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Follow our 20th Anniversary Video Series!

2012 August 2

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice launched our 20th Anniversary Video Series, featuring government officials, non-profit leaders, academics and students who share inspiring and educational stories about the lessons they have learned while working on environmental justice. Click here to view the full list of blog posts and videos in our series!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

My Journey as a Student in Understanding and Assessing the Impacts of Pesticides

2012 November 15

By Sonam Gill

Growing up I spent the occasional weekend with my parents and brothers on Interstate 99 driving down from the Bay Area to Selma and Visalia, Calif. to visit family.  While bickering with my older brothers in the backseat during what seemed like a never-ending car ride, all I could see to the left, right, and up ahead were agricultural fields.  But, I had not realized the extent of pesticide use across the San Joaquin Valley until I began my internship with the Environmental Justice Program at EPA’s Regional Office in San Francisco.

Throughout the Valley, which is home to nearly 700,000 residents, many communities have raised concerns about issues related to pesticide use. Pesticides are linked to a range of health affects, from no adverse health affects at all, to minor irritations of the skin and eyes, all the way up to long term effects from repeated exposure. To help better understand the intersection between pesticide use and environmental justice, I was tasked with  helping to identify vulnerable communities in the San Joaquin Valley, as measured by social vulnerability, environmental impacts, and health impacts, specifically focusing on pesticides.

San Joaquin Valley

My challenge was to use existing data to create a surrogate for determining potential exposure. I spent most of my time during the internship working collaboratively with our Pesticide Office to do just that. We refined pesticide use data for the Valley by creating a ranking approach for pesticides based on toxicity and mapped areas of high use in order to help the agency make better informed decisions regarding EPA programs and pesticide regulation.

My experience working on this project at EPA has not only enhanced my knowledge about pesticides and their use in California, but it has also provided me with an opportunity to work on a issue that I feel personally connected to because members of my immediate family live in areas of the San Joaquin Valley where pesticide use rates are some of the highest. Through our efforts on this project, incorporating community perspectives and defensible interpretations of existing data, I was able to gain valuable experience working to help provide information that is critical to informing decision-making about pesticides.

About the author: Sonam Gill joined EPA’s San Francisco Office in June 2011 as a STEP Intern, and for Fall 2011 as an Environmental Justice Eco Ambassador. She double majored at the University of California Santa Barbara in Black Studies (BA) and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (BS), and this academic year she is wrapping up a dual Master’s program (MS Environmental Management and MBA) at the University of San Francisco.  She is currently writing her Master’s thesis on the cost-effectiveness of alternatives to highly applied agricultural fumigant pesticides.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

After the Storm

2012 November 2

By Lina Younes

As millions of residents along the mid-Atlantic and northeastern regions of the United States are getting their lives back in order after Sandy’s vicious rampage, many are still dealing with the storm’s aftermath: severe flooding.

One of the many problems with flood water is that it may contain high levels of raw sewage and other contaminants that are hazardous to both your health and the environment. Above all, limit your contact with flood water!

If you were fortunate in not having flood water in your area, but still have water problems inside your home, remove and clean any water damaged items in order to avoid mold buildup. Controlling moisture is key to controlling mold in indoor environments. Exposure to mold has potential health effects that include allergic reactions, asthma attacks and other respiratory complaints. So address any water damage in your home quickly to protect your health and your family.

Are you concerned about the water quality in your area? Have you been informed by local authorities on the need to boil your water? Here you will find some valuable information onemergency disinfection of drinking water.

While utilities and local authorities are working around the clock to make sure that power is restored as quickly as possible, there are still residents without electricity due to Sandy’s wrath. Above all, do not use generators in enclosed areas inside the home or even in the garage. Why may you ask? Because generator exhaust is extremely toxic and may be lethal. Generator exhaust contains deadly carbon monoxide.  Avoid using a generator or other combustion appliances inside the home.

Please be mindful that children and the elderly need special attention during these natural disasters. I know from my own personal experience listening to my parents mention that they simply “don’t feel thirsty.” Losing the sense of thirst with age puts the elderly at a greater risk of dehydration. Make sure they drink enough water even when they say they don’t feel like it.

Simple tips to help us recover from the storm. Hope they are helpful. Do you have any tips you would like to share with us?

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Do you Know if your Waterway is Polluted?

2012 October 25

Doug Norton

Pollution in the Potomac River

“How’s My Waterway?” Can you answer this question about your favorite vacation lake, or the river where you walk with your dog?  Are streams in your community polluted, and what’s being done about it if they are?

Most people don’t know – and are surprised to learn – that the answers have been publicly available for years.  But publicly available doesn’t always mean easily accessible and understandable.

For decades, the Clean Water Act has required tracking of water pollution problems and restoration progress across the nation. EPA public databases include detailed information about the condition of local streams and lakes, pollutants, where they come from, and progress on fixing the problems.

As an Office of Water scientist, I regularly use these databases in national and state studies of water pollution trends and restoration strategies. But even I had trouble answering the simple question: “How’s My Waterway?”  These data systems weren’t designed to provide a quick look at local waters or to provide a simple explanation of what the data really mean. Chances are most people would be baffled by EPA’s complex databases and scientific information.  They might say, “But all I really want to know is:  How’s MY waterway?  And please tell me in words I can understand.”

Map View of How's My Waterway

My project team created an exciting solution to this dilemma as part of EPA’s Water Data Project, which makes important water information more widely known and available to the general public.  We developed How’s My Waterway as a simpler pathway through the same EPA database.  You can instantly get localized information about waterways in map and list format by simply entering a zip code or place name.  Anyone can check on local waters anywhere in the nation in seconds—even at the water’s edge, for those using smart phones.

Users can pan across the color-coded map that shows how common are the polluted, unpolluted, and unassessed waters.  Waterway-specific details include the local pollutants and progress on clean-up plans.  Plain-language descriptions about each pollutant explain where it comes from, whether it harms the environment and human health, and what people can do to help.  Related links go to the technical database if needed or to other popular sites about beaches, drinking water, fish advisories and other water topics.

How’s My Waterway may especially help those communities where there are less resources to access and decipher complicated information from EPA’s data systems.  Learning about locally polluted areas may help people avoid illnesses from swimming or eating contaminated fish, and reading the plain language descriptions can help anyone understand risks and causes.  With better information, people are safer and communities are more able to take action.

What’s the health of your waterway?  Now you can find out.

About the author: Doug Norton is a watershed scientist with EPA’s Office of Water who studies national pollution patterns, helps states restore polluted waters, and designs tools to help improve public understanding of water pollution issues.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Tox Town: A Great Tool for Learning About Chemicals in our Environment

2012 October 12

By Judy Kramer and Andrew Plumer

Have you ever wondered which chemicals are in your community and what impacts they may have on your health? Chemicals are routinely used to support all parts of American life and are integral in our agricultural, commercial, and industrial processes. Although our way of life depends on the use of many chemicals, their potential environmental impact cannot be ignored. Understanding the relationships between these substances and our environment is critical to promoting safe practices and protecting public health.

Tox Town Southwest Scene

We at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) have an interesting interactive website that introduces middle school, high school, and college students, as well as educators and the general public, to toxic chemicals in their everyday environment. Tox Town uses graphics, sounds, and animation to show the connections between chemicals, the environment, and the public’s health. There are six distinct neighborhoods in Tox Town: city, town, farm, port, US border regions, and a new US Southwest scene. Each neighborhood is toured by selecting “Location” or “Chemical” links.

Tox Town presents the facts on everyday locations where toxic chemicals and substances might be found with non-technical descriptions of the chemicals. There is information about how the environment can affect human health. We also provide links to chemical and environmental health resources from trusted sources. Like all of our neighborhoods, our new Southwest scene demonstrates the uniqueness and some similarities of the environmental health issues we all face today.

In collaboration with Diné College, a tribal college for the Arizona and New Mexico Navajo Nation, the Southwest has very specific environmental hazards like abandoned mines, uranium tailings, and dust storms. With Tox Town, we at the NLM seek to inform the public about the environmental health concerns in their “own backyard” but also with areas with which they may not be familiar.

The US Southwest scene can be used as an educational tool not only for students and the general public living in the Southwest, but also for those of us living in other parts of the country that are unaware of the unique environmental health concerns for those living in this region. Tox Town can present environmental issues in an easy to understand manner that makes explaining the concept of environmental justice to the general public interesting and engaging.  Tox Town also offers some resources in Spanish, and has a text version. We also have resources especially for teachers.  Check out this great new resource and let us know what you think of the new Southwest scene and Tox Town in general.

About the authors: Judy Kramer is a Public Health Specialist, and a contractor for ICF International, working with the National Library of Medicine on Specialized Information Services. Judy oversaw the development of the Tox Town US Southwest scene and is a member of the K-12 team that produces educational resources for educators. Andrew Plumer is an Outreach Librarian for the National Library of Medicine, and also works on Specialized Information Services. Andrew is part of the K-12 team that produces educational resources for educators.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

One Prescription for Healthier Brownfield Communities – A Community Clinic Please!

2012 October 4

By Ann Carroll

The EPA brownfields program started in the mid-1990s, but as the program evolved over the last decade, we learned that the abandoned gas station, mine site or vacant scrap yard may be only one of the many issues facing communities.  In fact, many brownfield communities are also medically underserved areas. This U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) designation means that there aren’t enough doctors, dentists, mental health or other health professionals to provide needed services.  This is especially problematic because many of these communities may be affected by legacy pollution that was left behind when plants closed down. Residents in these communities may lack vital services like vaccinations or preventive care that is important to disease management for diabetes, asthma or other chronic conditions and care needs.

Opening of the Providence Community Health Centers

For one community, this reality changed with a new clinic opening on a former brownfield.  On July 16, I joined some of the EPA New England brownfields program team members in Providence, RI, along with community members, investors, and elected officials to celebrate the opening of the Providence Community Health Centers (PCHC).  PCHC is now the largest Rhode Island healthcare provider for women and children, serving one in four Providence residents. This new clinic integrates care for children and adults with behavioral health, a Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) nutrition program, and provides services to address asthma, diabetes, podiatry and dermatology, all under one roof.

There will also be a pharmacy opening next door, which will make filling prescriptions easy. The health center is located on the Federated Lithography Site, a former historic mill, which dates back to the 1880s. Brownfield grants totaling $600,000 funded the removal of lead paint and asbestos from around the 4.5 acre site and attracted an additional $40 million for construction and redevelopment.  Historic preservation and select demolition also allowed for the creation of a historic hybrid health care clinic that meets LEED ‘green building’ certification. Renovation of the remaining mill buildings will create doctors offices for Lifespan, an integrated health provider linked to Brown University.

The project also created 125 seasonal jobs during the two years of work. Nearly 25% of demolition and construction dollars supported local minority/women business enterprises and labor.  In a neighborhood where over 70% of children and 35% of families live below the poverty line, these jobs were especially important!

This seems like a prescription many brownfield communities would like filled.  Let’s learn from this Providence community and help Providence and other rural and urban communities reverse environmental pollution legacies to create healing today and a healthier tomorrow.  You can read more about this story in this New York Times article. Also, visit this website to see if you live in a medically underserved area, and click here to find out more about programs that HHS offers to medically underserved areas.

About the author: Ann Carroll has a science and public health background and has worked on environmental health issues in the US and internationally for close to 30 years and with the EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization for the last ten years.  She helps communities assess and clean brownfields and plan for their safe reuse.  Ann is working on a doctorate in environmental health as a  Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for a Livable Future.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Clean Water is Environmental Justice

2012 September 27

By Nancy Stoner

Hanging in my office is a list of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s priorities for the EPA. It is a focused list that identifies seven key areas which form the core of our mission. Working for environmental justice and protecting America’s waterways are both on this list. In the Office of Water, we understand that these two are not separate goals. Environmental justice shapes our priorities, frames our projects, and informs our actions. It embraces the idea that every community, regardless of its size and economic standing, deserves access to safe water.

Nancy on a tour of green infrastructure to reduce polluted stormwater in urban Baltimore.

At the EPA, we have universal standards for water quality, but many cities and towns in our nation are still grappling with reaching these standards.  Our environmental justice efforts acknowledge that people who lack resources must often use whatever water is nearest and available to them.  Through a variety of partnership programs, we work with these communities to implement projects that invigorate their economies, restore their waterways, and  help them provide clean water to their citizens.

Cities are an extremely important aspect of environmental justice as 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Through the EPA-led Urban Waters Federal Partnership, we are providing grants to improve water quality and reconnect urban citizens with their local waterways. Recent Urban Waters projects vary from citizen-run water monitoring networks to parks built on vacant lots using green infrastructure. With these grants, communities are able to tailor their projects to their needs, revitalizing their community while also securing cleaner water.

In rural communities, our environmental justice efforts focus on issues specific to each area. For example, we are working with communities in Appalachia to help clean up rivers and streams affected by mountain top mining. These waterbodies are crucial to residents for drinking, fishing, and swimming. We work with locals to minimize consequences to human health, help the local environment, and strengthen their economy.

When it comes to water, it is difficult to think of a single issue that does not tie into environmental justice. By focusing on how water issues affect people in their communities, we can expand the conversation on environmental justice and redefine our actions to ensure that everyone has access to clean and usable water regardless of where they live.

Click here for more information on the Office of Water’s environmental justice efforts.

About the author: Nancy Stoner currently serves in EPA as the Acting Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water. Prior to joining EPA, Nancy was Co-Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program.  In that capacity she guided projects to protect rivers, lakes, and coastal waters from contaminated stormwater, sewer overflows, factory farms, and other sources of water pollution, and led NRDC’s efforts to clean up and restore the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. Before joining NRDC, Nancy worked as a trial attorney in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the US Department of Justice and served as director of the Office of Policy Analysis in the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Environmental Justice from a Physicians Perspective

2012 September 20

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By Representative Donna Christensen

Before coming to Congress, I started my career as a family physician in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI).  While justifiably referred to as ‘America’s Paradise,’ a closer look reveals the story of how people and the environment are inextricably linked—and also how industry has impacted the health of both. Comprised of four small islands, the USVI has been impacted by a disproportionate amount of pollution from an oil refinery, two power utilities, and two substantial landfills, which until recently, were poorly managed.

While working in St. Croix, I was able to have a first-hand look at how our community members were affected by various sources of pollution, because they were my patients.  Many had concerns about the incidence of cancer and upper respiratory diseases in communities and their loved ones. It was from these very patients that I learned more about the challenges faced by fenceline communities.  More importantly, I understood my role as a civic leader and how I could use what I learned about the burden of pollution to more effectively advocate on behalf of my constituents.

The case of the Bovoni community on St. Thomas serves as yet another interesting opportunity to examine issues regarding people and pollution.  Poor planning prevailed and a landfill was placed within the midst of a well established residential area.  With smarter planning, this could have been avoided all together.  Local leadership especially has a responsibility to be aware of the impact of dumps, oil refineries, power plants and other possibly polluting industries, as well as the cumulative impacts they can have on communities’ health.  Everyone has a right to have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink —and everyone has a role to play in protecting the health of our people and the environment.  The sooner we realize this, the better off we all will be.

About the author: The Honorable Donna M. Christensen is serving her eighth term as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is the first female physician in the history of the U.S. Congress, the first woman to represent an offshore Territory, and the first woman Delegate from the United States Virgin Islands.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

(Re)trofit Design: From the Ground Up

2012 September 13

By Sean Nicholson

William McDonough, an American architect who co-wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things said, “Pollution is a symbol of design failure.” Considering that  pollution is causing problems like ocean acidification and climate change, the logical next question is, so how do we fix the design?

Well, to address the air emissions that contribute to climate change, you have to start where the design is the weakest; where the pollution is most damaging and often most overlooked. For example, one of the largest design failures contributing to air emissions is energy inefficient housing. In these homes, which are especially prevalent in low-income communities, energy seeps out of every nooks and cranny. This extra energy consumption adds up to more greenhouse gas emissions, higher utility bills, and adds stresses to overburdened communities who need relief the most.

Our organization, Let’s Retrofit a Million (LRAM), started as a student-led, nonprofit organization at Morehouse College, a historically black college (HBCU) in Atlanta, Ga, to help low-income communities that are disproportionately affected by climate destabilization, yet they are the least likely to receive aid. To help address the issue LRAM set up a series of service-learning opportunities in modest means neighborhoods. Our flagship program, the Community Retrofit Day of Action, has already reached more than 10,000 residents and through the program we have given out 54,000 Retrofit Efficiency Packages, containing energy efficiency and water conservation devices, free of charge to residents. These efforts have led to  a total savings of $11.6 million for participating households and have offset the equivalent of more than 16 million lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2), pollution which would have resulted from producing the energy that was saved. Additionally, our distribution of water conservation devices has saved enough water to fill 548 Olympic-size swimming pools!

Through our Applied Mentorship Program for Sustainability (AMPS), we’ve used curriculum to educate metro Atlanta highschool students on how to deal with the environmental issues facing their communities. Furthermore, last year our very own “EcoTerns,” as we affectionately call them, convinced our organization to start an Urban Gardening Resiliency Oasis (UGRO). This program built and supports a community garden that serves as a green education space, a neighborhood beautification project, and provides residents with access to land where they can grow fresh produce.

Through experiential learning for both volunteers and residents, LRAM is able to heighten “environmental intelligence,” or begin to change environmental awareness into environmental action and more sustainable behaviors.  I truly believe that in order to reverse our ‘design failure,’ we must face our environmental justice issues on all fronts and ensure that no one is left behind.

About the Author: Sean Nicholson is the Marketing Communications Associate for Let’s Retrofit A Million Education Fund, Inc. He began his work with LRAM as an intern in the summer of 2009, working with high school students under LRAM’s Atlanta Mentorship Program for Sustainability. After the summer, he continued volunteering with LRAM, developing a passion for environmental justice work after learning first-hand how valuable the impact of the work was in his community.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

You are the True Expert about Your Community

2012 September 7

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By Teri Blanton

The community that I grew up in rural Southeast Kentucky was a federal Superfund site and learning that the water in the community I lived in was polluted was my first experience with the need to advance environmental justice. That was the beginning of my understanding of what environmental justice is and the importance of engaging communities to have a voice in the environmental decisions that affect where they live.

Teri at a Rally

Over the years I have learned a lot of lessons about how to meet with people and educate them about how they can stand up for their right to a healthy and sustainable community. For example, when reaching out to people, you can’t communicate from a place of anger, because it will not reach anyone. Instead, you must be aware of your own feelings and have the ability to control them to interact effectively with others.

Also, when you talk to people about what environmental justice is you need to make the human connections clear. For example, when I talk to people in our rural communities about the effects of mountaintop mining, I remind them that mountaintop mining production has been linked to many possible public health problems that have a direct effect on people’s lives, including a 42% increase in birth defects, according to one study. But, statistics by themselves are just numbers. Effective leaders know that in order to draw out empathy from others, they must focus on the human impacts pollution can have on the places we live, work, play, and pray.

My organization, the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, initiated The Canary Project that aims to expand awareness among Kentucky’s residents about the pollution that can result from coal production in our communities. The project is named after the old mining practice of bringing canaries into the mines to check for toxic gases. When the gases became too dangerous for the canaries, the miners knew to leave the mine. As we say, we are the canaries, warning everyone about the dangers of environmental injustices. We must build awareness, because everyone on this planet deserves clean air, clean water, and healthy communities.

About the Author: Teri Blanton is currently a Canary Fellow, and the past Chair for the citizens group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. A survivor of a Superfund toxic waste site near her home in Harlan County, Kentucky, Teri has worked to educate communities and advocate for pollution prevention across the country for the better part of the last 20 years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Public Health Solutions to Advance Environmental Justice

2012 August 23

By Ryan Fitzpatrick

Before attending law school I lived in Mid City New Orleans, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.  The neighborhood kids would frequently come over after school to hang out, talk, or get some help on their homework.  Being involved in their lives, I was struck by how often they would fall ill, forced to stay home from school and fall behind on their studies, often with respiratory problems.  Parents would take their children to the ER, but only for emergencies.  Living in a neighborhood that saw 6-8 foot high flood waters during Katrina (and the subsequent mold problems that followed in its wake), while adjacent to a major interstate, certainly didn’t help these kids in their quest to stay healthy.

Since joining the Office of Environmental Justice as a summer law clerk in June, I have been working extensively with the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and its Team-EJ work group, to more closely align agency efforts in sustainability and environmental justice.  The Partnership represents the Administration’s recognition of the interconnectivity of housing, transportation, and the environment when it comes to developing sustainable communities. The Partnership through Team EJ has worked with communities to integrate the concept of environmental justice into sustainability programs, and is now integrating public health as well.  This makes sense. People living in communities bearing a disproportionate impact of pollution often face disproportionate health burdens, an injustice that is exacerbated when they also lack adequate access to health services.

The Partnership’s recognition of the importance of reducing health disparities in conjunction with community stakeholders to achieve environmental justice comes at an exciting time in public health. The Affordable Care Act has provided $11 billion to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) from 2010-2015. HRSA is using this money to develop new and expanded federally qualified health centers, and the creation of a comprehensive National Prevention Strategy. Access to healthcare is crucial for achieving environmental justice in low-income and minority communities.

Working together, federal agencies with related missions can bring rapid and lasting change to overburdened and underserved communities across the country, like the Mid City community I was a part of.  The Partnership’s expansion into public health, and its model for interagency collaboration can go a long way toward directing critical health resources into the environmental justice communities that lack them. You can click here to find more about how the partnership is working to expand access to affordable care, and here for more resources to expand your communities’ access to basic healthcares services.

About the Author: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a third year student at The George Washington University law school, and a law clerk at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  Prior to entering law school, Ryan served a year as a volunteer construction supervisor with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, through the AmeriCorps National Direct program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.