More than 2,000 congregations across the nation will celebrate Earth Day Sunday this weekend.

The Eco-Justice Program of the National Council of Churches sent out nearly 2,500 worship resources, titled Through the Eye of a Hurricane: Rebuilding Just Communities, by mail or downloads from the NCC Web site.

Churches typically observe Earth Day Sunday on the Sunday closest to April 22. While this year’s Earth Sunday Resource addresses specifically devastation of the Gulf Coast region following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it also explores issues of environmental justice, race, toxins and consumer lifestyles posing “a challenge to people of faith around the world.”

The NCC on Wednesday joined an interfaith coalition sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Department of Homeland Security calling for more aggressive action in cleaning up contaminated sediment in New Orleans.

“Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left behind a plethora of toxic materials and solid waste,” the letter says.” We urgently petition you to immediately commence environmentally just response actions to remedy the continuing toxic chemical contamination left in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Research, the letter says, shows that serious sediment contamination remains in the Gulf Coast region, with dangerous chemicals such as lead, arsenic, certain toxic petroleum products, and other toxic and cancer-causing organic chemicals. Studies consistently show that minority and low-income populations experience a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution.

“From a faith perspective this is an unacceptable situation that must be remedied,” the letter says. “We have a moral obligation to clean up and rebuild the storm-ravaged regions of Gulf Coast states and Greater New Orleans in a way that provides environmental and economic justice for the entire region.”

Through the Eye of a Hurricane is an ecumenical resource that churches can use to plan for Earth Day Sunday on April 23 or another dedicated Sunday. The resource outlines some of the critical environmental issues that surfaced following the storms: the impact of climate change, wetlands and coastal barriers, water quality, toxic contamination as well as environmental racism on God’s creation and God’s people. It also highlights how Christians can respond to this crisis in their churches and local communities.

According to the NCC Web site, the EPA has removed about 80 percent of hurricane-related debris, is overseeing the clean-up of a 1 million gallon oil spill, has collected 2.4 million hazardous waste containers, over 300,000 electronic goods and assisted in recycling over 310,000 large appliances.

Though the EPA concluded that levels of toxic materials in sediment posed no “unacceptable” health threats to returning residents, independent analysis of the same data found there to be levels of lead, arsenic, and dangerous petroleum compounds that exceed the federal and Louisiana state levels at which an investigation and possible clean-up is required.

“This contradiction should sound an alarm to demand further investigation and for high standards of accountability for the EPA,” the Web site says.

All 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus introduced a bill, the Hurricane Katrina Recovery, Reclamation, Restoration, Reconstruction and Reunion Act of 2005 (HR 4197).  The bill is designed to provide for the recovery of the Gulf Coast region and for the reunion of families devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The bill includes environmental provisions requiring the EPA to develop, in consultation with state officials, a comprehensive environmental sampling and toxicity assessment plan including public health assessments and monitoring, training of clean up workers, notification to the public of risks, a step-by-step process for allowing residents to return to their property, a process of compensating those unable to return to their property because of environmental conditions and independent review of determinations.

Faithful America, the NCC’s online justice community, counted 2,984 individuals sending 8,874 letters asking their Senators and Representatives to insist that toxic sediment be removed from the streets of New Orleans, to hold clean-up agencies responsible for fully informing the public of the health risks, and “to ensure that there is full public participation in rebuilding a Gulf Coast in a way that is just for all people and God’s creation.”

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