EPA seeks to provide a voice for minorities

July 13, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Concerned that minority communities go unheard on environmental issues, the federal Environmental Protection Agency began an in-depth training session yesterday for teachers in those communities.

For the next two weeks, 40 teachers will gather at Morgan State University's campus in Northeast Baltimore for a series of lectures, practical demonstrations and field trips.

The aim: to help turn teachers into community leaders on the environment and to encourage informed debate on the controversial issue of environmental cleanup.

"Our feeling is that accurate information cannot get anybody in trouble," said Marjorie W. Buckholtz, the EPA's director of external affairs. "We're looking for a well-informed community to give us the facts, and to have a fair and open debate."

The program, which is jointly sponsored by the EPA and Morgan State under a $99,000 federal grant, grew out of confrontations with nearby residents over the 1,200 hazardous waste sites in the country identified under the federal Superfund waste cleanup program.

"The agency generally has to find ways to resolve these very thorny problems when people are at their angriest, when misinformation is rampant," Ms. Buckholtz said. In situations like that, "teachers often become the de facto spokespeople in the community."

To help train them, the EPA recruited teachers from 23 states, focusing on areas with Superfund sites, especially those in minority and low-income communities. The group includes men and women, high school and middle school teachers, and those trained in science and other disciplines.

Because hazardous waste tops the list of local environmental concerns, the group will hear from a wide range of speakers on that issue, including top federal regulators and a representative from Dow Chemical Co.

And, to broaden the experience beyond the classroom, organizers plan a field trip to the Superfund site at Kane and Lombard streets in Southeast Baltimore, the site of a dump that contained metals and hazardous solvents.

The teachers also will learn about the technology used in cleaning up hazardous waste, even trying on the "moon suits" used by cleanup workers. In opening remarks to the teachers yesterday, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who oversees the EPA's funding in the Senate, urged them to look for ways to integrate their new knowledge into the classroom.

That is especially important at a time when students in the United States lag behind their counterparts overseas in math and science, she said.

"By training the teachers, we will train the kids, but in a way that will get them hooked on math and science," Ms. Mikulski said. "We need to reach out and touch them, get them engaged in real projects."

Several teachers said they intend to do just that.

Eugie Watkins, who teaches contemporary issues and community service at Baltimore's Walbrook Senior High School, said Walbrook students are required to conduct a detailed research project and that she hopes many will choose the environment as their topic.

If so, she said, "they will want to go out and involve themselves, based on their personal commitment."

William Dunkerton, who teaches environmental science at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, sees environmental protection as a civic duty.

"Every citizen needs to be made aware of the issues so they can take necessary action," he said.

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