Communities and Ecosystems
EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region stretches from the arid Navajo lands of northwest New Mexico to the remote tropical Pacific Islands of Guam and Saipan. Within that vast expanse are thousands of unique communities and ecosystems, each with its own character and environmental conditions.
Many EPA programs work with communities to improve environmental conditions. The Tribal Program, for instance, works with more than 140 Indian tribes in the Pacific Southwest. This chapter includes the story of how EPA and other agencies helped the Torres Martinez tribe shut down illegal trash dumps on its lands in California’s Coachella Valley. Two experts, David Taylor and Jean Gamache, explain their work with tribes throughout the region.
EPA’s Environmental Justice Program works with tribal, Pacific islander and urban communities to address their specific environmental challenges. One such community is the Los Angeles-area Hispanic neighborhood of Pacoima, which is taking steps to reduce the effects of air pollution on its residents.
Agricultural communities have their own environmental challenges, such as the ongoing effort to reduce the use of toxic pesticides without reducing crop yields. EPA also looks at communities in a broad sense—such as children, who face greater risks from toxics due to their metabolism and habits.
Transitioning to Sustainable Agriculture
Moving toward sustainable agriculture depends on widespread adoption of farming practices that reduce reliance on chemicals. Recent statistics from California indicate that this is already happening: The most current data show that farm pesticide use fell 6% from 2005 to 2006, a decrease of 10 million pounds. It was also the third straight year of reductions in farm use of the most hazardous pesticides, those linked to cancer, reproductive or neurological problems.
Use of the highly toxic soil fumigant methyl bromide bucked this trend, increasing in 2006 due to the expanding acreage of strawberry fields where it’s used. Still, the 2006 total for methyl bromide was lower than 2004.
Reducing Pesticide Use
EPA supports two approaches to encourage the transition to less harmful pesticides: funding demonstration projects of agricultural best practices, and promoting programs that certify environmental performance. Both can raise yields and farm income in addition to their environmental benefits. Demonstration projects help extend new techniques to additional growers. Certification programs use market mechanisms to promote strong environmental practices by growers and help farmers prosper by doing the right thing for the environment.
In just one year, farm pesticide use in California fell 6%—a decrease of 10 million pounds.
For example, EPA funded a project in Hawaii to minimize pesticide risks for small farming communities threatened by the melon fly. Through field trials and crop demonstrations, Oahu growers learned how to reduce their use of highly toxic organophosphate pesticides by 40%. Some crops reported a 30% increase in yields and higher income per acre. The adoption of less-toxic integrated pest management to combat the melon fly also improved produce quality, and extended harvest periods.
In 2007 there was continued progress on reducing use of high-risk pesticides in California fruit orchards. In the Kings River watershed, use of sonic sensing and precision spraying technology has reduced application of organophosphate pesticides by 20% in older orchards and by 40% in younger orchards.
Reducing Air Pollution
Spraying of liquid pesticides doesn’t just affect pests. It also releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the same type of chemicals that evaporate from gasoline and contribute to ozone pollution, or smog. That’s why pesticides used on grapes are a serious problem in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which has some of the nation’s highest smog levels. In 2007 EPA funded a project to help growers reduce high-risk, VOC-emitting pesticides on 94% of California’s 85,000 acres of table grapes.
The trend toward reductions in pesticide use is already benefiting millions of people who live in the state’s agricultural valleys, as well as fish and wildlife. To ensure further progress, EPA will continue its efforts to promote sustainable agricultural practices.
Healthier Environments for all Communities
In 1994, the President’s Executive Order 12898 required EPA to address environmental justice in low-income and minority communities. Under this mandate, EPA has worked toward a fundamental goal—that all communities and people enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and equal access to the decision-making process that secures a healthy environment in which to live and work.
EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office has not only focused a great deal of work in specific low-income minority communities, but also has considered environmental justice as a guiding principle in all agency actions. EPA is committed to working on the biggest environmental challenges facing the most vulnerable communities bearing disproportionate impacts from pollution and toxics.
The Pacific Southwest Region is as diverse in demographics as it is in terrain. Specific areas that face unique challenges include the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland, the U.S.-Mexico border, Pacific islands, tribal lands, and California’s Central Valley. EPA works with these communities and helps address their environmental challenges by funding and creating collaborative projects, ensuring industry compliance, providing technical assistance, and ensuring meaningful community involvement.
In Los Angeles County, fully 90% of EPA’s enforcement actions last year were in low-income and minority communities. EPA has made an effort to target these areas in part as a result of environmental justice concerns. Pacoima is one such community where high-impact local operations such as metal platers have been targeted for inspection and successful enforcement.
Pacoima, in the northeast section of California’s San Fernando Valley, is a Los Angeles community with a mostly Latino and African American population. Residents are affected by pollution from freeways, a railroad line, an airport and more than 300 industrial facilities. Pacoima added 243 homes to its newly created Lead-Free Homes registry and enlisted 205 residents to identify and reduce local toxics with the support of an Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem Solving grant from EPA. The grant recipient, the nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful, partnered with and received aid from the Los Angeles Neighborhood Housing Services to conduct lead remediation at 18 homes.
Pacoima Beautiful also convened more than 320 community residents, partners and stakeholders to review data and information on toxic sources in the community with an EPA Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) grant. As a result, the community secured a second CARE grant for $300,000 in 2007 to address two of the identified community priorities: small pollution sources in a targeted area of Pacoima, and diesel emissions from trucks and school buses throughout the community.
Tribal Lands and Pacific Islands
The Pacific Southwest is also home to 146 Indian tribes, many of whom live in areas where meeting basic needs is a challenge. For example, 19% of the region’s tribal households lack access to safe running water, and more than 1,000 open dumps scar tribal lands. EPA has directed funding and other resources to tackle these unacceptable threats to human health and welfare. As a result, in the last five years tribes have closed nearly 400 open dumps, built more than 130 tribal government environmental protection programs, provided safer drinking water to more than 22,000 tribal homes, improved sanitation for more than 21,000 tribal homes, cleaned up more than 40 leaking underground fuel tanks, and installed more than 50 air monitors.
Pacoima secured a $300,000 EPA grant to address two community priorities: diesel emissions and small pollution sources.
The island territories in the Pacific Ocean—American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Guam—face disproportionately severe environmental infrastructure problems. Saipan is the only U.S. community of its size without 24-hour access to safe running water. In American Samoa, 17% of residents have been exposed to Leptospirosis—a bacterial disease—as a consequence of piggeries contaminating water. In the past, raw sewage contaminated island drinking water wells and surface waters. With EPA’s help, American Samoa is using outreach, compliance assistance, enforcement, and a polluted runoff prevention program to address water contamination from small piggeries. On Guam, raw sewage overflows have been reduced by 99%.
EPA is using environmental justice and geographic information systems (GIS) tools to target enforcement, grants and other resources to the communities most heavily impacted and most vulnerable. The agency is also using grants, technical assistance, and collaborative approaches to support community-based leadership in solving environmental problems.
Collaborating with these diverse communities, EPA has focused resources and formed partnerships to make real public health and environmental improvements. These communities, in turn, help EPA integrate environmental justice priorities into the agency’s everyday work. The goal is to ensure that all communities have meaningful involvement in decisions that affect them, and that all people have clean air, water and land where they live, work and play.
Torres Martinez Collaborative
Combats Illegal Dumps
Two years ago, illegal dumping on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation in California’s rapidly growing Coachella Valley reached crisis levels as unscrupulous waste haulers used the open desert land as a dumping ground outside the reach of state regulatory agencies. Illegal dump operators burned massive amounts of waste, creating plumes of smoke that clouded the skies and forced schools to close. New dumpsites appeared overnight on remote reservation roads. Despite persistent efforts, the tribe’s staff were unable to stem the tide of trash.
To combat the dumpers, EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the tribe formed an alliance with 24 federal, state and local agencies and nonprofits in April 2006: The Torres Martinez Solid Waste Collaborative. Members of the collaborative energetically pooled the talents and resources of the various agencies, combining public education, outreach, enforcement and direct action.
In less than two years, the collaborative has achieved impressive results. All illegal dumps on the reservation have been shut down. For the past year, no new dump sites have appeared. The collaborative has cleaned up more than 20 dumps and installed gates, fences and other access controls. Open burning has been almost entirely eliminated. Outreach and public education have redirected haulers to legal disposal and recycling facilities. No single agency could have done it alone. Each success involved the cooperation and participation of multiple agencies.
Collaborative members pooled their talents, combining public education, outreach, enforcement and direct action.
At the notorious Torlaw illegal dump, where fires created constant smoke, a lawsuit by EPA and BIA ended in victory: The U.S. District Court ordered the operators to shut down and vacate the property. The court also ordered them to pay up to $42.8 million in cleanup costs, plus more than $2.3 million in penalties. After the dump closed, the Riverside County Fire Department and the California Integrated Waste
Management Board (CIWMB) chipped and mulched 17,000 cubic yards of green waste to prevent fires.
At the illegal, 25-acre Auclair Dump, EPA removed hazardous waste to a permitted landfill, including 1,400 tons of ash, 400 pounds of asbestos-cement pipes, 1,600 pounds of waste oil and sludge, and 100 cubic yards of discarded wooden grape stakes treated with toxic chromated copper arsenate (CCA). The California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) finished the cleanup, removing 1,700 tons of debris, 35 tons of metal, and 22 lead-acid batteries.
At another site, just 200 yards from a school in Thermal, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) worked with the tribe and Riverside County Waste Management to remove 100 tons of CCA-treated grape stakes. Elsewhere, EPA took enforcement actions against two mobile home park operators for illegally dumping residents’ trash, securing enforceable commitments to provide trash pickup for the residents and improve waste management.
The California Highway Patrol and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office have contributed to the effort with aerial monitoring to keep track of the dumpsites and find any new ones. EPA is now working with the tribe and BIA to assess former dumpsites’ potential for reuse.
from Toxics and Pesticides
Children are our future, and protecting them from toxics in the environment is a high priority. Children are more vulnerable to toxics than adults—their bodies are small and still developing, and exposure to toxics in this critical period can permanently alter the way the child’s biological system operates. They’re also more likely to play on lawns and floors, where pesticides and toxics can get on their hands, and then into their mouths.
Lead in paint, toys or even candy poses a threat, as do household pesticides, or pesticides brought into the home on the clothes of farmworker parents. Some products pose multiple, different threats—an unregistered disinfectant, for example, might be packaged in a bottle that resembles a soft drink, resulting in the poisoning of a child who drinks it. A similar product, if used in a hospital, could allow diseases to spread.
Reducing Risks of Pesticide Use
By enforcing pesticide regulations, EPA ensures that products are properly registered and labeled, minimizing risks to children, workers and other members of the public by providing directions for proper use and disposal, and preventing false or misleading claims. Last year, EPA’s Pacific Southwest Office brought 31 enforcement actions against violators of federal pesticide regulations, collecting $1.2 million in penalties.
EPA took four enforcement actions against companies selling pesticides with chlorpyrifos and diazinon, which were cancelled for household use in 2001 and 2004 respectively, due to exposure risks to children.
Under the terms of a legal settlement with EPA, one company paid a penalty and spent an additional $200,000 to produce a DVD and brochure on “Do’s and Don’ts of Retailing Pesticides,” and present it to retail industry audiences. The video provides an overview of EPA rules on household pesticides, which stem from the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
Children’s bodies are still developing, and they can take in toxics more quickly.
Six companies were cited for selling unregistered pesticides, including “Fabuloso Energia Naranja” (Fabulous Orange Energy) an import from Mexico that was sold in clear plastic bottles and looked like soda pop, even though it was sold as a disinfectant. In another case, EPA took action against a company for distributing in the U.S. an unregistered and mislabeled disinfectant bleach intended for sale in Asia.
Farm workers and their children can be harmed by pesticides if employers don’t comply with regulations. In Hawaii, a company was fined $24,640 for several instances of pesticide misuse, including failure to notify workers of pesticide applications, and failure to protect workers from exposure to pesticide drift.
Prevalence of Lead in Candy Studied
The discovery that numerous imported toys contain lead has caused widespread alarm and prompted several product recalls. Lead poisoning in young children can trigger learning disabilities, hyperactivity, hearing loss, and brain damage.
EPA has helped advance investigation into another possible source of childhood lead poisoning—imported candy.
The extent to which lead contaminates imported candy is unknown, but state and local health departments in California and Arizona have estimated that it may account for 5% of childhood lead poisoning cases. Last October, EPA awarded a grant of $96,798 to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to develop a cost-effective method of screening imported candy for lead content.
From Alaska to the Southwest Tribes
Jean Gamache, manager of EPA’s regional Tribal Program Office for the past year, is a member of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Jean holds a law degree and in the 1990s worked with a firm representing Alaska Natives seeking recompense for damages to subsistence food resources from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Before 2005, when she came to EPA’s regional office in San Francisco, Jean had lived nearly all her life in Alaska, working on environmental issues as well as fishing commercially for salmon in Bristol Bay each summer for more than 20 years.
From 1997 to 2005, Jean worked in EPA’s Alaska Operations Office, leading the team that worked with the 229 federally-recognized tribes in Alaska. Since moving to the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in San Francisco, she has been adjusting to the extreme differences in population density. Alaska has four times the land area of California but only 1/50th as many people.
Most tribal communities in Alaska can be reached only by plane or boat, so transportation issues affect tribal environmental efforts. Abandoned vehicles have to be hauled out—by barge. Hazardous waste such as asbestos must be removed from abandoned buildings built decades ago for schools, hospitals, or military bases. Typically, removal is possible only during the summer, when barges can travel the waterways and take the waste to a landfill.
Another major difference between Alaska and the Pacific Southwest, Jean says, is temperature. She recalled one training course for tribal environmental staff at a town on the Yukon River in central Alaska during the middle of winter. Travel to the community was by small plane, and the temperature when she arrived was 20 degrees below zero. Over the next few days, it got even colder. Once the temperature goes below –50 degrees, planes stop flying. Jean caught the last plane out before flights were cancelled for several days waiting for the weather to “warm up” to above –50 degrees.
Tribal goals, however, are much the same in both regions: close open dumps, improve drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, improve substandard living conditions, build tribal capacity through EPA Indian Environmental General Assistance Program (GAP) funding. Tribes use GAP funding for their environmental agencies, and build on it to achieve environmental goals. In 2007, for example, tribes in the Pacific Southwest closed 82 open dumps.
Jean is responsible for overseeing the region’s tribal program, which provides more than $15 million each year to support the tribes’ own environmental programs, and maintains productive relationships between EPA and more than 140 tribal leaders. Jean’s staff of 12 provides grants and hands-on assistance to tribal environmental directors.
"I feel very fortunate," Jean says, "that I've been able to work with so many different tribes in some of the most extreme environments in North America, to make a difference in protecting the environment in Indian Country."
Assuring Quality of Environmental Data
An ancient Greek philosopher asked the question, “How do we know what we know?” Answering that question is basic to the work of protecting human health and the environment. EPA and other environmental agencies need reliable, verifiable data about pollutant levels in air, water, land and living things to make sound environmental decisions. With 50 state governments and thousands of local and tribal governments overseeing a multitude of data collection efforts, ensuring data quality can be a daunting task. In EPA’s Pacific Southwest Quality Assurance (QA) Office, a dozen people are dedicated to the task; senior among them is Dr. David Taylor.
A Ph.D. chemist by training, Dave reviews the plans that describe how environmental agencies and laboratories ensure the reliability of data from samples of air, water, soil or living tissue. All EPA grantees and contractors must prepare Quality Management Plans, Quality Assurance Program Plans, Quality Assurance Project Plans or Sampling and Analysis Plans before they may collect environmental data. Dave reviews the plans with the authors to make sure they have adequately described the proposed data collection effort to meet their program or project objectives.
Over the years, Dave has worked his QA magic with all EPA programs as well as state and tribal environmental agencies. He has come up with novel ways to assist tribal governments that may have little prior knowledge of QA issues. Dave designed a two-day training and a template for tribal pesticide enforcement inspectors giving them a head-start in writing a QA plan. Collaborating with EPA’s New England Region, he produced a QA reference tool for tribal water monitoring programs in a CD-ROM format. The CD has been distributed to more than 700 Indian tribes and communities nationwide. In recognition of this work, Dave was named San Francisco Bay Area Federal Employee of the Year in the Professional Category in 2005.
Dave reviews QA management and program plans that cover state-wide data collection activities. This year he worked with the California State Water Resources Control Board to describe an integrated quality system in a Quality Management Plan for the state and its nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards. While EPA has published guidance for the highest level of QA (the Quality Management Plan), and for specific projects (the QA Project Plan), Dave saw the need for a QA document that describes the activities of state programs. The result was a Quality Assurance Program Plan guidance that Pacific Southwest states are now using. Other regions are also asking for this guidance.
Dave first worked with EPA on QA projects as a contractor in 1980, supporting Office of Research and Development laboratories in North Carolina, Cincinnati and Las Vegas. He audited laboratories and wrote national QA guidance. Eventually, he led 43 audits of EPA program offices and organizations that worked with environmental data, including seven of EPA’s 10 regions.
When Dave joined EPA as a federal employee in 1994, his reputation as a valued QA resource preceded him. Since then he has become a master builder of QA bridges to all EPA and EPA-funded programs in the Pacific Southwest Region that collect and use environmental data.