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Once a center of heavy industrialization, Chattanooga has reinvented itself as a prime tourist destination and a model of sustainable community development. In one neighborhood, however, decades of pollution have proven much less easily resolved.
Left behind in this urban renewal effort was the predominantly African American Alton Park/Piney Woods (AP/PW) neighborhood, where nearly 60 percent of the 6,000 residents earn household incomes that fall below the federal poverty level. Steady pressure from neighborhood activists and advocates helped to raise awareness of the problems stemming from systematic social, physical, economic, and environmental barriers. Now, with a $1-million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), University of Tennessee researchers are working with these groups to help put this neighborhood more firmly on a path to promote environmental health and justice.
“It’s a testament to the resilience of this neighborhood that the same environmental contamination that eroded its social and economic fabric eventually served as a rallying cause for its empowerment and economic development,” says Mary Rogge, a program leader for UT’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE) and associate professor in UT Knoxville’s College of Social Work.
The Environmental Health and Justice Collaborative established through this grant brings together the three primary partners of UT researchers in Knoxville, the Alton Park Development Corporation, and the Southside/Dodson Avenue Community Health Centers in Chattanooga, along with other Alton Park/Piney Woods neighborhood partners, healthcare providers, research scientists, and policymakers to promote:
”Our goal,” Rogge notes, “is to build on these existing organizations’ resources to promote long-term community capacity building and positive change.”
Spanning roughly three square miles, the AP/PW neighborhood borders the most polluted waterway in the southeastern United States. The contamination dates back to the late 1800s and into the industrial era of the 1950s and 1960s, when chemical manufacturing hit its peak in Chattanooga. When many of the businesses and factories that employed AP/PW residents folded in the 1970s and 1980s, 150 acres of commercial buildings and lands were abandoned, including 41 known or suspected hazardous waste sites. Today, the area remains highly industrialized and intermingled with housing developments and schools, often with no buffers between them and the pollution.
The most infamous of the many contaminated sites affecting AP/PW includes a 2.5-mile section of Chattanooga Creek, a tributary to the Tennessee River, which was placed on the National Priority List of federal Superfund sites in 1994. Historically, industries located in AP/PW and bordering the creek produced coke, organic chemicals, wood preservatives, leather products, and other materials, releasing a number of compounds into soil, air, and creek sediments. Many of these compounds contain mixtures of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), many of which are known carcinogens.
At a cost of roughly $12 million, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dredged up the most obvious contamination along this creek section in 1997 and 1998, excavating some 25,500 cubic yards of toxic residues deposited along the creek’s banks over the years. Subsequent measurements by researchers from UT’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology (CEB), however, show that even in the excavated portion, PAH levels are still high enough to warrant concern about potential health effects on AP/PW residents who may want to fish or recreate in the creek.
Equally troubling is that “every time the creek floods, those contaminants may be spread onto schoolyards and residential areas,” points out Kim Davis, ISSE’s research program coordinator and assistant director of development and outreach. “That’s a major concern that hasn’t ever really been addressed by the EPA as part of the Superfund clean-up activities.”
Cognizant of the health risks posed by the pollution and tired of being passed by as other areas of the city were cleaned up and redeveloped, community members organized as early as the 1970s. “Grassroot organizations sprung into action, forming valuable alliances at local, state, and federal levels while also taking advantage of various community-based initiatives,” Davis notes.
In the 1990s, things began to turn around.
Research by Davis and Rogge, in tandem with neighborhood environmental activist leaders Deborah Maddox and Milton Jackson, chronicles the changes that befell this neighborhood during industrialization and subsequent de-industrialization, and the attending social, economic, and environmental impacts. They identified grievances put forth by community activist groups such as Stop Toxic Pollution, the Alton Park Neighborhood Improvement Corporation, and the Alton Park Development Corporation, and the barriers that exist to settling these grievances.
The NIEHS grant partners build on these efforts, leveraging local environmental conditions to improve neighborhood health services, educational opportunities, housing, job skill training, and abandoned properties.
“We’re using this opportunity to learn from, educate, and empower community members to understand that they have a right to participate in decision-making processes that affect the community, the right to have environmental pollution regulations enforced, and the right to have a say in how land in the community is developed by government and industry,” Rogge explains.
Forming the core of the Environmental Health and Justice Collaborative established by the grant is the Neighborhood Environmental College (NEC). Through this vehicle, the collaborative organizational partners and community members are exchanging information on what they know and what might be done along various fronts to help form the framework for promoting environmental health and justice.
To date, three core courses have been taught once each through the NEC, with curricula based on community feedback of what issues residents find to be most pressing.
The first course focuses on Chattanooga Creek, with goals centered on increasing awareness and understanding of the contamination and potential health effects; understanding social, racial, and economic implications of environmental contamination; and learning how to organize and mobilize community members and political leaders to action.
A second course on environmental health and wellness hones in on other forms of chemical contamination, such as indoor and outdoor air pollution; reducing risks from pests, pesticides, and other chemicals; and healthy food choices. The third course targets neighborhood youth with interactive exercises on water quality, demonstrating how contaminant plumes make their way through various soil types. Field trips to UT research labs expose the kids to scientific career options, and a visit to an area exhibit depicting the power of youth engaging in social and environmental reform movements provides further inspiration.
“A key goal is to raise awareness among neighborhood residents of their existing capacity to contribute to community decision-making processes through their knowledge of environmental processes that influence ecological health,” Davis explains. A key example is learning about the contamination problems plaguing the abandoned industrial sites known as brownfields and how they might be remedied to bring economic activity back into the community.
A sign of the NEC’s growing success is the increasing number of neighbors who are aware of and participating in the courses.
“That’s what we’re after,” Rogge concludes, “pulling resources into the community as collaborative partners and creating more opportunities for neighbors to engage actively.”