Communities and Ecosystems
Much of EPA's work in the Pacific Southwest cuts across boundaries. Addressing the environmental needs of the region's Indian tribes and Pacific island territories, for example, involves many of EPA's programs-as does addressing environmental justice concerns in communities across the region.
Tribal and Pacific island communities share the need to provide safe drinking water to all of their inhabitants and clean up contaminated sites. Working as partners with EPA, they've made great strides toward that goal in recent years.
On the Navajo Nation, safe drinking water is just one goal of an ambitious five-year plan, now underway, to address the most hazardous uranium mining sites. EPA is working with the Navajo Nation EPA to assess environmental hazards at more than 500 of these sites.
Johnston Atoll in the Pacific is a wildlife refuge where chemical weapons were destroyed at a specially-designed incineration facility in the 1990s. EPA recently worked with the U.S. Army to ensure that no toxic hazards remain.
In the urban community of South Phoenix, Arizona, a three-year effort to reduce toxics used at industrial sites in a residential neighborhood has garnered positive results for both businesses and residents.
Safe Drinking Water
Coming to Islands, Tribes
In Saipan, the proportion of homes with 24/7 drinking water service jumped from 25% in 2005 to 65% in 2008.
An aging water tank on Saipan that collapsed.
The Pacific island territories and the tribal lands of the Pacific Southwest Region face significant challenges to providing safe drinking water. In some places infrastructure is inadequate or nonexistent, and limited funding, challenging local economic conditions and remote locations often make it difficult to upgrade or install systems.
The result is a striking disparity: 27% of the people in the Pacific island territories and 13% of the homes in Indian Country lack access to safe drinking water, compared to 0.6% of all U.S. homes.
The island and tribal governments, working with EPA, have made significant progress toward the goal of safe drinking water for everyone in the past five years. For instance, the proportion of people with access to safe drinking water in the U.S. Pacific islands-Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI)-has climbed from 39% in 2003 to 73% in 2008.
But more financial assistance will be necessary to reach 100%. "We have plenty of shovel-ready projects, but lack adequate funding," says EPA's John McCarroll, supervisor of the Pacific Islands Office of the Pacific Southwest Region. Some of these projects will be funded with approximately $4 million provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
EPA provided $3 million in funding to construct the new million-gallon Kanat Tabla water tank to improve access to drinking water for Saipan residents.
Saipan, in CNMI, is the only municipality of its size in the U.S. without 24/7 drinking water service. In parts of Saipan, at certain hours of the day, people turn on their taps and get nothing. In 2008, with the help of a $3.2 million EPA grant, CNMI completed the Kanat Tabla water storage tank, which brought 24/7 drinking water to more of Saipan. The proportion of residents with continuous drinking water service jumped from just 25% in 2005 to 65% in 2008.
In Guam, improvements have resulted from a $105 million bond issuance by the government of Guam and the implementation of a court order (sought by EPA) to the island government mandating drinking water and wastewater improvements. Both are necessary for safe drinking water, because leaky sewage systems can pollute drinking water with disease pathogens. When such contamination has occurred, the Guam government has issued "Boil Water" notices to residents-that is, people must boil their tap water before drinking it.
In 2008, however, Guam enjoyed its fourth year in a row without Boil Water notices, and had no health-based violations of safe drinking water regulations. And Guam's court order provided a model for a similar order EPA negotiated to improve CNMI's water system. The order is anticipated to take effect in 2009.
On tribal lands in the Pacific Southwest, EPA-funded projects in 2008 brought safe drinking water to 3,000 additional homes in Indian Country. Meanwhile, on the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, EPA worked with the Navajo Nation EPA to protect residents after sampling in isolated desert locales revealed 22 wells with unhealthy levels of radionuclides such as uranium (see story, page 26).
In February 2009, the White Mountain Apache Tribe celebrated groundbreaking of a drinking water treatment plant that will treat up to 2 million gallons per day of river water to serve 10,000 residents. The facility will replace a dwindling groundwater supply unable to meet the demands of the reservation.
The project, which features an innovative, award-winning green building design, will be partially funded by the ARRA, which will provide a total of about $8 million to the Pacific Southwest Region for tribal drinking water projects.
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EPA, Navajo Nation
Address Uranium Contamination
EPA and the Navajo Nation are addressing the most urgent risks first -uranium-contaminated water sources and structures.
From 1944 to 1986, nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Today the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including more than 500 abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation.
Portable geiger counter and GIS equipment map radiation readings.
The U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee directed five federal agencies-EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Energy, Indian Health Service, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission-to work together to attack the problem. Over the last two years, a team of 30 staff and managers from EPA's Pacific Southwest Regional Office organized five federal agencies and developed a coordinated five-year plan to address contaminated homes, wells, mine sites, mills and dumps. This landmark plan outlines a cleanup strategy and details the cleanup process for the Navajo Nation over five years-work that is now underway.
Windmill pumps groundwater into a storage tank on the Navajo Nation.
The team of federal and Navajo Nation agencies has assessed more than 100 Navajo homes, 240 wells and 80 abandoned mines to determine threats to residents. Working in partnership with the Navajo Nation EPA, the team has removed 27 contaminated homes.
The lands of the Navajo Nation include 27,000 square miles within the boundaries of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico in the Four Corners area. The unique geology of these lands makes them rich in uranium, a radioactive element in high demand for the development of nuclear weapons and power plants from the closing months of World War II in the mid-1940s to the present.
Many Navajo people worked the mines, often living and raising families in close proximity to the mines, mills, and dusty piles of processed ore. Potential health effects include lung cancer from inhalation of radioactive particles, as well as bone cancer and impaired kidney function from exposure to radionuclides in drinking water.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation asked EPA's Superfund program to take the lead on the Northeast Church Rock Mine site, located adjacent to the United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) Superfund site. In 2006, EPA issued an administrative order to UNC to conduct a removal investigation at 14 separate areas. The Superfund program later cleaned up four residential yards and one home to the north of the Northeast Church Rock Mine site. EPA is working with the Navajo Nation EPA and UNC to arrive at a final remedy for the entire site.
Workers demolish and remove a contaminated home.
In 2007, EPA released the Navajo AUM Assessment Report and Geospatial Data Atlas. A collaborative effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Navajo Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program and the Navajo Nation EPA, it is an exhaustive assessment and analysis of all known uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. It ranked the Northeast Church Rock Mine site as the highest priority. EPA has distributed copies of the report to the Navajo Nation and is using it to analyze and prioritize AUM sites, and to identify all the sites in need of further investigation using the site screening process.
A natural rock arch on the Navajo Nation.
In 2008, EPA and the tribe focused on the urgent issue of uranium-contaminated water sources and structures. Approximately 30% of the Navajo population does not have access to a public drinking water system and may be using unregulated water sources with uranium contamination. EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control tested 249 unregulated water sources, and found that 22 exceeded drinking water standards for radioactive contaminants.
EPA and the Navajo Nation EPA have launched an aggressive outreach campaign to inform residents of the dangers of drinking contaminated water (see story). The two agencies are also working with the Indian Health Service to develop alternative drinking water supplies.
During the next four years, EPA will focus on the problems posed by abandoned mines, completing a tiered assessment of more than 500 uranium mines and taking actions to address the highest priority sites. As mines that pose risks are discovered, EPA will identify those sites with potentially responsible parties for possible enforcement action. At those sites on Navajo Trust lands without such responsible parties, EPA will conduct removal actions as funding is available. EPA will coordinate with government agencies regarding sites that are on state and federal lands.
Although the legacy of uranium mining is widespread and will take many years to address completely, the collaborative efforts of EPA, other federal agencies and the Navajo Nation will bring an unprecedented level of support to the people at risk from these sites. Much work remains to be done, and EPA is committed to working with the Navajo Nation to remove the most immediate contamination risks and to find permanent solutions to the remaining contamination on Navajo lands.
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Achieving Clean Closure
Today, Johnston Island and its nesting seabirds are part of a wildlife refuge.
For decades Johnston Island, a remote atoll more than 700 miles southwest of Honolulu, was the repository for some of the world's most deadly hazardous waste: more than 400,000 bombs and artillery shells filled with four million pounds of a nerve agent so potent that a drop of it on your skin can be fatal. All of the nerve agent was incinerated in the 1990s in a factory-like complex on the island.
Today, the island is part of a wildlife refuge providing the only nesting habitat for birds in thousands of square miles of the Pacific Ocean. EPA recently oversaw a final round of confirmatory sampling to demonstrate clean closure.
Johnston Island is home to hundreds of thousands of nesting seabirds.
The U.S. Army designed and built JACADS (Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System) as a prototype for similar plants now built and operating on the U.S. mainland to dispose of chemical munitions. EPA worked with the Army from design of the incinerator facility to clean closure, a period of about 30 years, to ensure that human health and the environment were protected every step of the way.
When the facility was operational, the island was inhabited by thousands of military and civilian operators who would have been at risk from any leaks of nerve agent. EPA issued the Army's permit with numerous conditions to prevent any release, including constant air monitoring. The agency periodically sent inspectors to look for any flaws in the operation and constantly reviewed the Army's reports.
By November 2000, the last of the chemical agent was destroyed. In 2002-2003, the Army dismantled JACADS, removed all buildings, cleaned up the site, and completed closure verification sampling. EPA's review of the sampling methods and results, however, found deficiencies in some of the quality control analyses and spatial data coverage. As a result, the agency could not certify clean closure.
So EPA assigned a multidisciplinary team of staff and managers to work collaboratively with the Army to resolve these issues. Team members had expertise in sampling design and management, analytical chemistry, and other relevant specialties. They met with the Army's experts and contractors to review over 400,000 data points and decide which were technically valid. EPA concluded that while most of the data were valid, 100 locations on the island would require re-sampling.
Because the island's infrastructure was gone and the airstrip unusable, the Army hired a private research vessel and had it fitted with all necessary equipment. The re-sampling crew spent five days traveling each way to and from Honolulu, and seven days working on the island, with nights spent on the boat. EPA's JACADS project manager, John Beach, was a member of the re-sampling effort and oversaw the Army's work.
"We worked in an atmosphere of mutual respect with the Army," says EPA Pacific Southwest Waste Division Associate Director Arlene Kabei. "But we had to request that the Army return to the island for some re-do. It was a testament to the scientifically-credible work by both the Army's and EPA's teams that the Army also accepted the need for more validation data to assure clean closure."
Since the cleanup, Johnston Atoll, a coral reef ecosystem that is home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, was given complete protection as part of the recently established Pacific Remote Islands National Monument.
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Karen Henry: Working with Communities for Environmental Justice
With CARE grants and collaborative problem solving, communities are in a leadership position.
Karen Henry is uniquely qualified to be in the Pacific Southwest Region's Environmental Justice (EJ) program. She grew up in a Richmond, Calif., neighborhood across the street from railroad tracks used by diesel locomotives. Just beyond that lay the sprawling Chevron refinery.
One day the playground in the middle of her apartment complex was fenced off because it was found to be contaminated with lead. She recalls wondering, "Why did the government let us play there for years?" She also had asthma when she lived there, but it disappeared when she moved to a different neighborhood.
Because of her experiences, Karen knows how residents in communities with disproportionate impacts feel. She also knows how agency scientists and engineers think, since she holds degrees in biochemistry as well as civil and environmental engineering.
Karen has been a member of the EJ program since its inception. In the late 1990s, Karen helped EPA pilot a new collaborative problem solving (CPS) process to replace the earlier top-down standard procedure of government agencies, known as "DAD": Decide, Announce, Defend. She worked with Barrio Logan, a Latino neighborhood in San Diego-one of 15 pilot projects across the nation. People there were concerned about air pollution from a metal plating shop. Karen brought together a CPS group that involved EPA and community members as co-leads, state and local agencies, and industry.
"When people work together on an ongoing basis, it builds relationships," she says. "Agency people relate to the community as people they know. Industries usually want to be good neighbors." With different agencies present, if one said it didn't have jurisdiction to do what the community was asking, another could step in, Karen says. In this case, state air regulators set up air monitoring stations around the plating shop-and found that it was emitting chromium into the air.
Ultimately the local government denied the plating shop its operating permit, and it closed. EPA offered compliance assistance training to other businesses in the neighborhood. When the two-year pilot was over, EPA adopted CPS nationwide. More than a decade later, the Barrio Logan collaborative is still going, working on reducing air pollution from the port. The collaborative has also reached 6,500 people in auto-related businesses, and two-thirds have adopted pollution reduction practices.
Today, the CPS model is duplicated at the state level, and with EPA's newer Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) grant program. In every case, Karen says, "The communities are in a leadership position." She's currently working with groups in West Oakland, Pacoima (in Los Angeles), and Bayview/Hunters Point (San Francisco).
In Hunters Point, residents are concerned about developers bulldozing serpentine rock and kicking up asbestos dust. Recently, the developer has started watering down the area to keep the dust down, and the local air district and the community are doing air monitoring.
"EPA doesn't have authority here, but we try to mediate solutions," Karen says. "People do disagree, but I'm usually able to help residents and agencies listen to one another so they can solve problems together."
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Resource Use in Arizona
In South Phoenix, Arizona, industries that use toxic chemicals share a low-income neighborhood with thousands of residents. In 2005, following community meetings, 21 South Phoenix businesses joined a partnership to reduce their air emissions. Meanwhile, a $225,000 EPA grant helped the state's Department of Environmental Quality launch a statewide effort to improve environmental performance. Both programs report positive results.
South Phoenix Partnership
EPA's Leif Magnuson (far left) with participants in the South Phoenix Industry Challenge/Good Neighbor Partnership.
For several years, South Phoenix residents expressed concerns about air pollution from industry and diesel trucks. From 1992 to 2001, seven major chemical fires occurred, sickening many people who sought medical help at hospitals. To address these concerns, EPA established a pollution prevention partnership with the key stakeholders-community residents, 21 companies, and several state and local agencies.
The goals of the South Phoenix Industry Challenge/Good Neighbor Partnership were to reduce toxic exposures from industrial emissions, to reduce diesel emissions from city garbage trucks and street sweepers, and to prevent accidental chemical releases. In three years, 21 facilities reduced air emissions by a total of 85,000 pounds.
Participants also reduced a total of 60 million kWh of electricity, 373,000 pounds of hazardous waste, and 827,000 gallons of water, measured per unit of production. One partner, the City of Phoenix, retrofitted 64 diesel vehicle engines that operate in South Phoenix to reduce particulate emissions. The partnership has now become a model for community toxics reduction projects across the nation.
"No longer will South Phoenix be known as a heavy polluter, and we are grateful to the South Phoenix companies who stepped forward to clean up the air," commented Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.
Arizona Partnership Program
With the aid of a $225,000 Innovation Grant from EPA, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality expanded Arizona Performance Track. The program recognizes business and government facilities that are good environmental stewards, and who go above and beyond the minimum requirements set by regulations.
Four of eight members have completed one reporting cycle and show the following results:
- Ping Inc., a golf equipment manufacturer, reduced its energy use by 24% in three years, the equivalent of 5,000 metric tons of CO2. Ping also cut its annual use of smog-forming mineral spirits by 44%.
- Intel Ocotillo avoided 4,000 pounds of excess air emissions that could have resulted from its increasing production. The facility also saved 244 million gallons of water by improving on an already highly efficient water management system.
- The City of Scottsdale recently conserved 615 acres of wildlife habitat. Past efforts by Scottsdale bring their total to more than 14,416 acres added to the McDowell-Sonoran Preserve. The city has also recharged more than 4 billion gallons of water to its underground aquifer since 2004.
- Xanterra South Rim LLC reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 6%, equal to 855 metric tons of CO2, and cut water use by 2.7 million gallons, on a per-visitor basis. Earlier, Xanterra reduced 14 million gallons per year from its 2002 baseline.
Brings Students West
Xavier University intern Luther St. James on an EPA work trip to the Navajo Nation, June 2008.
In the summer of 2008, EPA's regional Civil Rights Office hosted four students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for summer internships. The students got a chance to experience the work EPA staff does in the field, in the regional lab, and at the office in downtown San Francisco.
The effort began with the establishment of the regional office's first HBCU Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) as part of its commitment to pursue stronger relationships with HBCUs to support educational and employment opportunities for African Americans, and to attract a workforce as diverse as the public EPA serves. Xavier University in New Orleans was selected as the first school as it offered the opportunity to directly support the revitalization of communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina, of keen interest to many regional EPA staff who personally volunteered to secure safe drinking water and clean up oil spills and hazardous waste in affected areas.
Interns plug fish tissue for mercury analysis at EPA's laboratory in Richmond, Calif.
The recruitment effort at Xavier included a presentation by Dr. Patrick Wilson, a toxicologist at EPA's Pacific Southwest Office. His talk inspired several students to apply for internships, including Luther St. James of Daytona Beach, Fla., and Antoinette Lane of Oakland, Calif., both biology students interested in medical school. The regional office later recruited students from other HBCUs with which EPA has MOUs: Simone Combs, from Spelman College in Atlanta, and Cynthia Williams, from Howard University in Washington D.C.
Arriving in June 2008, the interns were assigned a variety of tasks and field trips. Luther spent his first week on the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona with Luis Garcia-Bakarich of EPA's Superfund Community Involvement Office. They traveled many miles meeting with residents of the Navajo Nation, informing them about dangerous radiation levels in their homes. According to Luther, "it was a humbling experience" to witness first hand the direct effects of pollution on their lives.
Each intern kept a weekly work diary. Simone wrote: "At the Region 9 lab in Richmond, we saw what kinds of work are done at the lab and even got to help out by plugging a bunch of fish for mercury analysis. The following day we drove up to the Leviathan Mine Superfund site in the Lake Tahoe area, to help Peter Husby test the creek water. . . . [V]isiting the mines was one of the experiences that impressed me the most. We wrapped up our week by helping facilitate the CYCLE program in which middle and high school kids spent a day at the lab."
More than two dozen EPA staff and managers worked with the interns during the summer, serving as educators, mentors, field trip guides, and even serving home cooked dinners. All agreed that watching the students learn and grow from their many experiences was personally rewarding, and that they look forward to seeing these young people become our nation's next generation of environmental leaders.
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