The EPA’s Village Green Project

So, in my opinion, the Environmental Protection Agency in the US has been doing a commendable job of trying to steer politicians, corporations and citizens in the right direction. The right direction, just by the way, is reducing carbon emissions, replacing fossil fuel and natural gas use with sustainable means of energy production, and, in general, living cleaner and greener lives. One of the ways the EPA has been working on doing this on a local, citizen level, is through what’s called the Village Green Project. I wrote this blog post over the summer whilst I was a climate change intern for Physicians for Social Responsibility (an environmental, anti-nuclear, Nobel Prize winning NGO head quartered in DC). So here’s a bit about the project, and their latest pop-up. It’s something that I’d love to see the UK use as a tool of education, especially in areas like London where air pollution is a real issue. I honestly don’t even want to think about what’s going to happen to the EPA (80-90% budget cuts? new global-warming skeptic to head it up?!), never mind great projects like this, under the incoming administration.

The Village Green Project, initiated by the EPA, was first piloted by Durham County’s South Regional Library, North Carolina, in 2013. The project places a bench, powered by wind and solar and equipped with air sensors, in a communal location to encourage local residents to engage with the issue of air pollution. At the library in Durham, local Citizen School volunteers have created entire classes based around the bench – teaching students how to collect and display data, discuss issues of air pollution and climate change, and educate on the health risks. The EPA itself organises community events and has formed partnerships with local schools and the library to create educational programs around the bench.

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Most recently, the Project was introduced to the Jane Addams Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. Tom Shepherd, twice past-president and current member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, was involved with the introduction of the project. Speaking to a PSR intern, he explained that the location was chosen partly due to the higher-than-average incidence rates of asthma and respiratory issues at the school. Chicago’s south side community has been in recurrent conversation with their EPA representatives due to the petroleum coke storage facilities in their area, the remaining two of which are owned by Koch Industries. Petroleum coke (“petcoke”) is a useable by-product of the oil refining process, and is a solid black carbon. Like most dusts, petcoke can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions, and cause wheezing and shortness of breath – it is not, however, carcinogenic.

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This startling image, taken from Google Maps, shows the proximity of the Jane Addams Elementary School to the three facilities – the nearest is a mere 0.8 miles. Shepherd acknowledged the double edged sword: whilst the hope is that the Village Green Project sensor won’t pick up any petcoke in the air as it’s damaging to one’s health, should the sensor discover higher amounts of it in the air, then more serious charges could be brought against the facilities. The community found some success through a city order banning the uncovered storage of petcoke, and on June 9th this year, the facilities began to operate as transfer terminals, meaning that they would no longer store petcoke.

Teachers at the Jane Addams Elementary School have been active in advocating against the petcoke facilities. Both Shepherd and a school administrator have confirmed that the science teachers at the school will be involving the bench in class projects, educating the middle school students about air pollution and also teaching them valuable data analysis skills. Such classes fall in line with Illinois adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), beginning in September this year, which introduces students to human-induced climate change.

If you are interested in learning more about air pollution and outdoor air toxics, how they can be monitored and regulated, and what the health impacts can be, you can visit Physicians for Social Responsibility’s most recent Webinar which features speakers Kathy Attar, PSR’s Toxic Programs Manager, and Dr. Larysa Dyrszka, paediatrician and public health advocate.


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