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Q&A Series with Tai C. Lung, from EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice

This month we talk with Tai C. Lung. Mr. Lung works on EJSCREEN and the EJ 2020 Action Agenda in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.

Lung-Tai3What is your background and what led you to working on Environmental Justice?

I have a pretty diverse work and educational background but it has been generally focused on improving the lives of people and the environment. Prior to coming to the EPA, I served for two years as an environmental education extension agent for the Peace Corps in Senegal, West Africa where I worked with villages to identify, learn about, and develop solutions to local environmental concerns. During my time overseas, I realized that I would like to give back to the people in my own country so I returned to the United States. With a passion for and a background in environmental work, EPA was an easy choice. After joining the agency, my passion for social justice and working with communities brought me to environmental justice. I worked in EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response on environmental justice issues for nearly five years before coming to the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ).

What is your role in EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice?

I joined the OEJ about a year and a half ago to work on the public release of EJSCREEN. EJSCREEN is EPA’s environmental justice mapping and screening tool which was released to the public in June of this year. I lead many of the internal aspects of promoting EJSCREEN within the agency, including the development of policy and guidance. The other major focus of my work currently is the EJ 2020 Action Agenda, EPA’s environmental justice strategic plan. EJ 2020, currently in its developmental stages, aims to advance environmental justice in EPA programs, policies and activities, and to really make a visible difference on the ground in overburdened communities across the country.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for local communities addressing Environmental Justice issues?

Learning to work together with businesses, governments at all levels, NGOs, and other important partners can be very challenging for communities as they start to address important Environmental Justice issues. Learning which organization is responsible for which aspect of an issue, the different work cultures, and how to navigate the hurdles of each partner can be very challenging. Communities new to this find that there may be a lot of bureaucracy in completing even simple tasks that can result in frustration and make a larger Environmental Justice issue seem insurmountable. Nevertheless, in the end, building partnerships with these organizations can have a huge impact in the long-term work that stakeholders can do in their community.

What tools and resources does the Office of Environmental Justice offer to local communities?

EPA and the OEJ have a multitude of resources that can be of assistance to local communities. In terms of financial resources, EPA’s EJ Small Grants & the EJ Collaborative Problem Solving Cooperative Agreements are a way for communities to begin to address local issues. There are many other EPA community grant and technical assistance programs, as well as state and other federal programs, that can help address specific issues. The OEJ also has a number of tools such as the EJ Collaborative Problem Solving Model and EJSCREEN that can begin to help communities identify issues and possible solutions.

Can you speak about the new EJSCREEN tool and how to utilize it?

EJSCREEN was primarily developed to consider environmental justice in the work that we do inside the agency. As computer mapping has improved, and EPA’s focus on it has sharpened, we are now able to put a multitude of information in the hands of anybody with a computer. The ability for communities, local and state governments, and other interested stakeholder, to look at this level of environmental and demographic information has never been so readily available before. It has a variety of applications including community awareness, outreach, grant writing, and many other uses. Since the tool’s public release in June, EJSCREEN has found a lot of uses outside of EPA, including as a recommended resource for STAR Communities looking to identify areas with potential EJ concerns. Readers can learn more about how to use EJSCREEN by checking out the EJSCREEN Users Guide.

Do you have any examples of communities leading the way with Environmental Justice or specific projects that do a great job of addressing Environmental Justice?

As an employee of the Office of Environmental Justice, I am very lucky to get to work with many pioneering and leading environmental justice communities from across the country. My office also manages the Agency’s federal advisory committee on environmental justice that features many of the nation’s leaders on the subject. As a result, I have seen many inspirational examples of communities breaking new ground and finding innovative solutions to a problem that is widespread. The OEJ hosts an EJ in Action blog that highlights some of the wonderful Environmental Justice work that is taking place around the nation. Please check it out to learn about many great EJ efforts as told first hand by the people that worked in these communities.

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