with the challenge of identifying and prioritizing environmental health issues and promoting actions to enhance health and well-being. The tool provides easy access to maps, information, and location-specific environmental data for decision-making and problem solving. C-FERST can be used by stakeholders to make informed, cost-effective decisions to improve public health.

C-FERST was originally developed through collaborative pilots projects with EPA’s Community Action for Renewed Environment (CARE) program grantees, including Springfield, Mass. and Portland, Maine. For example, Springfield partners used information from C-FERST to generate posters brought to their community meetings, as part of their issue identification process. They are now using maps and reports from C-FERST, to prioritize pollution and public health issues (e.g., asthma and vehicle exhaust, in conjunction with sociodemographic data), during the risk ranking step of their community assessment process.

At a recent conference, we also illustrated how the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Tribe, our initial pilot for Tribal-FERST (T-FERST), a tool similar to C-FERST, but designed specifically for tribes, can use the maps. The tribe identified climate change as a  critical issue because they are concerned about exposed homes and beach erosion near their wastewater treatment plant on the coast.  We overlaid data provided by the tribe of their wastewater treatment facility onto the T-FERST maps of EPA-modeled sea level rise estimates over time. These results showed a projection of ecosystems and coastal areas vulnerable from sea level rise due to climate change, including the potential impact on the treatment plant. Such tool outputs can provide valuable information to tribes and local communities and governments to inform their coastal adaptive management strategies.

Web access to a Beta version of C-FERST is now available by request here. Please give C-FERST a try, and then tell us how we can improve it to better meet your community’s needs.  We hope by using C-FERST,  communities will be better equipped to make the environmental decisions that affect their health and well-being.

About the Authors: Dr. Valerie Zartarian is a Senior Scientist for Exposure Modeling, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development. In addition to her current focus on building decision-support tools for communities, she is the U.S. co-chair for the international exposure working group of the Global Risk Dialogue and serves as science lead for EPA’s Office of Research and Development  in developing exposure models for cumulative risk from pesticides and toxic chemicals. Dr. Andrew Geller is the Chief of the Exposure Modeling Research Branch, National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development. He has served as the Assistant Laboratory Director for Human Health, EDC’s, and Computational Toxicology in EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects lab and as a Principal Investigator in Neurotoxicology.

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.

Help Expand the Conversation on Permitting

By: Carol Ann Siciliano

Over the last two years, my EPA colleagues Janet McCabe, Ira Leighton and I have had the privilege of talking with people inside and outside EPA about ways to promote greater involvement of communities in EPA decision-making, especially when EPA issues pollution discharge permits to businesses that operate in their communities.  Our particular focus was finding ways to better integrate environmental justice into EPA’s process for issuing permits, but what we learned applies everywhere.

EPA Public Comment Meeting

We learned, from talking to community groups, that the permitting process is hard for them to follow and influence.  We learned, from talking to business groups, that businesses value their relationship with their communities, but simply don’t know how to reach out to their immediate neighbors in effective ways.  We learned, from state and local governments, that opportunities exist for EPA to get more involved in helping both the communities and the businesses.

And so, we assembled many good ideas from the public, consulted EPA’s expert staff from around the country, and published a Federal Register Notice on June 26th with these ideas, many of which center around increasing public participation before a permit is filed. Tell us what you think about these ideas.  Please submit your formal comments to EPA by clicking here or by following the instructions in the Notice.   After the comment period closes, we will carefully consider every comment that we have received to help us finalize the ideas presented in the Notice.

We encourage you to use this blog as a way of sharing your thoughts about the Federal Register Notice with each other because we highly value collaboration and information-sharing. We hope you will use this blog to tell each other your stories about successful interactions between communities and businesses in the context of environmental permitting.  And, if you have had experiences that could have been better, talk to each other about what you learned. Through this blog, we hope to create a place where people with different points of view can share knowledge and experience and gain better insights into each other’s perspectives.

Our goal with this blog is to encourage an ongoing conversation among members of the public during the comment period – and beyond. Think of the notice and formal comment process as a way to tell EPA what you think.  Think of this blog as a way to tell each other what you think.  Though comments on the blog are not considered for formal review, we want YOU to participate in this blog because your views matter to people with other points of view.  Public involvement makes better policies, and that is why you need to get involved and make your voice heard. We’ll all come out wiser in the end!

About the author:  Carol Ann Siciliano is co-chair of the EPA Environmental Justice Permitting Initiative, which is part of Plan EJ 2014.  Carol Ann is joined by her co-chairs Janet McCabe, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Air and Radiation, and Ira Leighton, Deputy Regional Administrator of EPA’s New England Region.  During her 22 years in EPA’s Office of General Counsel, Carol Ann has acquired a lot of experience in Clean Water Act permitting, environmental justice, and ways of promoting public involvement in agency decision-making.

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.

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.

National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program Focuses on Making a Difference in Communities

By Melinda Downing

As the Department of Energy’s Environmental Justice Program Manager, I am committed to making environmental justice a reality. That means ensuring that all stakeholders are informed about the issues affecting their communities and have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in environmental decision-making.

To help achieve this goal, we sponsor the 2012 National Environmental Justice Conference and Training Program (NEJC), which will take place in Washington DC, April 11-13, 2012. This year’s conference will focus specifically on youth outreach and how we can enhance communities through capacity building and technical assistance.

One speaker I am very excited about is Nancy Sutley, who has provided leadership across the federal government on environmental justice in her role as Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Ms. Sutley will be the morning keynote speaker for the conference on Friday, April 13th. And, while, you may know her as the Congresswoman of the United States Virgin Islands, the Honorable Dr. Donna M. Christensen (D-VI) has been a big champion for the environment and a cheerleader for eliminating health disparities for years. She will be leading a panel discussion on Thursday April 12th.

For those of you who are most interested in sharing best practices or garnering a few, we also have selected Lisa Garcia, Senior Advisor to the Administrator at the EPA, and Daria Neal, Deputy Chief of the Federal Compliance Section for the U. S. Department of Justice, to lead interactive sessions over the three-day conference. Native Alaskan Jacqueline Shirley from the Zender Group and Vernice Miller-Travis of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities will also share their best environmental justice practices for community capacity building and collaboration. And, we have added an online environmental justice training module, which will not only provide useful information, but also allow participants to receive continuing education credit.

Registration is almost at capacity. With only a month to go, you should register today! For more information about conference and the list of speakers, visit

About the author: Melinda Downing joined Department of Energy’s Washington, DC headquarters office in 1978 and currently oversees the Department’s Environmental Justice Program. Working in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency, a partnership was established with various communities around the country to provide them with training, resources and education to address their environmental concerns and issues and to give them a voice at the table to be a part of the decision-making process. The Department of Energy along with the Environmental Protection Agency is a member of the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice which consists of 17 Federal agencies committed to the principals of Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898.

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 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.