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America's Great Outdoors Diversity Initiative

James Mills | Mar 10, 2011 05:00 PM

Protecting the environment for future generations is great idea. In fact it’s a notion so simple that you might wonder why it took a White House committee ten months, 52 public listening sessions and a 116-page document to express what any lover of nature knows by heart. Unveiled in February by President Obama, America’s Great Outdoors report offers a comprehensive list of recommendations to preserve wilderness and recreation areas throughout the United States for decades if not centuries to come. It’s a thorough series of  proposals that provide logical solutions that aim to engage more citizens in AGO Illustrationoutdoor activities. But this plan, devised by the most racially diverse administration in our nation’s history, ironically seems to neglect an excellent opportunity to make the great outdoors more relevant to the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population: people of color.

To be fair, AGO is a bold and ambitious initiative. Launched in April of 2010 it identifies ten eco-boosting opportunities that include the creation of jobs, improved access to wilderness, support of stewardship programs, engaging youth and the establishment of urban parks. Each aspect of the report implies direct community involvement and recommends specific tactics that aim to raise awareness for the importance of environmental protection. But nowhere in the initiative's summary is there an explicit strategy to reach out to segments of the population traditionally underrepresented in outdoor recreation, such as African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians.

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How better science could help solve environmental justice problems

Sierra Crane-Murdoch | Mar 10, 2011 03:15 AM

In the world of public health research and environmental monitoring, "cumulative impacts" are edging toward conventional wisdom--but at EPA headquarters, the phrase is just becoming hip.  This week, the agency doled out $32 million dollars to study the health impacts of exposure to multiple pollutants at once.  That's on top of the $7 million granted in January to study the cumulative impacts of chemical and non-chemical stressors on low-income and minority populations.  This new sum will fund four research centers at the University of Washington, Michigan State University, Emory University, and Harvard University.  The program at the University of Washington will hone in on toxic-blends of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds from automobile exhaust, which could elevate health risks among people living, working, or attending school near roadways.

ChevronFor years, environmental justice advocates have pressured agencies and researchers to conduct better science by studying the cumulative impacts of chemicals, rather than the impact of a single toxin, on an individual's health. When mixed with other chemicals or compounded with social stressors such as poor diet or financial uncertainty, environmental toxins can often have an amplified health effect.  In California, state agencies have already used cumulative impact data in regulatory decision making, suggesting "air buffers" around sites with hazardous emissions and considering pollution levels when deciding where to locate schools.  In Los Angeles and San Diego, community groups are using the data to identify toxic hotspots and turn them into "green zones" by taxing high-emitters and inviting clean industry.

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Rising gas prices hurt poor most of all

Jackie Wheeler | Mar 03, 2011 05:00 PM

Gasoline pricesWe’ve all seen gasoline prices rising steeply for the past few weeks, and as though on cue, some pundits in the blogosphere and other media are dusting off their “drill baby drill” routines. It’s true that the price hikes are alarmingly rapid and I might be more open to these arguments if, like some, I had conveniently forgotten about the devastating BP oil spill environmental disaster that is still wreaking havoc on marine life and Gulf of Mexico residents. New York Times political blogger Michael D. Shear noted this week that memories of the spill may be having a muting effect on Washington’s pro-drilling rhetoric, but for the most part such restraint isn’t evident here in the Western red states. One local blogger posting on the Arizona Republic's site adeptly ticks through all the right wing’s rationales in a recent piece advocating expanded drilling: Intrusive big government! The untrustworthy Mideast! Obama’s failed policies! China! “Militant environmentalists at the ACLU”!

Of course this issue isn’t that simple.

Here in the interior West, especially in suburban and rural areas, we couldn’t ease up very much on our dependence on gasoline powered vehicles, no matter how much we wanted to.

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An atlas of equity

Bill Lascher | Mar 02, 2011 06:08 AM

Portland, OR often receives credit for green leadership, but that doesn't mean that the city is free from environmental risks. Like anywhere else, the commerce, industry and daily activities of millions of people in Portland's metropolitan area combine to strain the environment; and, like in any city, Portland's disparate neighborhoods don't feel these strains evenly.

That's one reason the Coalition for a Livable Future wants to update its Regional Equity Atlas to reflect data from the 2010 Census. The atlas -- a project that other Western cities might easily adopt -- works to chart exactly who has access to the very features that earn Portlanders their sustainability bragging rights, and who's left out even by forward-thinking city leaders. The atlas charts these impacts through maps of proximity to grocery stores and analyses of the relationship between income levels and ethnicity (I wrote about some of these findings in a November post to this blog about Portland's work toward developing “ecodistricts”), among many other data sets. It will be great to learn more from the new census data about how environmental health, income and race interact.

Meanwhile, residents of one Portland neighborhood are already engaging one another as they take documenting their community's health into their own hands.

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U.N. human rights expert visits California tribe

marcdadigan | Feb 28, 2011 06:50 AM

Arron Sisk took the smoldering sunflower root and undulated it from Catarina de Albuquerque’s feet to the top of her head, its pungent smoke curling above her like a spectral crown.

He then held it beneath her nose, and told her the root would clear her mind from bad thoughts, allow her to see and hear only the good things and to speak honestly from her heart.

“Ho!” the Winnemem Wintu Tribe said in unison. More than 30 of them gathered Sunday in the tribe’s small prayerhouse to welcome a special guest to their small village of Tuiimyali, 42-acres of former allotment land outside Redding, Calif.

Caleen and Catarina

Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco discusses her village's sewer system with the U.N. Independent Examiner Catarina de Albuquerque.

De Albuquerque is the first United Nations Independent Expert on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, and Tuiimyali was her only Western destination during her first fact-finding mission to the United States.

“We’re glad you agreed to meet us at this traditional site, where Winnemem have always lived. It’s hard to tell people about our sacred places and our story from behind a microphone at a meeting,” said Caleen Sisk-Franco, the tribe’s chief and spiritual leader.

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The price of "green" home improvement

Jackie Wheeler | Feb 23, 2011 03:53 AM

Many Arizonans like to talk big about resenting federal intrusion and giveaways, but one recent giveaway appears to have been quite popular. While definitive statistics on installations in the Phoenix area are unavailable, an observer will certainly notice a good number of homes -- especially in aging mid-century neighborhoods like mine -- sporting efficient new dual-pane vinyl windows. It could be simply a coincidence that such improvements corresponded with the period when the federal Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit (part of the Recovery Act) was available, of course. Some homeowners may not have known about the credit, or decided not to take it out of principle, or what have you. Still, one prominent local company claims to have installed “well over 50,000 windows in the last three years.” The same company’s website refers nostalgically to the now-expired credit, offering similar savings to new customers, so I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume the program was a bang-up success, at least for them.

Clearly even in a crippling recession some Westerners can justify modest “green” improvements, if the price and energy efficient windowspotential benefit is right. However, what about the increasing ranks of jobless and poor citizens? Few own their own homes, and those who rent are unlikely to have many choices -- let alone efficient green choices -- of housing. I recently heard from a neighbor that, while the rent for his home is within his very limited budget, the utilities in hot and cold months can cost nearly as much as the rent itself. The reason? The house, a rather run-down 1950s-era Ranch, has only a few shreds of ancient insulation in the attic and warped, single-pane casement windows. The landlord claims he cannot afford to make improvements to the property and still keep the rent low.

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Will the EJ legacy of Southwest coal be addressed?

Andy Bessler | Feb 14, 2011 05:00 PM

I have been busy this year chasing my two young ones around the house trying to get giddy little happy people to take a few moments from their daily joy to drink some water, gulp vitamins and brush their teeth before bed so they can stay healthy. The need to play is often prioritized over their health, but they get it and do it.

As the future of coal is discussed in many communities and utility board rooms, I am equally navajo power plantbusy chasing decision makers playing around and avoiding the healthy choices of brushing up on the EJ issues that, if addressed, would bring us to that elusive sweet spot of addressing coal’s dark legacy and dangerous pollution while bringing more jobs and brighter tribal economies with a clean energy future.

For the owners and key decision makers of the large coal plants in the Southwest like the Navajo Generating Station on the shores of Lake Powell, a child’s creativity and simple ideas might really help our national dialogue around the transition from coal to renewables.

The Salt River Project, a huge Phoenix-based utility that manages the generating station, has been hosting meetings across the state with diverse stakeholders including the Navajo, Hopi and Gila River Nations; tribal NGO’s like the Black Mesa Water Coalition and the Forgotten People; conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust, Department of Interior, Central Arizona Project and their big irrigators.  One participant told a story about his granddaughter viewing one of the slides of the huge generating station smokestacks on his computer. When discussing what Granddad was doing, she nodded her head and said, “Why can’t they just put a big cork in those smokestacks?”

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Ethical metalsmiths

Jackie Wheeler | Feb 03, 2011 05:00 PM

Around here, one sort of business seems to be surviving the Great Recession just fine: those “We Buy Gold!” places. Most seem to be sidelines of related outfits, such as independent jewelers and pawnshops, but I’ve also seen them cropping up in such surprising locations as tire repair shops and convenience stores. Another variant is a kind of 21st century version of the Tupperware party: the Gold Party, with its carefully cultivated image of merlot-swilling suburbanites shrieking with glee at the big pay-out for Grandma’s ugly brooch.  One wonders, however, if some of those eager customers are actually desperate souls seeking a respectable-seeming venue to trade trinkets for a few more weeks of food and rent.

pawn shop

 The obvious explanation for all this, of course, is the rising price of gold on world markets. I’m no economist and I’ll leave the intricacies of that subject to them, but I do often wonder about the individuals who sell the gold, as well as the environmental and human costs of mining the metal and processing it. 

So does all this trade in consumer-level metals commerce count as “recycling”? Should we cautiously hope that the stream of earrings and chains from neglected jewelry boxes might slow the urge to extract gold and other precious metals from the earth, with all the degradation, both human and environmental, that that can involve?

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From science to action in environmental justice

Sierra Crane-Murdoch | Feb 01, 2011 06:03 AM

On the east side of Houston, Texas is the Ship Channel, a narrow vein that gapes into the bay just north of the Gulf of Mexico.  Through this waterway, freighters carry Western oil to sea.  The banks are tangled with refineries, docks, pipelines, and rails.  Fuel tanks stack the shore like poker chips, and when the air is heavy, it lowers over the channel in a dull, gray haze.

It is the classic battleground for environmental justice advocates.  Four years ago, the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within 2 miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56 percent greater risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia than those more than 10 miles away.  Years before that, a study by Rice University found high concentrations of two carcinogenic chemicals in the air along the channel, and a recent investigation confirmed ten more.  That didn't stop the city from building Cesar Chavez High School in a Mexican-American community on the channel's southern edge, within breathing distance of two petrochemical refineries and a Good Year Tire plant.

Exxon Mobile refinery in Houston

An ExxonMobil refinery on the Houston Ship Channel at sunrise. Photo courtesy Flickr user Louis Vick.

And that's precisely what makes Juan Parras frustrated.  "The studies are done.  They're scientifically proven.  Then they sit in the library, and nobody addresses the solution.  What's the solution?" A leader in Houston's Mexican-American community and director of the environmental justice advocacy group T.E.J.A.S., Parras has been invited to meet with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson five times in the past few years.  "I think the EPA has made a lot of strides," he says.  Since Obama took office, the agency has cracked down on the state's loose enforcement of the Clean Air Act.  "Still," says Parras, "in our situation, those decisions have not had any impact yet."

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The State of the Union and the environment

Bill Lascher | Jan 25, 2011 01:29 AM

When President Obama delivers his State of the Union address tomorrow night he'll likely focus much of his attention on the economy and jobs -- and the lack of them in this country. It's also expected that the President will further signal a centrist drift.

It's unlikely the President will spend much time discussing the environment. When he does, expect him to focus heavily on initiatives intended to spur job growth through new energy projects and infrastructure -- think wind turbine manufacturing, solar cell installation and electric cars. I also wouldn't be surprised if there is some talk of building efficiency where it relates to the construction industry. Of course, the President will no doubt acknowledge the damage wrought by last year's Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the heart of the President's message will be an emphasis on economic growth. Nothing's wrong with that, but I wouldn't expect much analysis of the relationship between social and environmental justice.

Doing so might admittedly be a little too esoteric for a State of the Union address, but that doesn't mean there isn't an approach to discussing clean energy that won't have implications for people's access to clean, healthy, equitable communities and economic opportunity.

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