Bridging the Gap and Building Solidarity at Regional Environmental Justice Training

By: Kelsey Monk, program coordinator, and Marcelo Norsworthy, research analyst

Source: Pat Sullivan  — AP Photo

Source: Pat Sullivan — AP Photo

Addressing environmental justice challenges is an ongoing learning process, and, like many environmental and public health concerns, there is no silver bullet. However, there are effective strategies and productive collaborations that can lead to success. As I learned from Vernice Miller-Travis, co-founder of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, “passion, matched with data, is a really powerful conversation to be having.” And EDF is definitely into data and powerful conversations, so last week, Marcelo Norsworthy and I participated in a three-day Environmental Justice Training Workshop.

The National Governor’s Association defines environmental justice (EJ) as protecting minority and low-income communities from bearing a disproportionate share of pollution, and this can have implications at the legal, regulatory, and policy levels. The workshop, co-sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 6 Office, the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Series, and the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, is part of a larger effort by EPA’s Region 6 Office of Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs. The intent is to bring together grassroots organizations and partners, local officials, and government entities to build sustainable relationships and broaden decision-making skills. Essentially, EPA is utilizing a participatory and collaborative process to draft an environmental justice action plan that addresses region-wide priorities, such as air quality, chemical security, and Gulf Coast restoration.

The attendees represented a wide variety of communities and issues, from Arkansans still recovering from an oil pipeline break that contaminated neighborhoods in 2013, to Houston-area communities, like Galena Park, slowly being smothered by the petrochemical industry, to south Texas colonia advocates trying to understand how rapid development in the Eagle Ford Shale impacts local air and water quality. Over 200 people attended, each with a unique and heart-wrenching story, yet each looking for the same thing: the right to live in their neighborhoods without having to worry if the air they breathe or the water they drink will give them asthma or cancer.

Encouragingly, effective strategies and success stories were widely shared. Take, for example, the hearing on EPA’s proposed rule to reduce toxic emissions at oil refineries. Well over 100 people attended the hearing earlier this month, many of whom stood up and testified in support of stronger health standards. Adding an important virtual voice on the issue, nearly 14,000 EDF members responded to our action alert. At the EJ workshop, we heard EPA’s regional leadership, elected officials, veteran environmental justice advocates, and renowned experts confirm that this kind of action, strategically leveraging the collective voice of the people, is a very powerful weapon. Whether the issue is federal regulations or a local air pollution permit application for a new refinery, showing up and being a part of the conversation is the first step to improving outcomes for environmental justice communities.

As Ron Curry, EPA’s Region 6 administrator, said of his work, “you have to be on the ground to see it, to feel it, to be moved by it.” On the ground is where environmentalism allies with social justice, and both are stronger for it. It’s where people live and die by the environmental injustices they face, and it’s where EDF’s scientific understanding meets the local expertise of impacted communities. On the ground is where EDF is starting to participate in the really powerful conversations, and this training was a valuable next step in bridging the gap and building the solidarity necessary to overcome environmental justice challenges.

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