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EPA Vows to Improve Communication With Vulnerable Communities

Aug. 15, 2018, 5:17 PM

The EPA needs to do a better job telling neighborhoods about the dangers they face from nearby pollution, the agency’s head said. But that is a promise community advocates said they have heard before.

Communicating with neighborhoods about the risks of contamination will be a priority of the Environmental Protection Agency going forward, Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Aug. 15, speaking via video to a panel that advises the agency on environmental justice issues. He spotlighted the lead contamination crisis in Flint as one area in which the EPA failed to protect affected communities.

“How well or how poorly” the EPA discloses risks to residents has a big impact on entire communities, Wheeler told the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which met in Boston.

It is a familiar refrain from the EPA, council members said.

“Risk communication is often code for trying to minimize the danger” neighborhoods face, said Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, N.J., and a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“I’m sure that’s not what the acting administrator wants to communicate, but that’s what’s been communicated before,” Sheats said.

The EPA fell down on the job in communicating with residents in Flint, Mich., Wheeler said. A federal emergency was declared in Flint in 2016 due to dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water. Environmental justice neighborhoods are those that historically have been exposed to higher amounts of pollution, such as low-income communities and neighborhoods with a higher number of people of color.

Wheeler didn’t say how the EPA would improve its communication with communities.

It is important and a right of tribes that the EPA speak face-to-face with tribal members about important issues, Kelly Wright, waste management manager of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in the Northwest, said. The EPA “needs to go door-to-door” when trying to update neighborhoods about contamination nearby, Wright said.

Limited Resources

The EPA has limited resources and has tried to use technology, such as telephone conferences, to replace human-to-human communication, Alexandra Dunn, the EPA administrator in New England, said. “There’s not an easy answer,” said Dunn, who promised to meet with those on the panel who voiced concerns about the agency’s risk-communication policy.

The EPA could prioritize those those neighborhoods most in need of direct door-to-door communication about pollution, by considering factors such as which communities have the largest number of people at high risk and which communities have residents who speak a language other than English, Sacoby Wilson, director of the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health Initiative at the University of Maryland, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Adrianne Appel in Boston at aappel@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com

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