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Environmental Impacts: Know Better, Do Better

Dear Blog,
I have a confession to make…I was once an environmental offender.

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Not in an illegal sense and I was never fined for my actions, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have scolded tiny Christine. I never fully connected the dots until I started researching pollutant loads and working on the District’s TMDL Plan.

Growing up in Louisiana, especially with a bayou in my backyard, I wish I would have known more about the functions of a bayou’s ecosystem and how to minimize our impacts. I used to leave our dog’s poop on the ground, help wash our car in the driveway, put grass clippings and leaves in the storm drain, and other environmental offenses that I was not aware of at the time.

Along the banks of the bayou, where I played with my friends, there were huge pipes that stuck out of the earth that were almost 3 feet tall. My friends and I used them as hurdles as we ran along, playing pretend games of pirates or cops and robbers. I later learned they were outfall pipes that allow stormwater and even raw sewage to go into the bayou during heavy rain events.

Here are some key topics that kids and families can understand through easy graphics and outreach:

  1. Pet Waste: Growing up we had a dog, Ralph, a lab mix that we walked around the neighborhood and in the backyard. I hated picking up his poop- it was gross, it smelled bad, and attracted bugs. I would leave it in the yards, in the very yard I ran in, or if I had to pick it up I used a shovel to fling it into the bushes. Out of sight, out of mind, right? WRONG, tiny Christine.
    1. Why it matters: Aside from being really gross to step in, pet waste contains fecal coliform bacteria- one of the worst environmental offenders and most prevalent polluters of our waterways. Just one gram of dog poop contains over 13 million strains of fecal bacteria. Not only does it make waterways unsafe, it helps in acidifying the water, and robs it of valuable oxygen for the underwater ecosystem. Ever seen a fish survive in a tank without an air pump or regularly changed water? Me either!
    2. What you can do: Pick up that poop. Every time. Don’t just give those that leave the poop a dirty look, tell them about it! Educate your fellow neighbors and keep your open spaces clean.
  2. Organic Material: Grass clippings, fall leaves and pine needles, sediment. In suburbia, people love their lawns. They spend painstaking time carefully cultivating the perfect green carpet. It felt like my dad and our neighbor had an informal competition for who had the best patch of grass. This maintenance involved much grass mowing and raking of leaves by your disgruntled children- for zero allowance, I might add. But no matter the care you take to clean up afterwards, inevitably grass clippings and piles of leaves make their way into the storm drain, or if you are a lazy, angst-y teenager that doesn’t want to carry the wheelbarrow back to the compost pile, maybe you just dump it directly into the storm drain (sorry, bayou).
    1. Why it matters? Green materials like grass clippings carry nitrates into the waterways which sparks a process called “eutrophication” which basically causes plant life and algae to grow and choke off the animal life by absorbing all of the oxygen in waterbodies or waterways.
    2. What you can do: Compost it! Bag it and leave it for the recycling program! Your local state or town might just have a composting program that you can help contribute to. Also- monitor those lazy teenagers!
  3. Fertilizer and Pesticides: Similar to the impacts of grass clippings, fertilizing the lawn and applying pesticides are also harmful for waterways.
    1. Why it matters: The nutrient group known as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) can also cause eutrophication.
    2. What you can do: Follow state or local guidelines for fertilizer use, or, my preference- abandon the lawn completely! Planting your lawn more densely with beds of native plants makes for a more effective use of water (they don’t need it as often) and require less fertilization and reliance on pesticides because they are specifically tailored to your climate. Or, and the best option in my opinion, grow food not lawns! Agricultural land is quickly disappearing and with it, biodiversity of our fruits and vegetables. You can use your yard to grow food for you, your family, and neighbors and delight in the delicious varieties you won’t find in the grocery store. Just get your soil tested to be sure it is contaminant-free!
  4. Heavy Metals, Oils, Grease, and Surfactants: In residential areas, we have driveways and in those driveways we have cars, and when those cars get dirty, we wash them in our driveways, or on the streets. I bet you can just hear the 80’s hair metal and flop of sudsy sponges on the windows.
    1. Why it matters: Sure, car washing gets the sediment and dust off of your car, but the water carries that sediment along with oils from the car and the cleaning chemicals (called surfactants) into storm drains that then flow into waterways. Also, it’s just a waste of water.
    2. What you can do: Official car washing businesses have special requirements for filtration and retention of the soapy, oily, and sediment-laden water. Turn on Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and go support those businesses.

I hope this helped enlighten a few of you. Educating each other and modeling better behaviors for our younger generations can help improve behaviors and waterways at the same time. If you need some help in explaining these or any other environmental issues you know who to call. We are relying on you-reader of this blog- now that you know better, do better. Pass it on!

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Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 

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Earth Day is Everyday: The Fight for Environmental Justice in Alabama’s Black Belt

Earth Day is celebrated annually to spread awareness of environmental issues and to show support for

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

Chanceé Lundy of Nspiregreen (right) pictured with Esther Calhoun (center) and Adam Johnson (left) of the Black Belt Citizens for Health and Justice

environmental protection. On this Earth day, I want to bring awareness to vulnerable populations who often find themselves battling Goliath to preserve their quality of life. Man made hazards create environmental injustices that impact people who often don’t have the political clout or financial capital to fight back. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to meet Esther Calhoun, who finds herself thrust into battle with little to no financial resources and few supporters. The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice operates on a budget of $500 a year; yet, they are determined not to give up the fight.

Her voice began to tremble as she told her story but she was determined to let us know about the environmental injustices her community faced. In spite of great opposition, Esther Calhoun, President of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, continues to lead the fight in what seems like a never ending battle. No, she isn’t from Flint, Michigan, the town that has thrust Environmental Justice into the national spotlight. In fact, her community is far from it. Uniontown, Alabama is a small town in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt (an area known for its rich black topsoil) where nearly 48% of residents live below the poverty level and the population is 88% African American. The town is about a thirty minute drive from my hometown, historic Selma, Alabama on US Highway 80 West. It is also not far from Emelle, Alabama home of the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. It’s certainly not a battle that anyone wants but the dumping of coal ash on her community and sewage spray fields that now contaminate a local creek compelled her to act. She describes how the coal ash and smell of sewage are causing health issues in the community and ruining their way of life.

In 2008, the Tennessee Valley Authority had a coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee. The TVA agreed to pay the Alabama Department of Environmental Management $1.00 per ton to send coal ash to Uniontown, Alabama by rail. Coal ash typically contains metals such as mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium; however, the Environmental Protection Agency has not deemed it a hazardous waste. Such a designation which would have not allowed the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown to accept the waste. Residents can see the coal ash from their door steps and Ms. Calhoun passionately talks about what it’s doing to their quality of life. Residents claim that it’s causing paint to peel off of their cars and dare not eat food from gardens that have now been contaminated with coal ash. It’s certainly not what people who live in rural Alabama would or should expect. Ms. Calhoun discussed the neuropathy that she now has and new illnesses such as cancer that are plaguing many residents in Uniontown.

Besides coal ash, sewage spray fields were installed, for $4.8 million, as a way to treat sewage. Residents who know the area well were against the idea and just as they suspected the sewage spray fields are not working. The soil in this part of the state is mostly clay therefore impermeable. This has caused the sewage to not percolate in the ground and instead it has created run off into a local creek with possible contamination of the local water supply. The dust from coal ash and now the smell of sewage permeates the air in Uniontown.

These issues are hard for Ms. Calhoun to discuss but I imagine they are even harder for her and her neighbors to live through. To add insult to injury, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice are now being sued for $30 Million  by Arrowhead Landfill (the recipient of the coal ash) for libel and slander.

As we’ve witnessed time and time again environmental issues disproportionately impact minority communities. As we commemorate Earth Day, let’s remember to support communities like Uniontown, Alabama, who may not have the political clout or national media attention, but still deserve access to clean air and water. Earth Day is about people who dwell on earth too.

To stay up to date with Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice – join their Facebook page and you can donate via their website.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

 





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