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Sustainable and Healthy Communities


How can we meet today’s needs without compromising those of future generations? More specifically, how can people protect our shared environment in a way that fosters human-health and well-being, is socially just, and promotes economic prosperity?

Providing the science to answer the questions posed above is at the heart of EPA’s sustainable and healthy communities research. Agency researchers and their partners from across a wide spectrum of investigative fields are working together to form a deeper understanding of the balance between the three pillars of sustainability—environment, society, and economy. Their transdisciplinary work will provide the decision tools and data that communities need to make proactive, strategic decisions aimed at a prosperous, more environmentally sustainable future. 

This section highlights some of the many accomplishments that EPA scientists and researchers made in 2010 to advance sustainable and healthy communities, including: embarking on a major new initiative to incorporate sustainability into all EPA programs, historic efforts to advance environmental justice through science and collaboration, the publication of a book featuring the link between ecosystem sustainability and international stability, and more.

Sustainability for the Next 40 Years—and Beyond

National Academies study to explore incorporating sustainability into EPA decisions.

As part of the activities to commemorate EPA’s 40th Anniversary, Administrator Lisa P. Jackson announced on November 30, 2010, that the National Academies, at the request of the Agency, has launched a study to strengthen the scientific basis for incorporating sustainability concepts into EPA’s decision making.

The National Academies have convened the leading scientific experts in the Nation to build upon 25 years of sustainability science and provide an operational framework for sustainability that can be incorporated into the work of EPA.

The National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) Exit EPA Disclaimer study will build on existing work that EPA's Office of Research and Development has conducted by strengthening the analytic and scientific basis for sustainability as it applies to human health and environmental protection within the Agency's decision-making process.

The study and report Exit EPA Disclaimer, which are to be completed by September 2011, will cover such questions as:

  • What should be the operational framework for sustainability for EPA?
  • How can the EPA decision-making process rooted in the risk assessment/risk management paradigm, be integrated into this new sustainability framework?
  • What scientific and analytical tools are needed to support the framework?
  • What set of strategic metrics and indicators should EPA build to determine if sustainable approaches are or are not being employed successfully?
  • Which assessment techniques and accounting protocols should the Agency adopt to inform ongoing efforts to improve Agency sustainability practices and procedures?

Innovative thinking and sustainable approaches will be the best tools to confront new environmental challenges as they arise. The announcement of the study and the report it will generate, known as The Green Book, mark EPA’s commitment to innovative thinking, methods, and approaches that will give the Agency the ability to tackle current and emerging environmental challenges, and prepare the Nation to address and perhaps even prevent those challenges that cannot be foreseen.

EPA Hosts Historic Meeting, Sponsors Symposium to Advance Environmental Justice

Agency joins Federal partners to advance a healthy environment and economy for all.

In September 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJIWG) in a meeting held at the White House. The meeting demonstrated the Obama administration’s dedication to ensuring that all Americans have strong Federal protection from environmental and health hazards.

This historic gathering marked a recommitment to advancing the mandate of Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” (PDF) (6 pp, 120K, About PDF) which states that each agency, with the law as its guide, should make environmental justice a part of its mission.

In addition to Jackson, attendees at the meeting included Attorney General Eric Holder, Department of Justice; Secretary Ken Salazar, Department of Interior; Secretary Shaun Donovan, Department of Housing and Urban Development; Secretary Ray LaHood, Department of Transportation; Administrator Martha Johnson, General Services Administration; Carol Browner, Senior Advisor to the President on Energy and Climate Change; John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Melody Barnes, Director of the White House Office of Domestic Policy; and representatives from the following Federal agencies:  Labor, Health and Human Services, Energy, Education, Homeland Security, Commerce, Army, Agriculture, and Defense, among others. 

The role of the EJIWG is to guide, support, and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities. By coordinating the expertise and resources of federal government agencies, the EJIWG works to identify projects where federal collaboration can support the development of healthy and sustainable communities. The EJIWG also will seek opportunities to provide green jobs and training in communities in need and promote a clean energy economy. 

Scientific understanding of environmental exposures and effects is essential for supporting EJIWG’s mission.

EPA, together with its partners and collaborators, began to lay the groundwork to advance that understanding back in March, 2010 when its Office of Research and Development co-sponsored a scientific symposium that featured presentations from several leading researchers in the human health and health disparities fields, as well as community activists from across the country.

Specific, science recommendations developed by symposium participants included:  

  1. Develop and institute a new research approach/scientific framework that reflects a more holistic view of environment and health, and produces results that can inform policies to address environmental justice concerns and environmental health disparities. 

  2. Incorporate community perspectives in the development of EPA’s science/research agendas, as well as in data collection and the performance of exposure/risk assessments and risk management decisions.

  3. Increase funding for community-based participatory and transdisciplinary research, with a specific focus on research that will benefit disadvantaged, underserved, and environmentally overburdened communities.

  4. Advance the practice of risk assessment and management:  incorporate social and other kinds of vulnerabilities, address cumulative impacts and multiple stressors, encourage the use of qualitative data, incorporate community knowledge and perspectives, and account for groups that are not represented by national data.

EPA’s science symposium and the historic meeting of the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice in 2010 marked the beginning of what are now ongoing efforts to advance environmental justice, and support those efforts through the best available science. Those efforts will continue well into the future.


Sustainable Ecosystems Support Peace and Security

EPA researchers play a key role in an international workshop and new book on the link between environment and worldwide human welfare.

Environmental problems do not respect national boundaries.

Pollutants released into the air in one country can cause acid rain to fall in another. Contamination of a river as it flows through one nation can lead to fish kills or human disease in the next nation downstream. Gases emitted in one country can contribute to climate change worldwide. An act of ecoterrorism that poisons food in one nation could lead to outbreaks of disease or food shortages in numerous nations in the global food chain.

Thus, the environment is crucial to human welfare not only locally but also internationally, and threats to the environment are threats to good relationships among nations.

EPA researchers played a key role in the publication of a 2010 book about the connections between healthy ecosystems and international stability. Achieving Environmental Security:  Ecosystem Services and Human Welfare Exit EPA Disclaimer presents the proceedings of a major international workshop on ecosystem services held at The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island in 2009.

The workshop was sponsored and led by EPA scientists working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Science for Peace and Security Programme. 

For the international workshop, experts from five continents and 20 nations came together to share their observations and research in a wide variety of fields, including agriculture, architecture, environmental linkages to poverty, humanitarian aid, environmental management, natural disasters, remote sensing, computer modeling, and public policy as they relate to ecosystem services and human health. The topics covered ranged from climate change to sustainable building design to the importance of natural landscapes to the potential impact of ecoterrorism on the food supply.

NATO has long supported scientific programs that promote world peace and security. Its many projects Exit EPA Disclaimer in this area include efforts to protect fragile ecosystems, counter man-made pollution and ecoterrorism, and assess the risks from natural disasters.

From EPA’s perspective, one of the principal benefits of the workshop and new book is that they draw attention to the value of ecosystem services. EPA wants the public to understand that these types of services can be as important—and valuable—as the kind of resources to which it’s easier to attach dollar signs.

EPA is the first Federal agency to devote a national research program to developing a deeper scientific understanding on how ecosystem services support human well-being.

Sustainable and Healthy Communities

2010 Accomplishments – In Brief

Progress Report:  Land Research Program Science Applications Through Partnerships

In 2010, EPA released Land Research Program Science Applications Through Partnerships:  A Progress Report 2005-2009 (PDF) (41 pp, 2.1MB, About PDF). The report presents examples of research conducted by EPA scientists between 2005 and 2009 that have contributed to addressing complex environmental cleanup issues at hazardous waste sites. The report highlights six research areas EPA scientists and engineers have contributed to:  (1) groundwater contamination; (2) contaminated sediments; (3) site characterization; (4) landfills; (5) underground storage tanks; and (6) materials management.

The report illustrates EPA’s research outcomes that have led to improved remediation and mitigation of pollution at hazardous waste sites and reduced the cost of cleanup, including:

  • Saving more than $100 million to remediate contaminated groundwater as a result of partnering with site managers across the country to use improved technologies.
  • Assisting states with contaminated sediment assessment and remediation problems by applying new methodologies. The methods have been included in state guidance for hazardous waste cleanup.
  • Applying statistical methods for site characterization in state guidance documents.
  • Transferring an alternative cover technology for landfills to states, counties, and Federal agencies to provide a cost-effective alternative to traditional landfill covers. The technology transfer is estimated to have saved more than $200 million.
  • Providing new methods and models to states to better assess and remediate leaking gasoline and gasoline additives from underground storage tanks.
  • Supporting EPA’s Regions and Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) with technical reports and guidance on material management issues.

For a copy of the report, go to:  www.epa.gov/landscience/partnerships/index.htm.

EPA Hosts Major Conference on Children’s Environmental Health, Announces Support for the Next Generation of Children’s Centers

On October 19 and 20, 2010, EPA hosted Protecting Children’s Health for a Lifetime:  Environmental Health Research Meets Clinical Practice and Public Policy. The objective of the Washington, DC, conference was to bring grantees, federal and professional organizations together to explore the relationship between research, clinical applications and policy implications in the field of children’s environmental health.

The meeting launched the next phase of the joint EPA/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Centers (Children's Centers) program, including 12 new research grants over the next 5 years for a combined total of nearly $60 million.

EPA and NIEHS are funding six new grants for large multidisciplinary research (5-year) Centers and six new grants for (3-year) “Formative Centers.”

The meeting brought together Children’s Centers researchers and the North American network of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units (PEHSU) to present research findings and identify common areas of interest and potential collaborative opportunities.

An important outcome of the meeting was the focus on promoting better communication within the scientific community and with the general public. Presenters included Children’s Centers researchers, PEHSU directors, Ruth Etzel of the World Health Organization, Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group, and keynote speaker Annie Murphy Paul, author of the book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. 

Developing a National Atlas of Sustainable Ecosystem Services

Understanding and quantifying the many ways in which ecosystems support and benefit people is a major challenge. Without this understanding, communities may collectively make decisions about land use and development that inadvertently diminish or destroy some of these vital “ecosystem services.”

EPA scientists, in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, NatureServe, the City College of New York and others, are developing a National Atlas of Ecosystem Services for the contiguous United States. A demonstration intranet version of the Atlas was completed in 2010.

The Atlas also will allow users to see the effects of different land use choices and how nearby, remote, and downstream communities can be affected by local activities. When the full version is completed, the Atlas will provide an easy-to-use, Web-based mapping application that allows users to explore a visual representation of the benefits their communities reap from nature, and learn how these benefits can be conserved and enhanced for a sustainable future.

Developing Community-based Models

Community groups have a vested interest in knowing what environmental pollutants they may be exposed to locally, but often lack information and tools to help them fully understand, prioritize, and address those risks. Communities also are faced with the challenge of guiding growth and land-use decisions in a manner that sustains the environment and provides quality of life for residents.

EPA scientists are developing community-based models and tools to assist communities with sustainable land-use decisions and identifying and prioritizing decisions about environmental pollutant exposures and risks. Two community-based models were developed in 2010, include the Community-Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool (C-FERST) and the Regional Vulnerability Assessment (ReVA).

C-FERST is a Web-based tool that brings together environmental exposure and health-related information. The tool includes maps of demographic data, environmental concentrations and human exposures for identifying “hot spots” and communities at risk. During its development, EPA scientists are listening to residents and local officials in communities to make sure the information in C-FERST is useful. Primary users of C-FERST during 2010 were EPA scientists working with partner communities. Next steps involve establishing a foundation and a design geared to the general public.

The ReVA tools compile many kinds of spatially explicit data and model results and apply new analytical techniques, allowing the user to step back and evaluate the effects of land use decisions on local and regional ecosystems.

EPA Launches a Collaborative Web Site for Integrated Environmental Modeling

In July 2010, EPA launched a new online tool for scientific collaboration and knowledge sharing, the Integrated Environmental Modeling Hub (iemHUB) Exit EPA Disclaimer.  Built by Purdue University with support from the Agency, iemHUB allows environmental researchers to analyze environmental problems and combine environmental models so that a better understanding of the environment can be developed—everything from keeping beaches clean to predicting climate effects. 

EPA uses integrated modeling assessments to inform decision-making in support of its broad mission of protecting human health and safeguarding the environment. With the Web site, the Agency is providing a state-of-the-art resource to the environmental modeling community. The iemHUB supports the development of integrated models and their use in conducting research and informing the decision-making process. 

The iemHUB was released by the EPA-supported Community of Practice for Integrated Environmental Modeling (CIEM). The Community of Practice is an informal collaborative organization that was established by EPA and other scientists to advance the state-of-the-science and technology related to integrated modeling.

More information on iemHUB is at www.iemhub.org Exit EPA Disclaimer.