Homepage News Archive

Hurricane Ida Leaves Path of Oil and Chemical Spills in South Louisiana

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Healthy Gulf documented the damage in Cancer Alley, Port Fourchon and Lafourche, Terrebonne, Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes in Louisiana. On two flights provided by SouthWings, Healthy Gulf documented the catastrophic damage to the communities and industries that bore the brunt of Hurricane Ida’s wrath.
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Photo Credit: Healthy Gulf, flight provided by

Backyard Talk

My Personal Experience with the EPA

By: Jose Aguayo, Senior Science Associate

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an often embattled and criticized federal agency – and very much rightly so. Since its inception in late 1970, the EPA has struggled to deliver on its mandate to be good stewards for America’s environment. However, it is my view derived from my personal experience, that the agency’s failings have more to do with its structure and its imposed limitations, than with its people.
One example that is still fresh in everyone’s mind is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The town experienced such a cataclysmic and systematic failure of all the safety checkpoints designed to maintain a safe drinking water system; but the biggest failure of all came from the very top. The EPA failed to “establish clear roles and responsibilities, risk assessment procedures, effective communication and proactive oversight tools,” as their own self-assessment report concluded. This stemmed from the slow and bureaucratic structure of their upper management, who in many instances were political appointees with little to no experience in the field.
Perhaps even more damaging are the handcuffs the EPA works with – financial handcuffs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Superfund program. Once funded by a fairly well-designed and reasonable dedicated tax on polluters, the program now runs on fumes. Since 1995, taxpayer money funds the cleanups, and even this has been cut by almost 50% over the last two decades. The result for the agency is almost nonexistent enforcement power and cleanup activities that get delayed for years. I could probably go on and on citing examples of the way the EPA has proven to be next to useless. But I don’t despise the agency; at least not anymore. I worked there for a little over 3 years as a contractor and, initially, I was very cautious and apprehensive. Having come from an environmental nonprofit background, I saw them as, maybe not the enemy, but certainly as a facilitator for those against me. In many ways that remains true, but the people I met there changed my view of the agency quite drastically.
In my years working as a contractor for the EPA, I saw firsthand how its people work passionately and are fully committed to the agency’s mission. I have seen how toxicologist colleagues meticulously examined chemicals under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and approached their review from a precautionary principle standpoint. I saw how occupational safety experts strictly enforced updated chemical safety measures at EPA labs. I saw how sustainability professionals implemented new environmental management systems at nearly all EPA facilities to further reduce the carbon footprint of the agency. All of these personal victories of the dedicated EPA staff I have had the privilege of knowing and working with over the past seem small compared to the agency’s debacles. But they served to paint a different picture in my head. In an ideal world, where funding is not always cut short and management is effective and knowledgeable, the EPA could do some good work. Perhaps more, much more, is needed for it to address all of the environmental challenges we face today. But I am willing to bet that if the drive and dedication of most of the EPA staff were unshackled, the EPA would have a decent chance at doing its job.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Backyard Talk

Individuals With Disabilities & Environmental Justice

By: Sharon Franklin, Chief of Operations
In a recent article in Environmental Health News, Environmental injustice and disability: Where is the research?, it sites that one group remains largely ignored: disabled people, who make up more than 25% of the United States population. When descriptions of environmental justice are made, the EPA doesn’t even include a category for individuals with disabilities. While a recent study Unequal Proximity to Environmental Pollution: An Intersectional Analysis of People with Disabilities in Harris County, Texas suggests that disability status—especially in combination with race, ethnicity, and income—can determine the amount of environmental harm exposure, it doesn’t address the environmental harm and exposure for physically challenged individuals. When we compare similar other marginalized communities, these individuals are also forced to live in areas that disproportionately expose them to environmental hazards.
While environmental justice researchers have spent decades trying to document these inequalities, there are only a few studies focused on the disabled population. Jayajit Chakraborty, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, observed that in Houston, where “neighborhoods located near pollution sources—like Superfund sites and hazardous waste facilities—were home to a significantly higher proportion of disabled people compared to the rest of the city. In addition, race, ethnicity, and age all further amplified these inequalities—disabled people of color and those aged 75 years or older both lived in even closer proximity to polluted areas, likely decreasing their quality of life.” Conversely, expanding on this research will be difficult, as work like Professor Chakraborty’s is uncommon.
Professor Chakraborty concludes that the goal has always been to expand the scope of environmental justice research. He hopes that studies similar to his Houston study will “lead to a better inclusion of people with disabilities in environmental justice research and environmental policy.”
Daphne Frias, a disabled youth organizer, told EHN researchers that the lack of available data is just a symptom of a larger problem: “ableism.” “It’s the idea that disabled lives are unimportant and disabled lives are invisible. It doesn’t matter if where we live makes us even more unhealthy.” That’s why Frias believes this framing needs to change. “Our community is beautiful and powerful, and I think that needs to be embodied instead of this doom and gloom narrative of how we’re perceived.” She added that moving forward, it’s important that researchers begin reaching out directly to the community and listen to their lived experiences. “It’s the phrase that [disabled people] always say, ‘Nothing about us without us.’”
Photo credit: Environmental Health News