EP96 Clean Water Rights with Jackie Young-Medcalf of THEA

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I AM GPH EP96 Clean Water Rights with Jackie Young-Medcalf of THEA
EP96 Clean Water Rights with Jackie Young-Medcalf of THEA

Kassandra: Hi everyone, and welcome back to the I Am GPH podcast. My name is Kassandra Jones and joining me today is Jacqueline Young-Metcalf, founder and executive director of THEA, Texas Health and Environmental Alliance. My background, before I introduce Jackie, is I was a alumni, or I am an alumnus, from NYU's GPH program, and I've been graciously asked to come on the I Am GPH podcast as a guest host to chat through some different careers and professions that are available to NYU prospective, current, and alumni students that have gone through this program. So since I graduated in 2019, I went into communications and I'm looking to develop my skills in areas in public health entrepreneurship. Jackie and I actually met in this field, so we have a working relationship where I currently run the social media and manage some of the communications for THEA. So now to introduce Jackie. Jackie, thank you for joining us.

Jackie: Thank you for having me.

Kassandra: So Jackie Young Metcalf is a champion for public health and a catalyst for change through collaboration. Without knowing it Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, THEA, was formed the day Jackie discovered what no doctor could tell her about her and her family's health, that their water was a culprit of their illnesses. It was in her hydrology class where she discovered the toxic environment in the area was making them sick through their water source. Once she revealed what was causing the death of her animals, her father's cancer, and her own battles with seizures, loss of motor function and endometriosis, she dedicated her studies to the environmental issues at the root of the problem. Jackie graduated with a bachelor of science focused in environmental geology from the University of Houston Clear Lake, and knew that she wanted to continue the work. In 2015, Jackie launched Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, where she has been a driving force in leading collaborative efforts across government agencies, holding polluters responsible, specifically super fund sites. So Jackie, first and foremost, as the executive director for THEA, talk to me about the functionality of your position.

Jackie: Sure. So I serve as organization's chief executive officer, and so I oversee the day in day out operations of the organization from staff management to ensuring that items related to the governance side are taken care of, and not just the public facing portion of the work that our nonprofit does. So when we're talking about governance, we pay taxes. We do a lot behind the scenes, to keep the business afloat, make sure that our staff is paid, that our staff has benefits and is taken care of. And so, although we are a nonprofit, it essentially is a business. And so as executive director, I ensure that we continue to receive funds to carry out our mission and keep our team afloat and moving forward to accomplish the work that we do in the region.

Kassandra: Wow. It sounds like you wear a ton of different hats and I would love to kind of explore a little bit more on what THEA actually does. So on a day to day, month to month basis, tell us a little bit about what THEA is doing currently, or just in general, your mission statement.

Jackie: Sure. Our mission is to protect public health and the environment from the harmful effects of toxic waste. And one of the things that I love about working in the nonprofit space, working in an organization that serves the public, is that no day is the same. And it's really a wide range for what our day in day out, month in, month out activities look like. As I mentioned, we have a lot of items that are public facing, so we have the community events, which right now is a lot of zoom events. We are recovering from a big freeze here in Houston. And so a lot of our team members are on the ground delivering bottled water to people who don't currently have running water. And so it kind of ebbs and flows with what our community's needs are, but there's a huge array of team members that we have ranging from folks who specialize in the marketing arena, to toxicology, geology, community outreach, HR, and so going from a day in day out perspective, it's doing what we do on the inside that prepares for what the folks see on the outside. So that can range from preparing written materials, review of that material, and what is then ready to go out to the public and how that's handled. But there's also a lot of partnerships and networking that goes on behind the scenes, and so one of the items that we're working on right now that I'm really proud of is a partnership with University of Texas Medical Branch and Baylor College of Medicine. And so they each have a center there, that is particularly interested in the effects of toxins in our environment and public health. And one of the universities, Baylor College of Medicine, is particularly interested in these types of contaminants and their impacts on pregnant women or women of the childbearing years. So being one who came from a community where it was our environment impacting our health, I absolutely love anything we can do to help bridge the gap for the understanding around how contaminants in our environment actually impact our health, because I lived firsthand, doctors telling me, Jackie, you have 19 heavy metals in your blood. We know how lead alone acts, but we don't know how lead and arsenic and mercury and thorium and so on react when they can bond and they can interact inside of the human body. So essentially one of my doctors told me, you're toxic soup. So being able to help people like I once was where they're confused and trying to figure it out and doctors just don't really understand all of the complexities around these environmental exposures.

Kassandra: I can't even imagine what you have gone through, what you have survived and to be an advocate for your community, a voice that can empathize with what some of these people are going through, and the community is going through, but also taking a step further to try to prevent this from happening to other people as well, is absolutely incredible. And my heart goes out to this whole community and I know that the area of Houston and Texas is not alone in this issue. This is a national crisis. This is a global crisis. It happens all around the world. And when we think about water, I don't think we think about water because we're lucky to have sources of water in some parts of the country where it's easily accessible. We trust it and we need it to survive. So thank you for sharing the work that THEA does and a little bit about your personal story. If you haven't checked it out, I would strongly suggest looking at THEA's website for this beautiful piece and design that I think it was an artist, right, that did for you, kind of telling your story in that format.

Jackie: Yes, that was actually, it was a three-part colored series in the Houston Chronicle and it was a really powerful piece, and we're very proud of it as well.

Kassandra: And then you mentioned, I just kind of wanted to touch on some of the current issues you brought up that I think are really important to a lot of the students at NYU and a lot of youth activists at the moment, which is climate change. You mentioned a very bizarre Houston freeze over almost, and how that's affected the community and water sources. So I think environmental health and environmental issues has definitely become a top social issue and agenda item with our new administration, but also young activists out there. So, in what ways can you just kind of touch on, will your work be impacted by climate change?

Jackie: Sure. So my area of expertise is the Superfund process, which is a federal process that the EPA oversees and here in our county, we have over two dozen Superfund sites. And so looking at the sites, which are basically areas of historical abandoned toxic waste, most of them are left out in the environment unmanaged. And we are on one of the most threatened coasts in the world from natural forces, because essentially here on the Gulf Coast, our land is sinking relative to the water level in the Gulf of Mexico. Then you add in hurricane threats and that's why we are said to be one of the most threatened coasts in the world. So when we're looking at the threats from mother nature's natural processes and the changing climate, we are anticipating more erratic weather, more irregular, unpredictable weather, and more severe storms of greater significance. And so when we're looking at these areas of abandoned contamination or maybe even a toxic waste site that might still be in place, but it's being managed, when a hurricane takes place or there's a great freeze like we just experienced, there's a lot of potential for disruption to occur. Maybe the site might have been secure and stable prior to a hurricane event or even a tropical storm, but when that major storm event comes through, there is the potential for the waste to then be picked up and moved and redistributed throughout the system. And we are a part of that system. Our homes, our yards are part of that system that these contaminants could come in contact with. So when we think about climate change and the work that THEA does, we have to be thinking about and talking about the increased risks to public health directly.

Kassandra: It's a little looming. The threats are looming and a little scary, and I think at times it can feel like what are we supposed to do? It's not just one person with one action. It's a collective decision to put in protections and address the climate change issues that are occurring and look at our environment as something that is not necessarily a renewable resource, or something that we take for granted. So when looking at water conservation and talking about that, as we found out with some of your experiences today, it's not just a Houston, Texas problem. This is going to occur around the nation. So what would you say to people who are looking to make a difference or empower them with their own water rights? How does that look and how does that work?

Jackie: Sure. So I strongly encourage everyone to be your own advocate. I learned the hard way. And so a big part of why I do what I do every single day is to try to prevent people from going through what my family once went through. I once inherently believed that we have the environmental protection agency, that we have our state environmental entity, our more local government entities, that are set out on a mission to look out for our health and our environment, and that if something were wrong with our water, that they would notify us. And we learned the hard way that that's not necessarily the cause. I was just reeling when I realized that there were these contaminants in our water and that every branch of our government knew about it, and nobody had sent us a letter and knocked on our door. And so that's when this idea of how can we teach people to be their own advocate. I think first and foremost, when we talk about being your own advocate and protecting your family from what comes into your home is understanding that our water laws are not set on what is protective of public health. Our water laws are set on what is feasible to be filtered out on a mass scale. So we have our levels that are the legal thresholds for about 200 or so contaminants in a public water supply. And those are based off of feasibility of filtration. Then you have another level that is set on what is known, if there is research to support, what is known to cause adverse health effects, but this level is not enforceable by law. The one that is based on health effects and outcomes, isn't the enforced one. So we have to understand first and foremost that yes, when we look at other nations around the world, we have made a lot of progress and we do really good at some things like keeping pathogens out of the water. We do pretty good at that, but when it comes to these more complex issues, we have a lot of ways to go. So first and foremost, just understanding those limitations and knowing that it is every American's right to contact the place they get their water from and inquire about what's in their water. And don't just stop at this simple little, pretty annual report that they're required by law. You can actually request real data that has more than those maybe like 18 to 20 parameters that they will put in their annual report.

Kassandra: Right. And they decided in advance, which ones to highlight and how to make, I'm sure, themselves look good.

Jackie: Sure. And I mean, Texas is just notorious for some gimmicks behind that. And so just first and foremost, knowing to be your own advocate, that it is your right to inquire and be informed and educated about what's flowing into your home.

Kassandra: Be your own water advocate. Okay. And I think that goes for whether it's the NYU campus and where we get our water sources. I think that was a really awesome class to take in our public health program is figuring out how the infrastructure works, where we got our water sources, how the trash is dealt with, and waste is dealt with. New York City has an incredible infrastructure, but every region, every state and location, is going to have different infrastructure to deal with the surrounding climate areas to protect national parks, so it's not just as simple as a universal approach to making sure people have access to clean water. So thank you for sharing that. I wanted to kind of expand on that further. Dealing with advocacy around conservation, I'm sure you must face a lot of pushback, especially targeting these larger groups like the EPA. So how do you deal with those challenges and what suggestions would you have for someone that's maybe never thought about being their own water advocate?

Jackie: It's important to trust yourself and to trust your instincts. I have observed countless entities, whether they're government agencies or corporations or water districts, that attempt to downplay the items that are being brought to their attention, or have little ways to try to kind of redirect the conversation or say something in a way that might put someone at ease if they don't inquire further. And so I would say just, just keep pushing. Trust your gut, trust your instincts, and keep pushing. Because some of these things that we've seen are some really tricky maneuvers and you really need to just continue peeling back the layers. One of the items I learned and I carry with me every day, I learned in environmental management in college was that if it is the environment making you sick, that you're not going to be the only household. And so when we're talking about these issues and looking at conservation and protection, I encourage you to take more of a holistic approach and looking really, truly at the bigger picture and talk to people.

Kassandra: So go out there and have the conversation and maybe even collect some of your own data. Is that what you're kind of saying?

Jackie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Talk with your neighbors. Talk with your various elected officials, your water facilities and show up, that's one of the most important things I think that I could tell you about my career that has dramatically impacted the processes we work within and the successes that we've had is if I would find out, the head of the EPA would be at a certain conference, even if it was in Boston, I would show up. I would get a [crosstalk 00:17:47] that I would tell and I would show up and I kind of had a running joke with one of the former administrators that I would show up and provide him with his reading material for his flight back to his office, because I would always show up and I'd have a packet with the latest information, because you can never assume that our elected officials know all the details. And the local community knowledge is essential. These are people who, one, typically don't live in the area and, two, are getting briefed on the topics. So showing up, getting material in their hands, it's been pivotal for us.

Kassandra: That is incredible. It sounds, oh my gosh, you are definitely, I've seen your hashtag on your social media and been aware of it, but a water warrior, my goodness. And I admire your bravery and passion for these conservation efforts. So could you just tell us for the rest of 2021, what would be three goals you have for water conservation and THEA as an organization?

Jackie: So one of our top goals is ensuring that our water resources are protected and working towards that. And so what that looks like in the beginning is assessing whether or not there are routes of transportation for these contaminants to get into our water sources. I'm talking about our surface water, our rivers, our creeks, our streams, as well as our ground water. Here in our region, we will always rely on groundwater as a source of drinking water. And so first and foremost, the checks and balances, and going through data and looking at are these sources, these really vital sources, at risk, or are they already inundated with contaminants? And so one of the items we're working on with our partnership with the medical universities here in the Houston region is to do more testing, because unfortunately the EPA, it has a lot of great people who want to do great work, but they are spread thin. A lot of the sectors are underfunded, and so the routes of exposure are not adequately being addressed at countless Superfund sites. And so we want to have a clear and concise understanding of if certain Superfund sites in our region are, or are not, impacting our water. And first step is let's get some sampling done. So we're looking at doing that by this summer. And then one of the other major goals for us is one of the sites we've been working on for a long time that I actually used to live by, is the San Jacinto River waste pits. And we are actually going to be very close to entering the full remediation of that Superfund site this year. And I mean, they are literally pits of paper mill pulp, I mean filled with dioxin PCBs and heavy metals and other chemicals, sitting in one of our major rivers that supplies 30% of the freshwater to Galveston Bay. Galveston bay seafood is touted across the United States. It's probably even sold in your area. And, unfortunately, a lot of it is contaminated. So one of our big goals there is to remove one of the largest sources of contamination of the river and of the bay's seafood. Those are two pretty big items we have going on this year that I'm really excited to be able to make an impact on.

Kassandra: Oh my gosh, you just mentioned something that I didn't even think of, which is not just the water that we drink and shower with and clean our clothes with, but also the food that we eat, food that some of these animals are consuming the contaminated water, or that eventually, it starts to be distributed across the nation with some of the seafood coming from Texas as a distributor. But those are two incredible goals. And I'm so happy to hear of this huge win for THEA as an organization. I kind of want to switch gears for just a moment and talk about your career and steps that you took to get to where you are now. What was that light bulb moment for you to launch THEA and fresh out of graduation, some of us don't know exactly what we want to do or where we're going to be in five to 10 years. So how did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do in the nonprofit space and what steps did you take to actually launch THEA?

Jackie: When I was a senior, earning my degree, specialized in geology, I thought, I am going to travel and I'm going to go help other countries develop their water infrastructure. And when we got the tests back that our own water at our home that we thought was pristine, was contaminated, my parents looked at me and said, well, charity starts at home. So they're like, you don't need to leave the country, and it just snowballed. I learned more and more about how serious and how broad our water issues are here in America. We really need a lot of work and a lot of attention placed on infrastructure and protection and conservation of our resources. That was really kind of the first moment, and then following that, I began volunteering for a local nonprofit organization and attending the EPA's public meetings, and I was just mortified. What I was seeing at these meetings, when the agency would even come to town, which was far and few between, they would talk right over the heads of my fellow community members, really high level technical information that your average neighbor is not going to understand and not understand what does that mean for themselves? How can they protect their family from all of this technical jargon that's being thrown at them? I just knew going to those meetings that something had to be done and I wasn't seeing anything get done. I knew that I needed to attempt everything I could to tackle this problem. And so that's when I started out with the founding of THEA. It was a huge learning curve with a background in science coming into this, like IRS work at forming a nonprofit. It was a huge learning curve, but it really opened my eyes to the opportunities in the nonprofit and in the environmental space that I had never been aware of. And as the years go on, I learned more and more as well about the intersection here for public health and really how many opportunities there are for the collaborations and the partnerships, and really just simply the jobs, and looking at the different aspects of water and contaminants and the effects on public health.

Kassandra: So I'm glad that you brought up the collaborative side to the nonprofit space. I think there's more than enough room at the table, more than enough seats at the table, and I think that, at times, it can feel like daunting to want to start this by yourself or on your own and have that learning curve, but tackle that learning curve. At the end of the day, we've been students for a good portion of our lives. We learn and grow every day. I'm a daughter of teachers, so it's lifelong learning for me. We're never really done. So it's humbling and awesome to hear that you didn't just know what you were doing right away, and that it did take some time for you to figure it out coming from a science and more of an environmental background, but then how do you bridge the gap between environmental science, the nonprofit business space, and then public health. So with THEA, it seems like there's been a lot of growth, but there's still so much opportunity for THEA to continue to expand. And I loved what you said about charity starts at home. Is that what you mentioned? So I love that concept because we are a global public health program, but there's so much work that needs to be done even still in our nation. So I think THEA will be, and already has had, a domino effect and it will just continue to spread out really. So maybe eventually you will be able to travel and still help other international water sources and their infrastructure. Thank you for sharing all of that. Many of our listeners are always looking for the next piece of advice as well. So if you just have any general advice or a sound piece of advice for alumni or students, or even faculty, that are interested in maybe shifting careers, or just talking about what drove you to pursue, and you just knew that you needed to be in environmental health.

Jackie: I'd say right off the bat, if you are thinking of an area in the public health space, in the nonprofit or environmental space, and connecting the dots there, go for it. Think outside the box and think of where in this space you might be able to fit in. So maybe you aren't the type of person who wants to be out giving public educational presentations, or maybe you're not the kind of person who wants to be sitting in these political meetings, briefing our elected officials on what this water crisis means for a specific community or what COVID means for a specific community. So there's a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into all of this, from the marketing end to the research and analytical side, there's a lot of different areas. So if you can even just start to formulate an idea of what you're good at, what you're passionate about, and then start to look at where might this fit in. There is room, there is space, and there is a need. We need more public health folks in our industries. One of the pieces of advice I would give you that really has impacted me from my academic years to now here years later in my professional career is connecting and forming relationships with your professors and your advisors, because they have a lot more experience than we do, and so they might just be able to connect you with people and point you in the right direction, or even enlighten you on ways that you could get involved with an entity that maybe you never dreamed of. I never would have imagined that the job I do now was a real thing. And yes, I've had to make a lot of it up as I've gone. In the early years, people would say, what do it do? I just read reports and I-

Kassandra: Can't explain it.

Jackie: So now it's a little more systematic, but there is a place, figuring that out, using the resources and the people that you have at your fingertips to help you get there. That's been instrumental in my career and my success in getting my family's health back on their feet and then us as an organization as well. I mean, we literally have an outstanding board member who I met when I was an undergrad and she started helping me understand the different Superfund sites and what was going on in my community. And she's been a very strong contributor and board member to our organization ever since.

Kassandra: I absolutely love that because just from a personal perspective, I have no idea what I want to still do with my life, with my public health degree. I don't think it has a name for itself yet. And I've been saying that for like 10 years now. Is it a health coach? I don't know. Is it a researcher? I don't know. Is it communications and video work? I don't know. It's possibly a mixture of everything and then some, some spaces that I have yet to explore. And so thank you for sharing that to our students and our alumni, just so that they know that if they have a dream and they want to go for it, to do so. So to wrap up, I would just love for you to share some ways that people can get involved with your organization, what they can do as of today and the future collaboration, volunteer work, any ways that people can get involved?

Jackie: Sure, absolutely. So we almost always have letters on our website that we send to various government officials or agencies regarding what our current ask is for the specific communities that we work within. And so I would encourage anyone to visit our website, read about our projects. And if you feel compelled to sign a letter of support, please do so. People power is our power. Now granted the agencies know it will be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, but so that's one strength, but people power is where we truly succeed. And so we need all the help that we can get with public support. And then from time to time, we have different items that we'll post there or on our social media channels to help promote the specific items that we're needing the public's help with.

Kassandra: Awesome. Thank you. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today and dive a little bit deeper into the environmental health public health side of what THEA does, who THEA is, as well as your background. Your story is incredible. So thank you so much for joining us. If anybody wants to get involved, I know that their website is Txhea.org. There's a ton of information on there. Please follow the social media channels and tune in next time.

Jackie: Awesome. Thank you so much.