In the three decades since a debate over the development of a landfill in a low-income minority community in North Carolina sparked the modern environmental justice movement, there's never been a clear definition of "environmental justice."
The Obama administration has vowed to work toward the fair treatment and involvement of all people in environmental matters, and U.S. EPA's "Plan EJ 2014" has been advertised as a road map for incorporating the needs of poor, minority and overburdened communities in the government's day-to-day activities.
But critics and watchdogs -- notably, the Government Accountability Office -- have long questioned how EPA plans to draw lines defining environmental justice communities (Greenwire, Nov. 11, 2011).
"Without a clear strategy for how the agency will define key environmental justice terms, EPA may not be able to overcome the challenges it has faced in establishing a consistent and transparent approach for identifying potential communities with environmental justice concerns," GAO wrote last fall. That report echoed concerns the watchdog agency raised in 2004.
This week, at a public meeting of EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) in Arlington, Va., agency representatives unveiled their latest attempt to bring some clarity to the issue.
Enter EJ Screen, an EPA mapping tool designed to help the agency spot pockets of people whose health has suffered disproportionally over the years because of environmental factors.
The database uses census data, poverty levels, toxic emissions and documented pollution events to assign a score to 217,000 geographic "block groups" around the country. The program represents both the advances and the limitations of EPA's effort to bring clarity to the environmental justice effort.
As he walked NEJAC members through the database Tuesday, Michael Goo, EPA's associate administrator for the Office of Policy, tried to tamp down expectations about the program's ability to guide rule development, permitting or regulatory compliance decisions.
"We're very excited by the progress we have made," Goo said. But "it is still, as is all of our work on environmental justice, a work in progress."
EJ Screen overlays minority and low-income demographics on a map of 217,000 block groups, each having 500 to 5,000 people. (An alternative method under consideration includes additional demographic data including the percentage of people in a block group with less than a high school education, the percentage who speak English, and the number under the age of 5 and over the age of 64.)
EPA then puts that information over a map of environmental factors.
Among the 12 factors EPA has selected for its first version of EJ Screen is air pollution -- including ozone levels and soot from diesel exhaust and smokestacks.
The agency also includes data on a community's proximity to environmental hazards including Superfund dumps, water discharge facilities, high traffic areas and buildings built before 1960 that have a high risk for lead paint.
The result is a graphic illustration showing each block group's ranking nationwide for each environmental factor. And the maps can also be used to show how block groups compare by state or by region when it comes to each factor.
'We're not there yet'
But the maps are also limited, EPA concedes. They don't, for example, combine all the environmental factors to show cumulative impacts.
That constraint frustrates NEJAC member Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for Urban Environment in Trenton, N.J.
"What we really need is some way to put those impacts together to give what we think is a true impact of what's happening in communities," Sheats told EPA officials Tuesday. "We aren't breathing these things one by one."
Sheats said a block group might get overlooked by EJ Screen because it does not rank high for any single environmental hazard, but when all factors are taken into account the community could bear a particularly heavy environmental burden.
Goo explained that comparing the various environmental impacts to each other can be like comparing apples to oranges.
For instance, how does one scientifically weigh a person's proximity to a lead paint structure against exposure to particulate matter in the air?
In the 12 categories EPA has chosen to include, "we have some things that have a very substantial impact and others that are risk factors but don't necessarily have an impact," explained Cynthia Giles, EPA's assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Sheats urged EPA officials to look to the "next frontier" for EJ Screen and find a way to put all the information together "so it reflects the cumulative impacts of what's happening in our neighborhoods."
Lisa Garcia, EPA's associate assistant administrator for environmental justice, promised Sheats that EPA is searching for a way to do just that. Garcia said her office has informed the EPA Scientific Advisory Board that it will be looking for help to find a way to combine the various factors in "a scientifically defensible way."
"We're not there yet. We're working on it," she said.
Robert Bullard, a longtime environmental justice advocate who teaches at Texas Southern University, said in an interview that the federal government is not alone in its effort to measure cumulative impacts.
And he said if the government is serious about addressing the issue, it could do more to fund research.
"Because of the way that funding streams flow, there's not a whole lot of money that's been put to these types of studies," Bullard said.
"We hope at some point, and sooner rather than later, our science and technology will catch up to reality," he said.
But he added that the government should not be paralyzed by the effort to find exact measurements and that it should move forward with "common sense approaches" to addressing the communities' concerns.
Giles said EJ Screen has already helped in that effort.
"This is a screening tool, so it's to help draw people's attention to communities that deserve a closer look," Giles said. "It's not a decisionmaking tool, [but] we can use it to say, 'Where do I need more information? Where should I take a closer look?'"