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Communities and Ecosystems

Photo of mountain peak above Mono Lake

EPA's Pacific Southwest Region stretches across a vast area of roughly 400,000 square miles on the U.S. mainland, plus the lands and waters of Hawaii and Pacific islands more than 6,000 miles from California.

Its habitats range from Sonoran deserts to lush rain forests and coral reefs, providing habitat for thousands of unique species of wildlife, fish, and plants. Its residents reflect the world's diversity, from indigenous peoples to immigrants from around the globe. Not surprisingly, the environmental players vary from place to place. On the U.S.-Mexico Border, EPA collaborates with U.S. states, the Mexican environmental agency SEMARNAT, Mexican state governments, and border tribes.

In the Pacific, EPA cooperates with the State of Hawaii, the Territories of American Samoa and Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. On the mainland, EPA works with each of the region's states - California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii - 146 federally-recognized tribes, and in some cases partners directly with local community groups.

These partnerships and commitment to healthy habitats and communities form the foundation of EPA's work across the region, the nation, and the planet.

Pacific Islands: Public Health Improves

When imagining life on a faraway Pacific island, many of us envision an idyllic existence under swaying palms. But it's not quite that simple.

People in the U.S. Pacific island territories of Guam and American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) - where average incomes are low and water and sanitary conditions are below U.S. mainland standards - have struggled for decades to improve conditions. In 2006, the ongoing collaborative efforts of EPA and these islands' environmental agencies paid off with improvements benefiting more than 100,000 residents.

Guam: Sewage Spills Down, Drinking Water Safety Up

Bacterial contamination of drinking water has been a long-standing problem on Guam due to sewage overflows that infiltrated drinking water wells. Before 2003, residents were notified several times a year that they should boil their water before drinking it - in one instance, the boil-water warning lasted 70 days. But as a result of recent improvements, Guam has had safer drinking water without boil-water notices for the past two years.

Infrastructure investments, such as installing emergency back-up generators at sewage pump stations and upgrading its drinking water chlorination system, have made a big difference. The Guam Waterworks Authority has improved operations and infrastructure, in compliance with a 2003 EPA order, and has raised $100 million in capital from a bond issued in 2006.

Sewage overflows have decreased by an amazing 99.9%, from 500 million gallons between 1999 and 2002 to 100,000 gallons in 2006.

WWII-Era Fuel Tanks Removed in Saipan

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At Tanapag Village in Saipan, EPA removed six corroding military fuel tanks left from the 1940s, and cleaned up underlying soil.

Tanapag Village in Saipan, CNMI, faced a lingering hazard from World War II: massive fuel tanks abandoned by the U.S. military. Over the last 50 years, the tanks leaked and corroded, putting Tanapag residents at risk from petroleum contamination and physical collapse of the tanks.

In 2006, EPA removed six collapsed tanks and cleaned up the remaining oil sludge and underlying contaminated soil and groundwater. The removals - many in people's backyards or next to their outdoor kitchens - changed people's lives for the better.

The project was also a capacity-building opportunity for the local CNMI Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ). After undergoing a 40-hour health and safety training, DEQ staff worked with the EPA on-scene coordinator and various contractors in all aspects of assessing and cleaning up the sites.

Health Risks Reduced in American Samoa

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In 2004, pig waste contaminated waters in 31 of American Samoa's 41 watersheds.

Pigs in American Samoa were polluting fresh water streams, exposing residents to leptospirosis, a disease carried in pigs' guts. Nearly 1,000 small-scale piggeries house a total of 8,244 pigs on the main island, Tutuila. These are commonly makeshift operations, with open-sided buildings on concrete or packed earth. Wastes were typically discharged into unlined cesspools or directly into streams or wetlands. In 2004, pig waste contaminated waters in 31 of American Samoa's 41 watersheds.

In 2005, American Samoa's government initiated prevention efforts with water monitoring, education, inspections, and enforcement on Afuelo Stream, and island-wide. The first priorities were to educate the public about basic sanitation, to locate and map pig facilities and their discharge points, and begin water quality monitoring. Enforcement followed. The Afuelo Stream actions included moving 100 pigs away from the stream and installing waste treatment systems.

These measures have reduced E. coli bacteria in the stream by 90%, and cut nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by 58% (2,649 pounds) and 43% (2,088 pounds) annually. Similar benefits are expected island-wide.

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The U.S.-Mexico Environment - Challenges and Opportunities

Logo for Border 2012 Program

Map of US-Mexico Border

Larger View of US-Mexico Border

The U.S.-Mexico border, stretching 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, is a diverse area, encompassing deserts, mountain ranges, wetlands, estuaries and aquifers. The border region is currently home to more than 12 million people - by 2020, the binational population along the border is expected to double to more than 24 million people.

The environmental challenges of this rapid population growth include unplanned development; greater demand for land and energy; increased traffic congestion, air pollution and waste generation; overburdened or unavailable wastewater treatment; and increased frequency of chemical emergencies.

Kicked off in 2002, the U.S.-Mexico Border Environmental Program (Border 2012) is a powerful partnership between EPA, the Mexican environmental agency SEMARNAT, 10 border states, 26 U.S. tribes, and numerous binational institutions and communities. It is a 10-year, binational, results-oriented environmental program for the U.S.-Mexico border area that aims to sustainably protect the environment and public health.

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These sacks of methyl parathion represent just a portion of the 36 tons of waste pesticides collected by EPA and the Mexican government for proper disposal.

Border 2012 emphasizes measurable results, public participation, transparency, and timely access to environmental information. The partners work together to set priorities through Regional Workgroups, and the associated Task Forces provide a public forum and implement the on-the-ground border projects.

Accomplishments include major improvements to drinking water and wastewater infrastructure that benefit more than 7.8 million people, establishment of emission inventories and a binational air monitoring network to assist in identifying effective emission reduction strategies, road paving projects to significantly reduce particulate pollution, and the conduct of sister city drills to improve binational emergency preparedness coordination and readiness. In fact, many of the emergency responders who participated in the joint drills were trained at the Border 2012-supported Baja California Emergency Management Institute, an unprecedented public/private partnership that offers a full range of certified training for emergency responders.

Indigenous Communities and Tribal Nations Collaborate for Results

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San Antonio de Necua - a new water well constructed with funding from the Border 2012 program.

Indigenous communities in Sonora and Baja California are among the poorest and most isolated populations of this arid region, with little to no water or wastewater infrastructure. Until recently, the only source of drinking water for children and residents of the Quitovac O'odham community in Sonora, Mexico, were shallow, hand-dug wells contaminated with coliform bacteria and high levels of lead, arsenic, uranium, and chromium were. The usual source of drinking water for most indigenous communities in Baja California has been untreated surface water from springs, shallow wells or creeks. Many of those sources are contaminated by livestock, wildlife, or dead animals.

In 2006, the communities of Quitovac (Sonora, Mexico) and San Antonio de Necua (Baja California, Mexico) completed construction of their water systems. The new system at Quitovac serves a boarding school for 100 O'odham children. The Mexican government is now extending electricity to the community and has committed to upgrade homes to provide indoor plumbing, and the Pan American Health Organization is providing a health clinic.

In partnership with a nonprofit organization, the Pala Band of Mission Indians is helping to provide training on the maintenance of water infrastructure systems to the indigenous communities of San Jose de la Zorra and San Antonio de Necua in Baja California, Mexico.

Among the program's biggest successes last year was the permanent removal and safe disposal of 1.8 million abandoned scrap tires in Baja California that posed significant public health risks (most of the tires were sent to cement kilns and used as tire-derived fuel).

In addition, the border and pesticides programs sponsored the cleanup of obsolete, but still highly toxic, agricultural pesticides along the Arizona-Sonora border. Many of these pesticides, which included toxaphene and DDT (illegal to use in the U.S.), methyl parathion, and azinphos methyl, were improperly stored in corroding - in some cases leaking - containers. In at least one instance, children were found playing on a pile of sacks of dry pesticide. The cleanup will protect children from further exposure. The waste collection events gathered 72,000 pounds of dry pesticides and 500 gallons of liquid pesticides from the San Luis, Sonora, and Yuma, Arizona, areas.

Cleanup of the INNOR tire pile in Mexicali, Mexico.

Before cleanup of the INNOR tire pile in Mexicali, Mexico.


After cleanup of the INNOR tire pile in Mexicali, Mexico.


Each year, diesel trucks make nearly 5 million crossings from Mexico into the U.S. Emissions from diesel engines, especially the microscopic soot known as "particulate matter" (PM), create serious health problems for adults and have extremely harmful effects on children and the elderly. Health issues from diesel emissions include (but are not limited to) chronic bronchitis, asthma, premature death, and cancer.

In order to better understand the costs and effectiveness of diesel retrofit technologies on Mexican heavy-duty diesel vehicles operating in the San Diego-Tijuana border region, EPA worked with the San Diego Air Pollution Control District to fund the retrofitting of 60 heavy-duty diesel trucks from Baja California. This project reduced the particulate matter (PM10) emitted by these vehicles by 25-40%; additional retrofits are planned for the Arizona/Sonora and California/Baja California border regions.

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Gila River Indian Community's Environmental Program Excels

A few years ago, the Gila River Indian Community, located south of Phoenix, Arizona, had a host of environmental problems on their land, from a tire fire involving more than 3 million used tires, to unauthorized trash dumping. Today, the tribe has not only cleaned up these sites, it has an ongoing program to protect air, land, and water that is a model for other tribes.

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Gila River DEQ Director Margaret Cook (front center), ADEQ Director Steve Owens (rear, middle) and EPA regional Air Division Director Deborah Jordan (front, holding document) celebrate the Gila River Indian Community's completion of a comprehensive plan for improving air quality on more than 600 square miles of tribal land within central Arizona.

The tribe regulates approximately 50 privately-owned businesses and industries on their land by adopting specific ordinances to regulate waste and emissions. These businesses encompass a variety of industries including an explosives manufacturer, several sand and gravel mining operations, agricultural chemical supply companies, and cotton gins. The tribe's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has also adopted general regulations covering visible emissions, storage and handling of volatile organic compounds, degreasing and metal cleaning, and fugitive dust.

In 2006, Gila River DEQ became the first tribal agency in the U.S. to develop a comprehensive Air Quality Management Plan to protect air quality. This includes an air monitoring program that's already up and running, an inventory of total air emissions on the tribe's land, and air quality standards that are the same as EPA's national standards. Also part of the plan is an air permitting program which allows DEQ to set and enforce emissions limits for industries operating on tribal land. And the tribe has hired a team of environmental professionals, most of them Native Americans, to administer the plan.

Each year, DEQ sponsors Earth Day volunteer trash cleanups, and a household hazardous waste collection event which has brought in more than 6,000 pounds of used batteries, oil, paint, antifreeze, and other hazardous materials. In addition, the DEQ supports other district, community and school clean-ups throughout the year. The DEQ also collaborates with surrounding jurisdictions to combat illegal dumping and other environmental issues that impact the Community.

The DEQ Pesticide Control Program has worked with farmers on tribal land to greatly reduce both the amounts and toxicity of pesticides sprayed, as well as training farm workers and pesticide handlers on safety. The DEQ Water Quality Program routinely monitors and analyzes water from many sources on tribal land, including rivers, canals, stormwater, groundwater, and wells. The data collected gives the Gila River Indian Community the ability to detect changes in water quality and contamination and provide guidance for cleanup and remediation.

The Gila River Indian Community is one of two tribes in the U.S. to be chosen as a Brownfields Showcase Community. With more than $700,000 in EPA brownfields grant money, the tribe has been able to leverage $8.3 million more from other sources to clean up and re-use abandoned industrial sites. A new facility, the Diabetes Education and Research Center, has been constructed on one of the sites.

Gila River Indian Community DEQ and its director, Margaret Cook, have been recognized by both the State of Arizona and EPA for their outstanding accomplishments and leadership. In 2004, EPA awarded DEQ staff the Conner Byestewa Jr. Award for environmental excellence, which is given annually to three of the more than 146 tribes in the Pacific Southwest Region.

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Building the Willits Bypass - and Saving Wetlands

The town of Willits in Northern California's Mendocino County sits on the edge of the Little Lake Valley, so named because winter rains flood the valley each year, creating a unique seasonal pond that can grow to hundreds of acres, depending on the rainfall. Coho and Chinook salmon, as well as steelhead trout, migrate through the valley's creeks each winter to reach their spawning grounds.

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EPA worked with Caltrans to preserve most of the seasonal wetlands in the Little Lake Valley near Willits, while allowing construction of the Willits Bypass on Highway 101. (Photo courtesy of Caltrans)

Because of this seasonal wetland, the land has remained open space up to now, with patches of riparian forest, and deer and cattle grazing its grasses in the dry season. However, the state transportation agency, Caltrans, planned to reroute a portion of Highway 101 through the valley, which could have affected 130 acres of wetlands. EPA worked with Caltrans, natural resource agencies like the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other stakeholders to develop a plan to build the bypass with no net loss of wetlands.

This collaborative approach has been standard for EPA since the agency adopted a "Memorandum of Understanding for Surface Transportation Projects" in 1994 that lays out a framework for cooperation in resolving wetlands issues under the Clean Water Act's Section 404 and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Section 404 protects wetlands, while NEPA requires EPA to review and comment on Environmental Impact Statements drafted by federal agencies regarding their proposed actions. "One of EPA's primary goals is to avoid and minimize environmental impacts through early engagement with our partners," says Nancy Levin of the regional Environmental Review Office.

Due to the potential impacts on wetlands, the originally proposed alignment of the roadway could not have been permitted under Section 404, according to Mike Monroe of EPA's regional Wetlands Regulatory Office. Monroe and Levin worked with Caltrans and more than a dozen other stakeholders to map, measure, and analyze the wetlands impacts of several alternative routes.

Other stakeholders included Willits and Mendocino County elected officials, the nonprofit Willits Environmental Center, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Fisheries Office, and the Federal Highway Administration.

After a series of negotiations, the stakeholders agreed on a route that will save 75 acres of wetlands and creeks that would have been destroyed by the original proposal. Under Section 404, a proposed project can be permitted if unavoidable wetlands impacts are mitigated - offset by the creation, enhancement, preservation, or restoration of wetlands elsewhere. For the Willits Bypass, Caltrans has agreed to create or otherwise preserve at least 1.5 acres of wetlands in the Little Lake Valley for every one acre lost.

All parties worked together to understand each others' interests - for example, the local interest in preserving a business park and playing fields. EPA contributed leadership in negotiating the final agreement. Construction of the bypass is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2010.

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The West Oakland Toxic Reduction Collaborative

EPA's Environmental Justice program is working to reduce disproportionate environmental impacts to low-income areas and communities of color. In 2006, this included projects in:

North Richmond, CA
Pacoima (NW Los Angeles)
West Oakland and
downtown Oakland, CA
Canal District, San Rafael, CA

Bayview-Hunters Point,
San Francisco, CA
Tucson, AZ
South Phoenix, AZ
Anahola, Kauai, HI

West Oakland, a part of Oakland, California, is surrounded by freeways and next to the nation's fourth-busiest container cargo port. The port alone generates up to 10,000 trips per day through the community by heavy diesel trucks. In this mostly African-American and Hispanic community, asthma levels are among the state's highest, and income levels are low.

Residents knew there was something wrong with this picture, so in 2000 they formed the Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), which tracked 17 indicators of local environmental health. The project's 2002 report, "Neighborhood Knowledge for Change," set the community's agenda for environmental improvements.

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The community of West Oakland is subject to a disproportionate amount of air pollution because it is adjacent to the Port of Oakland, which generates up to 10,000 heavy diesel truck trips through the community each day.

The report caught the attention of EPA's regional Air Division. EPA's Mike Bandrowski, Richard Grow, Karen Henry, and John Brock met with EIP members to discuss how the agency could support the group's efforts to reduce diesel pollution in the community. They got to know EIP leaders, and formed a partnership to organize the West Oakland Toxic Reduction Collaborative, a multi-stakeholder effort to mobilize community residents and groups, government agencies, non-profits, and businesses to improve air quality and community health.

EPA and EIP are the co-leads of the collaborative. EPA also provides some of EIP's and the collaborative's funding, through grants. The participants are divided into eight work groups, each working on voluntary efforts to reduce residents' exposure to diesel and toxic pollutants.

The Alternative Fuels group, which includes utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is working with several companies to replace dirty diesel truck engines with clean-burning liquefied natural gas engines. The Healthy Homes Work Group has trained 10 local residents to go to door-to-door with an indoor air pollution checklist to identify asthma triggers.

A Land Use Work Group is consulting with city planners to find ways to relocate trucking businesses out of residential areas and into the former Oakland Army Base, now owned by the Port of Oakland and the City of Oakland. A Brownfields Group is working with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to address cleanup and redevelopment of abandoned industrial sites on an area-wide basis.

Another group's focus is to ensure that as the port expands to handle an anticipated tripling of container traffic by 2020, there is a substantial decrease in air pollution and risk to residents. This group will be working with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to meet the state's even more ambitious goal: To lower residents' health risks from diesel emissions by 85%.

"It's been gratifying to work with community leaders like EIP's Margaret Gordon and Brian Beveridge," says Richard Grow, EPA project lead. "Everyone is focused on common goals."

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EPA's Agriculture Team:
Making a Difference in the Central Valley

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Don Hodge, Jamie Liebman, Kerry Drake, Jovita Pajarillo, Karen Heisler, Cindy Wire, and Kathy Taylor (not pictured) work with the agricultural community in the Pacific Southwest.

For more than 10 years, the Agriculture Team in EPA's regional Communities and Ecosystems Division has coordinated with colleagues in an array of environmental programs to address issues related to agriculture in the Pacific Southwest.

Cindy Wire, James Liebman, Don Hodge, and Karen Heisler make up the staff team that works with Kathy Taylor, Agriculture Advisor to the Regional Administrator, to promote voluntary partnerships with the agricultural community and its allies. Both the Air and Water Divisions have designated associate directors dedicated to agricultural issues - Kerry Drake and Jovita Pajarillo - who work closely with the team to optimize cross-program coordination.

The majority of the team's work is focused on California's Central Valley, due to the disproportionate environmental and health impacts associated with agriculture in this vast area. The team strives to engage agricultural producers across the valley to employ strategies that make their operations more sustainable. Together, they're finding ways to improve environmental performance while supporting the economic bottom line and the well-being of valley communities.

It's not easy, considering that Central Valley agriculture must compete in an increasingly global marketplace, with great variations in environmental and labor practices. But this is all the more reason to champion frameworks for environmental performance that leverage the marketplace to support producers who do the right thing.

EPA's Ag Team has long supported agricultural innovation and partnerships, including third-party certification of practices that yield environmental improvement such as reductions in pesticide loading. The team recognizes that a direct return in the marketplace is critical to engaging the industry's commitment around environmental protection.

Success requires producer participation, several years of demonstration projects and data development, and ultimately market recognition. Over time, EPA's regional Ag Team has developed important relationships with other agencies and organizations that have proven to be key partners in achieving these steps.

For example, Jamie Liebman's leadership with the Dairy Manure Collaborative leveraged $16 million in grants and in-kind resources to advance manure management through demonstration projects and technology assessment, taking into account air emissions, nitrogen, salts, and clean energy production.Jamie's technical fluency and leadership skills have helped a diverse group of stakeholders work together on finding ways to address the impacts of dairies.

Cindy Wire's hands-on management of Food Quality Protection Act grants has yielded proven reductions in pesticide impacts in the Central Valley. Much of Cindy's time is spent in the field with growers and their allies - university researchers, nonprofits, and commodity organizations - encouraging their commitments to developing and demonstrating more sustainable cropping systems.

Don Hodge is championing EPA's perspective on Environmental Management Systems in agriculture, specifically the necessity for data-driven programs and third-party certification. Don is the most recent addition to the team, and has brought an extensive knowledge of environmental measures and indicators of improvement, as well as personal dedication to sustainability.

Karen Heisler has for many years been a guiding force on the team. Her networking in the agriculture community enables EPA to anticipate events that demand the agency's attention, such as concerns about E. coli contamination, or adoption of emerging technologies that could affect agricultural sustainability.

In short, the Ag Team focuses on environmental results through innovation, coordination across programs, and well-articulated goals. Their successes, in partnership with Central Valley producers, are benefiting the agricultural community, consumers, valley residents, and the environment.

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