Backyard Talk

EPA Should Make Environmental Justice Job One

By Laura Barrett

Re-posted from ROOFLINES–the Shelterforce blog

The EPA is making news lately.  Unfortunately, it’s not for protecting the environment or victims of pollution. Activist groups, low income residents of communities plagued by toxins, and journalists are all taking the EPA to task because they charge that through inaction, it is aiding environmental racism.

In July, Earthjustice and five other groups sued the EPA for its failure to investigate civil rights complaints. These non-profits say that the EPA is letting states “off the hook” when they grant permits to companies that pollute in communities of color. “It is unacceptable that the racial composition of a community continues to be a critical factor in predicting exposure to toxic contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado said. “Justice has been delayed for too long. While EPA sits on these complaints, facilities continue to pollute and communities living in proximity to these facilities are deprived of their rights.”

In August, six other organizations filed an “intent to sue” against the EPA for failing to update its regulations on mining waste. (They are the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, and West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.)

The groups are calling on the EPA to update its mining waste disposal rules, which they say should have been revised more than a quarter century ago. The activists believe that an influx of mining wastes from fracking has greatly exacerbated environmental problems.

“These are not your mom and pop wells of the 1980s, and their waste can no longer be ignored and listed as being non-hazardous,” said Teresa Mills of CHEJ’s Ohio field office. “For the agency to keep calling millions of gallons/tons of hazardous material as non-toxic is mind-boggling. The free ride for the oil and gas industry must end now.”

Over the last few months the Center for Public Integrity has released an investigative series on the EPA’s record on civil rights complaints. The Center found that EPA officials rejected 95 percent of the hundreds of civil rights complaints it has received. Keep in mind this is the EPA office specifically charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that get EPA funds and, when seeing evidence of injustice, making things right. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty. And it’s one that leaves low income communities of color, rural people and indigenous people–often the victim of the most egregious polluters–increasingly vulnerable.

In September, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it will more aggressively evaluate recipients of EPA funding to ensure their compliance with federal civil-rights laws. A draft Strategic Plan was released recently. The five-year plan commits the agency for the first time to conduct targeted compliance reviews. The plan seems to be a response to the Center for Public Integrity’s investigative series.

What can ordinary people do to recall the Office of Civil Rights to its mission? The Center for Health, Environment and Justice is circulating an online petition targeting EPA administrator Gina McCarthy. More than one thousand people have already signed. It’s one way to express some outrage and insist that Black Lives that are downwind of pollution Matter.

(Photo credit: Sheila, via flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Backyard Talk

The Clean Air Act has Potential for at Risk Populations

On August 3rd , 2015, president Obama and the EPA announced the finalization of the Clean Power Plan, which sets a first ever national limit on carbon pollution emitted by the electric power sector. Before then, electric plants, which contribute 31 percent total carbon emissions in the U.S., had the freedom to emit as much pollution as they pleased. Not only does the plan aim to help the United States step down from being one of the largest contributors to climate change, it allows at risk communities to step up and interact with the state government to change polluted air conditions.

It’s not uncommon to hear of low-income minorities living in higher polluted conditions compared to more affluent white neighborhoods. It is a problem long known where a 20 yearlong study from 1987 to 2007 by the United Church of Christ found that 56 percent and 30 percent of people of color and low socioeconomic live in commercially hazardous host neighborhoods (i.e. where these facilities and neighborhoods are very close, overlapping one another within a 3 kilometer area) and non-host neighborhoods, respectively. To show how high the disparages are, a study published by the University of Minnesota found that nationally, minorities are on average exposed to 38 percent higher levels of NO2, a contributor to asthma and heart attacks, than white communities. With increased exposure to harmful chemicals chances of developing health problems, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and lung disease increases as well.

The Clean Power Plan has the potential to significantly reduce these harmful emissions across the nation and possibly give communities who are at most risk of facing air pollution the much needed attention they deserve. The CPP requires States to demonstrate how they involved communities in decisions while creating a plan to meet CO2 emission standards, which can make it easier for some people to provide input on what strategies may benefit or harm their neighborhoods. With the CPP in full effect, the plan claims asthma in children is expected to be slashed by as much as 70 percent or 90,000 less attacks, prevent 3,600 premature deaths, and eliminate CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030.

The CPP prioritizes early investment in energy efficient projects in low income communities. The plan hopes this will speed up the process in switching to greener energy sources, thereby cutting carbon emissions quicker. When states submit their plans, they are required to show how they are engaged with the vulnerable communities. States are given flexibility when choosing a plan; one such option would be to increase efficiency at power plants, generating more power with less pollution. Adopting natural gas generation over coal could be another route to cleaner air, where carbon emissions are as half as much versus coal. The cleanest choice, however, is increasing electricity that originated from greener sources such as wind or solar power, in which there are virtually no carbon emissions.

The Clean Power Plan was drafted with ideas and comments from 4 million people concerned about the air. The plan has the potential to progress further by incorporating involvement from communities nationwide and could provide Americans with clean energy and clean air for the future. To learn more about the exciting changes taking place, click on this link for a fact sheet published by the White House.

Backyard Talk

Women Make The Difference In Action on Climate Change

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Greenbelt Movement in Africa

I just spent the last three days in St. Louis, Missouri with the group, Just Moms STL to help them develop a plan to put pressure on the elected representatives with the power and ability to help move families away from a horrible situation and clean up the burning radioactive dumpsite. This Superfund site and emergency situation has been ignored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for decades. In brief the recent study done by the State Attorney General’s office said they community could experience in 3 to 6 months a Chernobyl like event exploding and releasing radioactive wastes throughout the area.
The leaders are women with children, jobs, homes to care for that are leading this fight. But then most of the groups CHEJ works with are led by women 80% at our last count. Yet there is so little recognition of the women in the environmental moment, a frustration that I’ve felt for decades. Yes, my friend and fellow Goldman Prize winner rightfully received recognition but she’s the exception and her work, which continues today is critical to addressing climate change.
Returning home from my work with Just Moms STL, checking my e-mails I came across the article that was written by Tracy Mann from Earth Island. It’s worth a read because it says everything I would have said. Strange it came when it did, fate maybe. Below is an excerpt but the entire article is worth the read.
“In fact, women organizing to protect natural resources and develop community resilience is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s a group of peasant women in the India threw their arms around trees to prevent the destruction of forests in Northern India in an action that came to be known as the Chipko, or Treehugger Movement. Led by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, the Kenya-based Green Belt Movement mobilized rural women to plant trees to restore plundered forests, generate income and serve as an engine of empowerment. In the 1980s, American Lois Gibbs led the famous Love Canal protest in upstate New York to expose and rectify the toxic waste dump over which her town had been constructed. Her years-long struggle inspired her to organize women and people of color around the common interest of climate justice. Canada’s Tzeporah Berman has been on the frontlines of community-based movements against environmental threats since the 1990s when she was in the forefront of the Clayoquot Sound protests against the unconscionable clearcutting of temperate rainforest in Western Canada. More recently she has led acts of civil disobedience against the transnational pipeline and tar sands expansion.
The women mobilizing for September 29 may not yet be known as leaders or heroes, but the Global Women’s Climate Justice Day of Action is one more potent opportunity to tell their stories. It’s an opportunity for global women to join hands, just as my mother and sister and I did 45 years ago, and take their rightful place at the front of the parade, as essential catalysts to solutions to our greatest of all challenges.”
To read the full article click here:
There Can Be No Meaningful Action on Climate Change Without Women[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk

Pope supports environmental justice in Ecuador, will he in the US?

by Vesta Davis

Since being elected pope in March 2013, Pope Francis has been ruffling some feathers. Many consider him to be the most progressive pope yet. He has openly stated that the Catholic Church has been too focused on the topics of gay marriage, birth control, and abortion, while neglecting the poor and the marginalized. Pope Francis has frequently mentioned climate change, the environment, and the people who will suffer the most from global warming.

Before coming to the United States for his 3-city tour of the country, the Pope spent his July traveling through Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, He made history by focusing on the poor communities, prisoners, and youth, rather than endorsing politicians. Perhaps one of the most notable illustrations of this change was in Ecuador when he spoke at the Pontifical Catholic University. He spoke to both students and professors, urging them to not be blinded by their privilege. He implored to them to value their physical environment and to recognize that they are equal to the less privileged, regardless of any difference in education.

For decades now, there has been a building tension in Ecuador between many of the indigenous communities and the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa. Before the Pope’s arrival, he received numerous requests from indigenous group leaders and environmental activists to address oil extraction in Ecuador and its impact on the poor and indigenous communities. Just this past May, Pope Francis published his second encyclical letter entitled “Laudato si,” in which he argues the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainable development, particularly for poor and indigenous communities.

Since Correa assumed the presidency in 2007, oil extraction has become a major issue in Ecuador. In 2007, Correa initiated the Yasuni-ITT project, with the hopes of receiving outside funding and making local oil drilling unnecessary.  However, this plan was scrapped in 2013. Thus, Correa auctioned off about 3 million acres of land to the Chinese oil conglomerate PetroOriential in exchange for $1.2 billion. The oil extraction in Ecuador will occur within the Yasuni National Park, one of the most bio-diverse regions of the world and home to numerous indigenous communities.

While it is unlikely that Pope Francis held a private discussion with Correa about oil drilling, he did make a public appeal, claiming that “the tapping of natural resources, which are so abundant in Ecuador, must not be concerned with short-term benefits.” This is all well and good, but it’s not exactly what the indigenous groups and activists were asking for. One of the major benefits of Correa’s plan is that it will decrease poverty throughout Ecuador—1.3 million people have already be alleviated from poverty since Correa became president. However, is a plan to alleviate poverty really successful if it destroys the homes and heritage of a whole other group of people? I think not.

With Pope Francis now arriving in D.C., I am curious to see what social issues he will discuss with President Obama and Congress. Will he perhaps address the Keystone Pipeline fiasco? Or mention other environmental justice and land rights issues that occur in the United States? We’ll have to wait and see.

Backyard Talk

Billions of Taxpayer Dollars a Year Spent in Support of Coal Industry

By Dylan Lenzen

Despite recent efforts by the federal government, such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, to phase out one of the dirtiest forms of energy generation in coal power plants, a new report shows the US government still provides ample financial support to the coal industry by spending billions of taxpayer dollars on subsidies.   According to this recent report, the US government subsidizes the coal industry to the tune of $2.9 billion a year in the Powder River Basin alone. These subsidies come in the form of direct spending, tax breaks and exemptions, discounted leases, government-funded infrastructure, and reduced funding for cleanup efforts after mining is complete.

This report comes as the climate change, public health, and environmental justice effects of coal energy generation are increasingly being realized. Coal power plants are responsible for roughly one-third of the America’s carbon dioxide emissions. On top of that, coal power plants have long been associated with adverse health effects as a result of toxic SO2, NOx , and particulate matter emissions that lead to billions of dollars in healthcare costs. In addition, according to a report by NAACP, the negative effects of coal power are more likely to be experienced by low-income and minority communities, as power plants are often located in such areas.  Also, NAACP found that the worst performing coal power plants disproportionately affect low-income people of color. So, not only are American citizens forced to bear significant costs of coal energy generation in the form of adverse health effects, but also through their tax dollars, which subsidize the industry and support its proliferation.

While efforts, such the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, are working to reduce coal power’s contribution to climate change and negative public health outcomes, authors of the study on coal subsidies argue that the elimination of this financial support would be the best route to take in order to phase out the dirty energy source. The authors of the study suggest that elimination of subsidies going to the Powder River Basin would result in CO2 emission reductions that are equivalent to closing 9 to 32 coal power plants.

The US and other governments also support other forms of fossil fuel energy generation through subsidies. The International Monetary Fund recently estimated that coal, oil, and gas were supported by $5.3 trillion in subsidies. This figure includes not only direct subsidies, such as tax breaks, but also indirect costs imposed on society that result from the adverse effects of pollution and climate change.

So, maybe the United States government deserves some credit for their work in enacting the Clean Power Plan, but efforts will not adequately address the issues of coal energy generation until the US eliminates opposing policies such as coal subsidies.

Backyard Talk

New Citizen Science Resources for Environmental Justice

Citizen science initiatives for environmental monitoring are enabling communities to take their health into their own hands by conducting grassroots monitoring projects. Some of the most recent advances have occurred in the arena of air quality monitoring, providing more readily available resources and training for communities to fight for environmental justice using science.

On July 9th, the EPA held a Community Air Monitoring Training Workshop, sharing tools and trainings to interested community groups on how to start and maintain community monitoring initiatives, and covering technologies that make monitoring more simple and affordable. The training workshop focused specifically on Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology, which increasingly includes smaller, more cost-effective sensors and monitoring techniques. Videos and resources from the training are available at the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists website.

Low-income communities and communities of color are overburdened by environmental health threats, and air quality is no exception to this rule. Air pollution may play a key role in increased rates of asthma and other respiratory problems within low-income communities of color, which compound with other stressors to profoundly decrease quality of life for these populations. Many low-income communities are located in proximity to emission sources including highways and power plants, placing these communities on the frontlines of environmental exposure.

As the EPA states in their Roadmap for Next Generation Air Monitoring techniques, traditional air quality monitoring relies on stationary equipment, which capture data only on the air quality in their immediate vicinity. Not only does this method miss small variations in air quality between neighborhoods and even streets, it fails to consider indoor sources which are highly relevant for determining individual exposures. Traditional air quality monitoring, with its focus on average air quality values, fails to capture the full, cumulative burdens faced by our most environmentally vulnerable communities.  By using more portable sensors to gather environmental data, citizens and community groups can gather data that better reflects that spatial variation in air pollution, while gaining a better understanding of their individual exposures.

While the Air Sensor Toolbox is a valuable addition to citizen science resources, it is far from perfect. Because these devices are lower-tech and new to the monitoring field, they cannot usually provide data that holds up in the regulatory sphere. While I am excited to see monitoring technology in the hands of communities, it would be an unfortunate outcome if they grow to bear the burden for producing environmental data that fails to be acknowledged as legitimate in the legislative sphere. Additionally, in their post advertising the videos, an EPA writer states  that several of these devices cost less than a thousand dollars. While significantly cheaper than high-tech laboratory equipment, this cost may still places monitoring devices out of reach of the most vulnerable communities who could most benefit from these resources. As a scientist, I hope to see more outreach projects in the future from both government agencies and academic institutions focused specifically on building capacity for citizen science and providing resources to make these initiatives even more accessible

More resources, including videos of trainings from the recent workshop, are available at EPA’s website.

For outstanding examples of citizen science in action, visit the website of the Global Community Monitor, and read about communities tackling air pollution with low-cost “bucket brigades.”

Backyard Talk

Community Fights to Preserve Historic School

The Ivy City section of the northeast Washington, DC is one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in the district, established in 1872. It is the home of the Alexander Crummell Elementary School that served the Black children of Ivy City and Trinidad, a neighboring community. The school was named in 1911 for Alexander Crummell, a noted abolitionist, educator and clergyman, and a champion for Black Lives in his time.

The school was closed in 1977 and has been abandoned since. Residents fought and defeated a plan in 2013 by then Mayor Vincent Gray to use the school parking lot as a bus depot while construction continued at the nearby Union Station train station. Neighbors and activists worried that there already was too much pollution and industrial use in a neighborhood where about 1,200 people struggle to live every day. The school located in the heart of the neighborhood had been previously targeted by the city government for undesirable projects including a junk yard and later for rezoning to commercial land use. The neighboring residents however, wanted none of that. Instead, they want the school building and property to benefit their community. The local residents want the school restored and renovated “in a manner that serves, protects and uplifts area residents and their environment, and honors the legacy of Alexander Crummell.”

According to the website Black Past, Crummell was born in New York City and spent much of his life addressing the conditions of African Americans while urging an educated black elite to aspire to the highest intellectual attainments as a refutation of the theory of black inferiority. He was educated at Queens College at Cambridge University in England where he became the first black student to graduate from Cambridge. Crummell eventually settled in Washington, D.C. where he founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Crummell lectured widely across the United States on race issues. From 1895 to 1897 he taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1897, the last year of his life, Crummell helped found the American Negro Academy and became its first president, with W.E.B. DuBois and William Saunders Scarborough as vice presidents.  Alexander Crummell, who would become a major influence on myriad black leaders including DuBois, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Marcus Garvey, died in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in 1898. The school was added to both the DC and National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Friends of the Alexander Crummell School was formed to achieve the restoration and reuse of the school. For more information go to <>.

Backyard Talk

Remembering 9/11’s Effects on a Forgotten Community

By Kaley Beins

At 8:45am on September 11, 2001, the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, and so many lives fundamentally changed. Now, 14 years later, though we continue to remember the lives lost that day, the tragedy lives on in many ways.

In the aftermath of the attacks, many New Yorkers criticized former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman for claiming, “Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.” In 2004 the Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that first responders were likely to have respiratory problems as a result of their exposure to the caustic dust, eventually concluding in a 2009 study that first responders were twice as likely to have asthma as the general public. Although Mount Sinai posted a 9/11 health advisory in 2001 and advised New York City health officials to follow suit, NYC did not distribute health information until 2006, 5 years after the attacks. Researchers continue to study health problems related to 9/11, and have found possible links to cancer, kidney problems, and heart disease. While there are now health programs such as the WTC Environmental Health Center to help with health problems related to 9/11, the long-term health effects first responders face as a result of their heroism are stark.

There is another group potentially affected by the air pollution and debris from September 11th: the inhabitants of Chinatown. One of the residential areas nearest Ground Zero, Chinatown, Manhattan has the largest Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere. The neighborhood demographics also include immigrants from Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Burma, the Philippines, and West Africa. Its median household income is less than $36,000, about 30% lower than the median household income for New York City as a whole, and only 55% of residents 18 years or older have a high school diploma. The 2005 American Community Survey found that almost 90% of Chinatown residents speak a language other than English at home. The combination of economic pressure and a language barrier puts Chinatown in a precarious position in terms of public health.

According to a 2007 study from NYU School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Asian American Health about a third of Chinese participants needed a translator during medical appointments. Although organizations such as the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center are addressing the lack of resources for Asia Americans in New York, the health disparity in the Chinatown community may leave them even more susceptible to 9/11-related health problems.

Ground One: Voices from Post-9/11 Chinatown has interviewed people from Chinatown, including healthcare professionals, about the effects of the attacks on their communities. Dr. Blanche Leung, a physician affiliated with NYU’s Tisch Hospital, has noticed an increase in complaints about respiratory problems in her Chinatown patients that could potentially be related to the attacks. Following the events of September 11th, she wrote prescriptions for air purifiers. Dr. Sun Hoo Foo, a neurologist at Downtown Hospital, said that the economic problems Chinatown faced after 9/11 meant many of his patients lost their jobs and therefore their medical insurance. As the Ground One project says on their website, “9/11 was a national tragedy that exposed local fault lines.” While it is crucial to support the first responders in their health struggles, who is supporting Chinatown?

Part of environmental justice is giving equal attention and consideration to every affected community. Unfortunately, more limited access to healthcare may prevent residents of Chinatown from receiving the care they need. As we remember the lives of those lost on that horrific day 14 years ago, let us not forget those who continue to face its lingering effects, particularly when they still lack support.

Backyard Talk

Where In The World Is Gina McCarthy?

Has EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy totally written off oversight and action in contaminated communities and the Superfund program? Is she just turning a deaf ear to the cries for help?
McCarthy did visited Colorado after and EPA cleanup accidentally released a million gallons of toxic wastewater into the Animas River, a tributary of the Colorado River turning the water orange color. That was so big, so bad, she just couldn’t ignore it.
McCarthy said about the accident, “It is a heartbreaking situation.” I can’t disagree with that but what about all the on-going toxic waste sites where children, hardworking tax paying families live and can’t even get a simple response or acknowledgement from her office?
I’ve never seen so many community being treated so poorly by EPA. This past week in Springfield, Ohio over 700 people turned out at a meeting to tell EPA “NO.” Even the Chamber of Commerce (not always standing with us) paid for buses to help people get to the EPA meeting to show EPA people are serious. State Senator Chris Widener (R) also called on EPA to remove hazardous. Quite loudly they said, “Dig it up and take it out!”  Did that get McCarthy’s attention?
EPA wants to dig up more than 2.8 million gallons of wastes that sits over the drinking water aquifer and put it into an adjunct hole, which also sits above the aquifer that provides drinking water to county families. The community has been fighting for years to get the wastes away from their drinking water source.
Ohio not alone. A deaf ear was turned to the folks in Birmingham, Alabama a low wealth community of color. Instead of listening to a very strong assessment by the federal health agency (ATSDR) that children are at serious risk in North Birmingham stating:

  • Past and current exposure to arsenic found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health.
  • Children are especially at risk. past and current exposure to lead found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health.
  • Swallowing this lead‐contaminated soil could cause harmful health effects, especially in children and in the developing fetus of pregnant women. long‐term exposure to PAHs found in the surface soil of some residential yards is at a level of concern for lifetime cancer risk.

EPA’s response is to tell parents to not let their children into their homes until they have taken their shoe and clothes off.
Does Administrator McCarthy really think this is the answer? Has she even talked to her staff about why they are handling this situation or others so poorly? I doubt it.
Missouri joins Ohio and Alabama in being ignored. St. Louis, MO almost every politician from federal Senator Blunt (R) to most recently the County Executive, has asked EPA and McCarthy personally to address the concerns of the burning landfill moving toward the radioactive waste landfill and cluster of childhood cancers. Yesterday a new report from the Attorney General’s office said the groundwater and, yes the trees around the site, are radioactive.
The community leaders Just Moms STL raised money through bake sales and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the administrator this past spring and she closed her door to them. She was there in her office and choose to ignore the mothers who came to talk with her.
I understand that Administrator Gina McCarthy has a full plate with Climate Change, Air Standards and so on but people are literally dying. Her office has only suggested that concerned public should look to the regional offices for help.  Unfortunately, regional offices don’t have the authority to open a Record of Decision or relocate temporarily or permanently families at risk.
Many are advocating a federal investigation on EPA and Gina McCarthy’s response or better the lack of response to serious toxic waste crisis. If you are interested in helping to advocate an investigative hearing let us know and we’ll connect you with others.
Gina McCarthy, enough is enough, please pay attention.