Eleven years ago, in the dead of a January night, life in the town of Graniteville, S.C. was drastically changed. That’s when a 42-car Norfolk Southern Corp. train crashed into two engines and two rail cars parked on a spur line. In the wreckage, roughly 60 tons of liquefied chlorine gas spilled and quickly vaporized, seeping into the air, killing nine and injuring hundreds.
The spill displaced approximately 5,400 residents, shuttered businesses and permanently changed Graniteville as the poisonous gas harmed everything it touched including wiring in buildings, anything electronic, trees, plants, birds and insects. The town, now the site of the Graniteville Brownfield Project, has struggled for more than a decade to move beyond the disaster that also cost many residents their jobs.
Fast forward to May 2016, at a ceremony at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Ga., where 21 students, including Anne Fulcher, a community coordinator for the Graniteville Brownfield Project, became the first graduates of the inaugural class of the EPA’s Environmental Justice (EJ) Academy.
“EPA Region 4 launched the EJ Academy to better equip community leaders to address public health and environmental challenges,” says Denise Tennessee, EPA regional director of environmental justice and sustainability. “We have graduated a remarkable class with the ability to make a visible difference in the communities they serve. Their achievement underscores the EPA’s commitment to help improve the health and viability of all communities, including some of the most vulnerable populations.”
The academy, a nine-month, in-depth leadership development program, allows participants to develop skills to identify and address environmental challenges.
Last year, as the Graniteville remembered the 10th anniversary of the spill, Fulcher told a local paper she aimed to build back relationships with businesses, reach out to active community members to buy into recovery of the small town. She also shared her visions of a Graniteville dotted with parks and gardens.
“Those things produce happiness, and when people in the community engage in these projects, they become stakeholders in it,” she said. “They can see what their hard work can accomplish.”
The hope is that academy graduates like Fulcher will take all that they learned and apply it in their communities where improvements are needed.
Historically, the environmental justice movement was founded by minority and low-income communities addressing the inequity of environmental protection services. Grounded in the struggles of the civil rights movement, citizens from every facet of life, emerged to explain the environmental inequities facing millions. They addressed waste sites, for example, often located near low-income and culturally diverse populations, who were more likely than other groups to live near those landfills, incinerators and hazardous waste treatment facilities. The movement also sounded an alarm on issues like air pollution, lead poisoning, pesticides and other potentially hazardous farm wastes in these communities.
It was with communities similar to Graniteville, S.C., in mind that the movement continued. In the early 1990s, the term and the work of environmental justice was undertaken by the Congressional Black Caucus, a bi-partisan coalition of academics, social scientists and political activists.
They released findings that the EPA seemed to unfairly apply its enforcement inspections in racial minority and low-income populations, and that environmental risk was higher in those communities than the general population. Final reports in 1992, supported those allegations and among other recommendations, created the Office of Environmental Equity, now the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ), to address those inequities.
Since the OEJ's inception, the EPA says efforts across the agency have blended environmental justice into day-to-day operations. Each headquarters office and region has an environmental justice coordinator for outreach and education to external and internal individuals and organizations.
Critics have come at the EPA from different angles. Some claim the EPA’s brand of environmental justice is more talk than action. Others claim it is just an attack on industry in general. Still, the EPA continues to tout environmental justice as part of its workload.
The EJ Academy launched in September 2015 as another apparent step in the process. Students live in a Region 4 state - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and 6 Tribes - and were involved in a leadership capacity in a community disproportionately impacted from environmental contaminants.
Students met for two days each month to complete the program, which is primarily based on the EPA’s Collaborative Problem-Solving (CPS) Model - a seven-step process for bringing about positive change and revitalizing communities. Classes combined lectures by subject-matter experts, in-class exercises and homework assignments.
In blog post earlier this month, Tennessee, wrote her congratulations to the graduates.
“We have graduated a remarkable class,” Tennessee wrote. “We look forward to watching the incredible things that these graduates do.”
Students learned how to leverage human, social, intellectual, technical, legal, and financial resources to make long-term progress in a community; how to use consensus-building processes and skills to ensure successful collaboration and negotiations; how to increase capacity to address communities’ environmental and/or public health issues; and a basic understanding of environmental justice and environmental regulations.
Graduates benefited by completing a community portfolio to assist in securing funding, identifying partners, describing community resources and challenges and establishing credibility amongst stakeholders. They completed a plan to guide organizational activities and identified and secured potential partners to assist them with addressing their challenges. Students also interacted directly with EPA technical experts and received individualized feedback, guidance and assistance from those experts.
The application deadline for the next EJ Academy is June 24, 2016.