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WVU partnering with industry to improve health, environmental outcomes for disadvantaged communities

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A West Virginia University team of industrial engineers is looking to turn $800,000 worth of Environmental Protection Agency funding into direct support for local industry.

They are partnering with industrial facilities in disadvantaged communities statewide, providing free technical assistance to help those businesses improve their energy efficiency and minimize their waste streams, air pollution and carbon footprints.

“Many chronic health issues in West Virginia can be linked to exposure to industrial emissions and disadvantaged communities are often affected to a greater extent,” said project lead Ashish Nimbarte, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Management Systems Engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. “We will help these facilities reduce their impact on environmental and community health through updates to processes or equipment. This project is about supporting our state’s businesses in making changes that will really benefit their communities while maintaining their profitability.”

The funding, authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, comes from the EPA’s Pollution Prevention Grant Program. That program advances the federal Justice40 Initiative, which is intended to direct 40% of certain federal benefits to communities overburdened by pollution and marginalized by underinvestment.

To identify industrial facilities in West Virginia, Nimbarte said his team will use data from the Council on Environmental Equality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, which characterizes census tracts as disadvantaged based on a set of criteria related to climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution and transportation. After that, they’ll begin the process of pre-visit assessments and outreach.

“Right now, we’re focused on identifying facilities with the largest impact on environmental and public health in disadvantaged communities,” Nimbarte said. “A majority of these businesses are busy running daily operations and may not have the resources to review the environmental and health impacts of the energy, water and materials they use. We want to partner with such businesses to assess their operations, to look at productivity improvement as well as resource conservation and waste minimization.”

Assistant Professor Avishek Choudhury said one of the biggest barriers facilities in disadvantaged communities face in developing and implementing source reduction plans is lack of technical support.

“That’s why we do onsite assessments — so our team’s recommendations can target each facility’s specific pollution, emissions and waste. Every assessment will be customized to the businesses, and we’ll develop highly collaborative relationships with the managers, who are often already aware of pollution prevention opportunities but may not have the resources to turn opportunities into operations.

“Our team will make sure managers have the sound technical knowledge they need to execute recommendations that can enhance their facilities’ environmental performance, competitiveness and profitability. Return on investment is a priority for them, so it will be an important measure in every write-up we provide,” Choudhury said.

The onsite technical assistance to facilities will include not only assessments and recommendations, but in-person trainings, videos, self-guided modules and interactive media.

Chris Moore, research associate, added onsite technical assistance isn’t the only form of support their team will offer businesses. They will also widely distribute information through online platforms such as e-newsletters, and they’ll organize a conference to present case studies and talk about ways technology and processes can prevent pollution through production reformulations, raw material substitutions, and improvements in maintenance, training or inventory control.

“In West Virginia’s most vulnerable communities, unemployment is high and incomes, education levels and life expectancies are low,” Nimbarte said. “Through this work, local businesses can serve as catalysts to improve the health and environment of struggling residents.”

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