Posted: February 28, 2008
As a community with high rates of poverty, unemployment, and asthma, as well as nearly 100 abandoned brownfields and one of the state's "filthy five" coal plants, it's no surprise Holyoke has been designated as an "environmental justice community" by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The same factors create constant challenges for William Aponte, director of the environmental justice arm of Holyoke's Nuestras Raíces ("Our Roots"), a community organization initially established in 1992 as an urban garden program. But Aponte's job became a little easier last year, thanks to a major grant and a partnership with Mount Holyoke prof Giovanna Di Chiro.
(From left to right) Tracy Zhu '08, Environmental Organizing Director of Nuestras Raices, William Aponte, Liz Budd '09, Salena Reynolds '08
Di Chiro, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, and her students--Liz Budd '09, Tracy Zhu '08, Salena Reynolds '08, and Wilmina Landford '08--are working with Aponte at Nuestras Raíces for the second year, supported by an EPA environmental health grant for community-based partnerships dedicated to reducing toxic emissions in local environments. Di Chiro codirects the EPA grant and the Pioneer Valley Community Environmental Health Coalition, which was established under the grant to address environmental issues in the Holyoke/Springfield corridor. (Springfield is also designated an EPA environmental justice community.)
The MHC students have played a vital role for the coalition in conducting a community environmental health assessment and monitoring program, designed to better understand the cumulative toxic risks facing residents of Holyoke--particularly those living in poverty near polluting facilities.
Liz Budd, who has worked since fall 2006 with Nuestras Raíces, was among those who undertook risk mapping of local environmental and public health hazards last spring in Di Chiro's Urban Ecology course; specifically, she documented the asthma cases in downtown neighborhoods last spring and tied the locations of the homes of those afflicted and local auto body repair shops. Others measured air and water quality. More recently the students were part of a "soot patrol," counting vehicles passing various city locations to assess traffic levels and diesel exhaust pollution; Salena Reynolds helped test the exhaust for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene.
"Our traffic counts indicated there were 29 to 58 diesel vehicles traveling the streets each hour," said Budd.
The contributions of the MHC students have come at an opportune time, according to Aponte. Holyoke city officials are currently reviewing plans from a private company, United Waste Management of Holyoke, to build a regional solid waste transfer facility at 686 Main Street, near the intersection of Interstate 391. The transfer station would serve as a site for consolidating loads of trash carried by smaller vehicles into larger trucks and rail cars that will transport the refuse to a final destination; the company estimates the facility will process 750 tons of trash daily.
The proposal has met with substantial opposition from area residents, as well as from Aponte and his colleagues at Nuestras Raíces; they argue the estimated 225 diesel trucks traveling to and from the site each day will diminish property values and the quality of life in an already impoverished area populated largely by minorities. They worry it will also affect the economic potential of the area.
"The students have done our research on the diesel pollution affecting the air we breath," noted Aponte. "With the numbers already affecting us, adding another 200-plus trucks daily will make this all more difficult. There will be more traffic and more air pollution-and this doesn't just affect the neighborhood. It affects everyone."
"Through our air pollution mapping, I hope to make a convincing claim that Holyoke's air quality needs to be a priority in local government," said Reynolds.
The transfer facility will be "just 500 feet from the Connecticut River, right near a park, and less than half a mile from an elementary school," added Budd. "Holyoke's asthma rate is much higher than the national average, and there are a lot of poor people in this area…. The traffic counts of diesel vehicles is evidence that can't be disputed."
For Di Chiro, working with Nuestras Raíces and the other members of the Pioneer Valley Community Health Coalition is all about building partnerships and creating educational opportunities.
"This grant has opened doors for partnerships between myself and Nuestras Raíces and students, and with local and state officials. There's quite a wonderful network," she said. "I like to build partnerships, teams. The way we're going to get things changed is by working together."
The grant project is "a vehicle for community education, to create environmental literacy that will, in turn, bring change to the community," she continued. "This is a great opportunity to act…. There's a lot of work to be done; these are the first steps, and the students are our foot soldiers, helping us get people involved."
The project also provides a community-based learning opportunity for the MHC students.
"I'm gaining experience I wouldn't get otherwise," observed Tracy Zhu, noting that experience feeds her "academic passion" and will be valuable in starting a career. In return, Nuestras Raíces "gets a college student as a worker" to contribute research and expertise.
"It's an honor to have professor Di Chiro and her students be part of this organization," said Aponte. "They're very motivated students, and they're always willing to take on any task…. We both learn from each other, and we both gain."
The students appreciate that their position differs from that of the people they work with through Nuestras Raíces.
"I can leave the problems when I leave Holyoke. They can't; they live there," said Zhu.
Added Budd, "College can be like living in a bubble--and to a degree, it has to be. But you also need to be able to touch the outside world."