EPA summit a chance to highlight environmental injustices in colonias

Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director
Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director

Environmental problems predominantly affect low income communities of color, especially in Texas. There is a growing movement of community collaboration, backed by support from federal initiatives, to begin addressing these injustices.

Highlighting the success of these efforts was the purpose of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 6 Environmental Justice Summit in Dallas, which I attended along with our community partners at A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE) earlier this month. The conference provided a space for stakeholders including grassroots advocates, members of technical and resource organizations and the staff of state and federal agencies to learn from each other, build relationships and hold each other accountable for actions or inactions.

I served on a panel along with Ramona Casas and Brooke Lyssy from ARISE and Keta Caballero, the Colonia Initiatives Program Director at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office. We wanted to present environmental justice issues in the unique context of the colonias of the Rio Grande Valley, discuss the actions the community leaders took to prioritize environmental concerns and the steps taken to find community-oriented solutions. There are three current priorities: The Donna Superfund site, the odor nuisance caused by City of Alamo’s open sewer lagoon treatment plant and disaster preparedness and recovery in the colonias.

Our partners at ARISE did a great job bringing the grassroots perspective to the table and creating space for colonia representation in a platform that, until then, had only minimally engaged with the South Texas colonias. Ramona and Brooke focused on ARISE’s multigenerational approach to build leadership capacity among the youth and adults in the community alike, so that all can advocate for themselves against environmental injustice. They shared examples of the trainings, activities and actions of the South Tower Power campaign, such as the community workshops, colonia canvassing and public comments made by the Jóvenes del Valle en Acción youth group (pictured at top).

The Rio Grande Valley also offers lessons on a multi-jurisdictional approach to environmental challenges. The planning of the first emergency preparedness and recovery conference for Spanish-speaking colonia residents shows how cooperation can occur between residents, state and federal agencies, municipal and county government, community groups and technical experts. The conference will provide colonia residents with resources to plan for an emergency and knowledge about preparing for a disaster. It will serve as a template for engaging in disaster “precovery” through grassroots involvement.

Using examples of successful collaboration in the Valley did not mean the panelists forgot about the bureaucratic inaction and historical lack of policy enforcement on other pressing matters. An essential purpose of our presentation was to frame environmental justice concerns in the colonias in a more encompassing narrative that extends beyond the idea that water access and quality are the only environmental concerns affecting colonia residents. While clean water accessibility and connectivity should always be a priority, other issues must be included in the discussion, such as the impact of pesticides on farmworkers, septic tank and waste disposal problems and lack of drainage, to name a few.

Other groups at the summit demonstrated the extent of these and other environmental problems in Texas, and showcased their unique ideas for solutions. Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), Air Alliance Houston, the South Texas Colonia Initiative, the Community In-Power Development Association and Project DreamHaus exemplify the type of community-driven work going on around the state, ranging from clean water accessibility to air quality to food dessert issues in our communities.

Several presenters touched on the important lesson that quantitative data and information that should accompany community testimony and proposed solutions. While resident experiences are ultimately why environmental injustices need to be addressed, it is extremely helpful to point to scientific data that proves the harms to minority communities, thereby increasing legal leverage.

Although the importance of research is understood, the technical and expert resources and the funding for these activities is often lacking for grassroots community groups. Whether a problem of capacity, educational and language barriers, regulations or misinformation within the organization, grassroots advocates often find themselves alone, or left with what benevolent technical experts or scientists for state and federal agencies tell them. There needs to be more emphasis on increasing collaboration between scientific resource groups, technical experts and residents in a manner that is relatable and advances community-oriented solutions for environmental problems. Spearheading this coalition building should not fall only to grassroots groups.

As a resource organization, our goal at Texas Housers is to help build technical, policy and strategic capacity for the grassroots groups to address the issues prioritized by community members. Facilitating discussions with stakeholders to assure community engagement is a key aspect in connecting the larger picture of environmental justice in Texas with the individual, everyday reality of colonia residents. Events like the EPA summit are a good opportunity to do this, and we commend the EPA for hosting.

Environmental justice advocates recommend state agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, take the initiative to coordinate with grassroots advocates in the manner that the federal agency has. We look forward to continuing to press stakeholders on community-oriented solutions for environmental justice concerns throughout the stat,e and salute all the community groups and advocates fighting for clean and safe communities.