Where We Live: A Citizen's Guide To Conducting A Community Environmental Inventory

Where We Live: A Citizen's Guide To Conducting A Community Environmental Inventory

by Don Harker, Elizabeth Ungar Natter

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Where We Live is a practical workbook to help citizens find information concerning their local environment and to use that information in furthering environmental goals. The book includes general information on human impacts on the environment and instructions for citizens to use in creating a community environmental map. In addition, it guides the user through


Where We Live is a practical workbook to help citizens find information concerning their local environment and to use that information in furthering environmental goals. The book includes general information on human impacts on the environment and instructions for citizens to use in creating a community environmental map. In addition, it guides the user through various environmental programs and available documentation of community environmental hazards.Included are addresses and phone numbers for state environmental and natural resource agencies in all fifty states, and a listing of chemicals and their effects on humans and the environment. The final section of the book presents a series of exercises to help groups explore methods of approaching various community issues.Where We Live is a valuable resource for community development practitioners, local government officials and citizen activists concerned with the impact of environmental decisions on local communities, as well as teachers at both the college and secondary-school levels."

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Where We Live

A Citizen's Guide to Conducting a Community Environmental Inventory

By Donald F. Harker, Elizabeth Ungar Natter


Copyright © 1995 Mountain Association for Community Economic Development
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-365-2



Throughout the United States, in town after town—in Dayhoit, Kentucky, in Bumpass Cove, Tennessee, in Institute, West Virginia, in Los Angeles, California, in New Bedford, Massachusetts—citizens are struggling to cope with critical environmental problems in their communities. Contaminated water supplies, polluted air, and cancer rates in children and adults are all of increasing concern. People are rejecting the notion that the government will automatically protect the environment and their health. Many citizens have concluded that government is unable—because of the influence of vested interests and the lack of resources—to properly look after their communities. People have discovered the environment is where we live and that we must care for it.

In many cases, citizens are turning to themselves and their neighbors for help, forming their own community groups to fight for recycling and waste reduction instead of huge landfills, for the cleanup of industrial sites, and for a halt to the dumping of toxic chemicals into local rivers and streams.

In Bumpass Cove, Tennessee, residents joined together to close a landfill that had damaged wildlife, contaminated local creeks, and polluted the community's groundwater. Without formal scientific training, but with a lot of concern for their health and that of their community, they began educating themselves about the chemicals illegally dumped at the landfill. They compiled a list of potential health effects of each chemical. Armed with their newly acquired information, they successfully challenged state health inspectors who tried to tell them the chemicals had no harmful effects.

Since you have a copy of this guide, you may already have decided to learn more about where you live so you can better participate in decisions made about your community. Decisions are being made about your community nearly every day. The decisions come in many forms, such as enforcement actions and permits for discharging pollutants into the air or water. Regulatory agency officials have immense discretion when making such decisions. For example:

• If an industry breaks the law, it can be fined from $0 to $10,000 or sometimes up to $25,000 a day per violation. Fines are often set very low and can then be easily paid by companies as a cost of doing business.

• There is lots of discretion when setting limits for how much of a pollutant will be left on a contaminated site, or in setting permit limits for discharges of pollutants.

Involved, concerned citizens can have a great effect on how this discretion is exercised. Also, most of the regulatory programs are based upon self-monitoring. This means that the industry being regulated hires a laboratory or uses its own to test its discharges. Many state governments do not certify or check laboratories. Many examples of falsified data and "fixed" samples have been investigated. Citizens can add an important layer of oversight by checking the amount of independent testing done and insisting that government do more independent testing.

Many environmental decisions are made through a process called risk assessment and management. This is a common method for deciding how much pollution will be allowed into your environment. Here is the way it works: a political decision is made about how much risk you should be subjected to from a chemical entering the environment. Then a technical decision is made about the human health risk posed by different levels of a particular chemical entering the environment. Let's say, for example, that an industry wants to discharge dioxin (a cancer-causing chemical) into the river. The politicians, who are likely being lobbied by the industry, decide to put the public at a 1 in 100,000 risk of getting cancer over their lifetime. A scientist determines how much dioxin can be put in the river and not exceed that risk. The industry then gets a permit, and the public is exposed to that level of dioxin through various sources such as the drinking water or fish.

Have you ever been asked whether you are willing to be exposed to a particular chemical so some product can be made? Every day, decisions are being made to allow the environment to be polluted. If you are not involved in these decisions in your community, then ask yourself: Who is? And why shouldn't I be?

Many people think that environmental issues are too technical or complicated for them to understand. We are led to believe that the scientific "experts" really know about such things, and more important perhaps, that we can rely on them to warn us if anything bad is happening in our communities. However, the experience of citizens in Dayhoit and Bumpass Cove, and in countless other areas, proves otherwise. We can't always trust the "experts" to protect our health and provide for our safety. "Untrained" residents often know more, and care more, about damage to their environment than people who do not live there. They have the incentive to dig out information, and are willing to develop new "technical" and "scientific" skills if that's what it takes to protect their own health and that of their community.

Technical information has an important place in making decisions about the environment, but protecting the environment is not just about technical issues. It's also about the values that people hold. It may be a technical question for a scientist to determine if a particular chemical causes cancer. It is a value judgment, however, for people to decide if they want themselves or their children exposed to that chemical.

From the Atlantic Ocean's high-tide garbage line to mountain tops studded with dying trees, there are many stark examples of our destructive impact on the earth. People everywhere are beginning to realize that the environment is not some abstract notion—it is where we live. It's the water we drink, the air we breathe, the land that grows our food, and the wild places that nurture our spirit. When we damage it, we damage ourselves.

To participate meaningfully in decisions about the environment, we need to be aware of how those decisions are made. We also must know more about the environment itself, particularly our own local environment. We hope this guide to conducting a community environmental inventory will be a valuable tool for increasing that knowledge.

An environmental inventory is a way of taking stock of ourselves as a society, of coming to a better understanding of each other and our natural world. It requires asking questions. What are the county's natural resources? How much of the land is still wild? What kind of wildlife populations exist, and where do they live? Where does the water supply come from? Where are the industrial sites? What pollutants do they release, and in what form? Where are the legal and illegal dumpsites? What are the relevant environmental regulations? What pollutants am I being exposed to?

Citizens using this guide can pursue one or all of these questions, or come up with their own questions. Whatever level of involvement you choose, this guide will help you and your neighbors form a clearer picture of your community and your environment. A sustainable society, where the environment is protected and unpolluted and where a local economy provides people a quality of life based upon their own desires, will be built one community at a time. This guide is about getting started on yours. It will help you:

• Develop a list of who is discharging pollutants into your community

• Learn what pollutants are being discharged in what amounts

• Learn whether those discharging are in compliance with environmental laws

• Inventory the natural resources (such as parks and natural areas) in your community

• Organize environmental and natural resource information on maps of your community

• Analyze the possible impacts of pollutants on human health

• Analyze whether any communities or ethnic groups receive more pollution than others

• Add to what state and federal agencies know about your community

After your group has completed this environmental and natural resource inventory of your community, you will know more about your environment than anyone else. This information will be powerful and can be used in a variety of ways. You will be able to approach your government to make it do its job, approach industries to persuade them to be good neighbors, and organize to change your community in many ways that will improve it. The resources listed in Appendix A will be helpful in follow-up projects.




Can we live in our modern, highly populated society without polluting the very earth that sustains us? We must find a way to answer "yes" to that question. Year after year the soil must produce food, the seas must produce fish, the forests must produce more trees, and the air must be breathable. We can no longer afford old visions of progress and development that are built on the destruction of these natural resources. We need to embrace the idea of living in a way that can be sustained year after year and generation after generation. Environmentally and economically sustainable communities must become our vision and the very foundation of progress itself. A sustainable life-style for our children and for future generations requires new understanding of our dependence on the natural world. In this chapter we offer a brief overview of surface water, groundwater, air, and land. These are the resources that sustain all life, and these are the resources we are polluting and destroying.

We pollute these resources for a variety of reasons. As you read through the next several sections of this chapter, think about your own life-style and community. Which of the following reasons explain the pollution in your community?

1. Pollution out of ignorance and habit. An example is not considering or knowing that pouring used motor oil on the ground may pollute somebody's well.

2. Pollution caused by low regulatory standards and/or lax enforcement. Regulatory agencies have a responsibility to protect the health of citizens and the environment by establishing a regulatory framework of protective standards and seeing they are met.

3. Pollution that is blatantly illegal. "Midnight dumping" waste on the side of a road, in an old strip mine, in a river, or in the air to avoid the cost of proper disposal is blatantly illegal.

4. Pollution that occurs because of our life-style choices. Individuals can make choices such as whether to buy a container that can be reused or recycled rather than thrown away. Many choices are not easy because little or no information is available to consumers on the best choice, or the market has not provided any good choices.

Distinguishing between legal and illegal pollution will help focus on a strategy for dealing with particular problems. In one case you may need to insist upon compliance with the law; in another you may need to insist upon changing the law, or asking companies to go beyond the law and take steps to reduce pollution and be a "good neighbor." Legal or illegal pollution looks and acts the same on the environment and on your health.

Surface Water

We divide water into surface water and groundwater. Surface water is water on top of the ground in rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and wetlands. Groundwater is water somewhere under the ground. All water is connected through a cycle. The heat of the sun evaporates water from the soil and from bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans, and pulls it into the sky. Plants also pull water from under the ground up to their leaves where it is released into the air (a process called transpiration). That water then falls as rain (or other precipitation such as snow) and fills our streams and also goes down through the soil becoming part of the groundwater. The cycle goes on and on. It is called the hydrologic or water cycle (Figure 2.1).

Water is always on the move and everyone lives downstream. Rivers and streams are a continuum, they are connected from the mountains to the oceans. Everything going on upstream in your watershed can affect the quality and quantity of water in your community (Figure 2.2). What happens in the tiny headwater mountain stream affects the great rivers they feed. There are thousands of kinds of fish, insects, crayfish, turtles, salamanders, and plants that live in our streams. That diversity of natural creatures must be protected if streams are to stay healthy and productive.

How Is Surface Water Polluted?

Surface water is polluted in a number of ways. We have chosen to describe impacts to the surface water in four main categories:

1. point sources of pollution (these are discharges that come out of pipes and ditches);

2. polluted runoff (water coming off our farms and city streets);

3. stream modification (channelization and streamside dumping of garbage), and;

4. polluted groundwater (groundwater supplies water to many surface streams).

Point Sources of Pollution

These discharges are called point sources because the dumping usually comes out of a single point such as a pipe or ditch. Point sources of water pollution are legal and controlled by permits. Permits are used to determine the amount of legal dumping allowed into streams by industries, sewage treatment plants, and other facilities. This dumping may be legal, but it pollutes nonetheless.

Chemical pollution We put a variety of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other substances into our surface water through point sources. Millions of pounds of chemicals are released routinely into our rivers and streams through permitted discharges. In addition to these releases, there are illegal discharges from industries, manufacturers, auto body shops, and municipal wastewater treatment facilities which are not monitored or measured.

Organic pollution Wastewater from our kitchens and bathrooms is called organic waste and is usually discharged to a sewage treatment plant or septic system. Sewage treatment plants use different processes to break this waste down so it will not harm streams. When partially treated sewage is discharged into a stream, it continues to break down and provides food (nutrients) for the bacteria and other tiny organisms living in the stream. As the organisms begin to multiply and thrive on this food, they use up oxygen in the water—oxygen that fish need. Sometimes the organisms multiply so fast they use all of the oxygen in the stream, and cause fish kills.

Thermal pollution Another type of water pollution is heat or thermal pollution. This pollution occurs when an industry or power plant releases hot water into the streams (these are also permitted point sources). The unnatural increase in the water temperature can destroy many species of plants and animals with a low tolerance for heat. Excessive thermal discharges can leave vast areas of water lifeless.

Polluted Runoff

A second form of pollution is runoff from our farms, logging operations, city streets, strip mines, and construction sites. This is called polluted runoff, nonpoint pollution, or area pollution. The runoff can carry chemicals, fertilizer, soil, or other substances off the land into the streams. A number of on-the-land practices, called Best Management Practices (BMPs) have been developed to control this type of pollution. A BMP is something you physically do to the land, or a different way you perform the activity to prevent runoff, such as build a terrace on a slope or plant permanent grass in waterways in a field. BMPs have been developed for agriculture, construction, forestry, and other types of nonpoint pollution.

In some parts of the country nonpoint pollution is the most serious type of water pollution. Did you ever wonder what happened to the oil that drips out on the streets underneath your car? Well, it has probably washed into our streams. Why is that favorite fishing hole that used to be ten feet deep now only twelve inches deep? There may be a strip mine or a construction site located upstream that is causing soil to run off the site into the stream. The soil is called sediment when it settles in the bottom of a stream. Excessive levels of sediment in the stream can change the bottom so much that it will keep fish and other animals from living and reproducing there.

Stream Modification

Channelization, changing the shape and course of a stream, can also damage the health of a stream. Natural streams have pools (deeper, slower running sections) and riffles (shallower, faster running sections). They meander along natural bends and turns. When the stream is straightened, the pools and riffles all become the same. Trees are often removed from the bank. Without natural shade, the water becomes too warm to support many forms of life that normally live in the pools or riffles of the stream.

Streams are also modified when the floodplain is filled, built in, or used for legal and illegal dumps. These activities can result in upstream flooding, garbage washing into the stream, and increased pollution.


Excerpted from Where We Live by Donald F. Harker, Elizabeth Ungar Natter. Copyright © 1995 Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald F. Harker is former president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. Elizabeth Ungar Natter was director of the Kentucky Local Governance Project.

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