Community environmental health activism in South Gate, Los Angeles County, CA
Imagine that you are attending a community workshop about cleaning up the environment in your city. Local environmental justice activists are there to explain how the effects of pollution are disproportionately higher in your area than in other parts of the county.
After everyone is seated, the workshop leader says, “Before we start, I want to ask for some information. Will everyone here who lives adjacent to a polluting site please stand?” As you get up, you look around and nearly all the people in the room are on their feet! Clearly, this community has an environmental problem. But the workshop is not just about the problem—it’s also about finding solutions.
This environmental justice (EJ) workshop was held as part of a July 2015 health education event in South Gate, California, a small city in Southeast Los Angeles County. The event was planned, organized and hosted by the South Gate Community Environmental Health Action Team (CEHAT), established in March 2015. And the part about almost all EJ workshop attendees standing up? That actually happened!
The Protocol for Assessing Community Excellence in Environmental Health (PACE EH) seeks to involve the public in improving environmental health. The protocol draws from community collaboration and environmental justice principles. It includes a series of 13 tasks that help local health agencies, community members, and other stakeholders to:
• Identify local environmental health issues,
• Set priorities for action,
• Target populations most at risk, and
• Address identified issues.
PACE EH was developed by CDC and the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
The CEHAT is composed of city residents, business owners, community activists, members of civic groups, and state, local and federal government. The California Department of Public Health recruited members of this team as part of a community involvement process recommended by the Protocol for Assessing Community Environmental Excellence in Environmental Health (see box).
This is the first time the PACE EH has been used in California to identify a city’s environmental issues and develop an action plan to tackle them. According to its mission statement, the CEHAT’s objective is to “contribute to make a South Gate that is beautiful, safe, educated, represented, healthy, sustainable, prosperous, clean, and united.”
The health education event was an important step in reaching that ambitious goal. CDPH health educator Nancy Palate, who facilitated the initiation of the CEHAT, believes that the event struck a crucial balance between learning about the community’s environmental health concerns and increasing their awareness of environmental health issues.
Participating in the event were state and local agencies who set up information booths to inform residents about the resources and opportunities they offer to develop a community free of environmental stressors. These included the
- California Department of Public Health (CDPH)
- U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- LA County Department of Public Health and Injury and Violence Prevention Program
- City of South Gate Water Division
- Central Basic Municipal Water District
- LA County Environmental Health
- LA County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
- CicLAvia (organization promoting alternatives to motor transportation in LA)
In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund). Under Superfund, EPA is responsible for evaluating and cleaning up toxic sites and responding to environmental emergencies. The name “Superfund” comes from the trust fund established to finance emergency responses and cleanups. The Superfund law also created ATSDR.
Attendees included over 75 community residents, students, city council members, and others enthusiastic about environmental health. The environmental justice (EJ) workshop was one of two workshops planned by the CEHAT. Following the dramatic representation of the widespread pollution in the community, workshop leaders explained the principles of environmental justice. Attendees learned not only the meaning of environmental racism, but also some tools to combat it.
The CEHAT also asked CDPH to conduct a workshop on how to reduce exposure to toxic substances, where attendees learned tips to reduce indoor air pollutants in their own homes. These included proper home ventilation techniques, safer cleaning product alternatives, and ideas for different types of home alarm systems available for hidden chemical dangers (radon, carbon monoxide, and more). Attendees learned how even every-day tasks inside the home can be dangerous without proper precautions.
South Gate is in a unique environmental situation: this 7.4 square mile city with 96,000 residents is home to 3 Superfund sites within ¼ mile of each other. So the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was invited to participate in the health education event. EPA representatives took attendees on a walking tour of these sites. They explained the history of the sites, the types of industry that caused the pollution, the stages of a Superfund remediation project, and the current stage of each of the sites. Said CEHAT chairman Josue Gonzalez, “Many attendees did not know that these Superfund sites were so close to their homes!”
“We were encouraged by the high turnout for the Superfund Sites Tour during the CEHAT’s educational event in July,” said Karen Jurist, Superfund Project Manager in USEPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office in San Francisco. “The success of the event was a great example of the engagement of the South Gate community and the dedication of community members, especially the CEHAT, to improving environmental health in their city. EPA looks forward to continuing to collaborate with the CEHAT in the future as they work to increase environmental health awareness in their community.”
This enthusiastic team is already helping to lead the monthly meetings hosted by CDPH staff to train members in the 13 steps of the PACE EH. CDPH staff are hopeful that by the time they have completed all the steps, the CEHAT will be ready to take over the PACE EH process in their community. According to Palate, “This is the beauty of this whole process, the leadership and capacity building we leave behind when our work is officially over.”
Another CEHAT facilitator, CDPH environmental health scientist Russell Bartlett, adds, “The South Gate CEHAT educational event is a testament to how powerful and committed communities are to addressing their health concerns and the value of community participatory action programs like PACE EH to unlock a community’s potential.”
CEHAT chairman Gonzalez was also pleased with the results of the day’s activities. “All in all, the CEHAT’s event was a great experience for the community of South Gate. Attendees learned about environmental justice, tips to reduce toxic substance exposure, and local Superfund sites. And they learned that the CEHAT is there for them, ready to tackle South Gate’s environmental health stressors!”