November 5, 2021

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Emma O'Leary to Present on Environmental Injustice at Conference on the Environment

Emma O'Leary, Minnesota will present "Grappling with Environmental Injustice" at the Central States Water Environment Association's (CSWEA) virtual Conference on the Environment at 1:00 p.m. CST on November 9, 2021.

Emma's co-presenter is Rachel Tenney, University of Minnesota.

Emma O'Leary is a Staff Professional based in Minnesota with experience in civil and environmental engineering. She focuses on water and wastewater design, remediation and phytoremediation, and environmental microbiology.

CSWEA is an organization of the Water Environment Federation (WEF) that supports Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin by offering multiple opportunities for the exchange of water quality knowledge and experiences among its members and the public to foster a greater awareness of water quality achievements and challenges.


We are two early-career environmental engineers passionate about engaging with environmental justice issues and asking our colleagues to do the same. Environmental justice is a tenant of social justice that specifically focuses on the equitable and representative development and implementation of environmental policies and practices. While we have limited lived and professional expertise in this area, we seek collective reckoning with our fields' roles and responsibilities relating to justice. How can we learn from enduring injustices such that we can use our capacity as engineers, operators, designers, and leaders to build an equitable future? 

In order to examine different facets of environmental justice issues in the context of engineering practice, we present three case studies--drinking water in the Navajo Nation, fire management practices, and the consequences of redlining on public infrastructure in St. Paul, MN. The creation of the Native American reservation system continues to create issues with inequity. Sovereign indigenous nations within the United States do not have access to the federal funds allocated for water infrastructure, leading to a lack of clean water access and plumbing on reservations. For example, a history of mining on the Navajo Nation contaminates the water supply causing health problems and creating an additional burden on the already stressed water infrastructure. Displacement of indigenous peoples from the western United States onto reservations prohibited indigenous practices of land stewardship including "good fire" practices. For centuries, many indigenous cultures set controlled fires to clear out brush and return nutrients to the soil. These practices had ceremonial purposes in addition to promoting forest health. Similarly, required relocation of residents of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, MN disproportionately affected minoritized populations. Redlining, a practice used to prevent people from owning homes in certain areas through discriminatory lending, led to the creation of de facto segregated communities in "undesirable" locations such as the Rondo neighborhood. The selection of the Rondo neighborhood for the I-94 corridor directly resulted in the destruction of a thriving cultural center including over 600 homes and 300 businesses predominantly owned by Black people. The I-94 corridor continues to contribute to health problems associated with highway-related pollution that affects community members who still live in the area.

We will approach this discussion with a humble and forward-facing lens, drawing from experts' lived and professional experiences. How can we take steps to raise consciousness about environmental justice issues in our professional capacities? How can we draw from others' lived expertise, elevating their voices, when making engineering decisions? We hope to facilitate an introductory discussion of environmental justice and give participants resources to educate themselves and learn more from those impacted by and those who work directly with environmental justice issues.

More Information

About the event: Conference on the Environment
About CSWEA:
For consultation regarding environmental justice, contact Emma at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Learn more about Emma: Emma O'Leary – LinkedIn