U.S. EPA is working on a coarse screening tool as part of its "environmental justice" initiative to help its employees spot pockets of people whose health has suffered disproportionally over the years.
The Environmental Justice Strategic Enforcement Assessment Tool uses a complex combination of census data, a respiratory hazard index, poverty levels, toxic emissions, infant mortality, an index of documented pollution events and other such numbers to assign a score to a geographical area.
The end result will be a national database that will identify small tracts of people as unfairly affected over the years. Officials can take the score into consideration while making land-use and permit decisions, reducing chances of human judgment errors. Officials stressed that the tool was only a starting point, and other information would also be used to make decisions.
The tool is being developed to assist the agency in its quest to help officials take into account concerns of minorities, low-income and indigenous communities while they prepare rules, issue permits and seek compliance. The interim guidance on the issue, released Monday, will go for assessment to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), a council put together by EPA in 1992 to address environmental justice issues.
"Historically, the low-income and minority communities that carry the greatest environmental burdens haven't had a voice in our policy development or rulemaking," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a statement. "This plan is part of my ongoing commitment to give all communities a seat at the decision-making table."
The guidance, called Plan EJ 2014, will be a road map for EPA to carry out Jackson's priority of enforcing justice over the next four years, states the document. It is now open for public comment.
"Environmental justice has always been a focus for the agency, and we see overwhelming energy and focus. It comes from the top," said Heather Case, deputy director of the Office of Environmental Justice (OECJ), an arm of EPA.
EPA was not always so diligent. In 2008, it proposed getting rid of federal oversight of hazardous waste recycling to make easy recycling of secondary waste products. The industry goes through 1.5 million tons of waste from steel, chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Many hazardous waste sites are located in poor and minority communities.
The Sierra Club submitted a petition for the agency to reconsider its 2008 "Definition of Solid Waste" or DSW rule. EPA then began an environmental justice review in 2009.
The new guidance this week from Jackson gives officials a guide to include environmental justice concerns while working on rules such as the DSW. It will be included in the permitting process, while enforcing rules, creating new rules and providing support for communities hard hit by pollution.
The guidance asks employees to consider if a community is long-suffering and has been especially vulnerable. People may also be suffering from the effects of many factories, each of which plays a minor role but can add up to a larger health or environmental effect.
Wilmington, Calif., for example, has an 85 percent Latino population and is the site of five oil refineries, oil drilling, recycling facilities, freeways, ports, diesel trucking and more sources of pollution, according to Communities for Better Environment, a California-based environmental justice organization.
"Factoring multiple and cumulative exposures in our decisionmaking has long been a focus for the agency," said Case of OECJ. She said the agency's work on permitting will help tackle this issue.
So far, the health effects of pollution from multiple sources are acutely felt by communities, but polluting permits for air, water, soil and others are all issued separately.
Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment & Justice said the EPA guidance, while commendable in giving a voice to the community, should also give them a chance to say, "Enough is enough."
"Having a voice is critical, but it's also about having a voice to say, 'No, this community has suffered enough,'" he said.
Lester said that given its background with environmental justice, EPA should make sure the staff integrates environmental justice into its work. "It is a good thing they are doing something like this; getting the staff to integrate it into its work is another thing," he said.
Getting the data
The tool, currently under review, is being deployed in a limited manner in regional environment offices.
"There is a potential for false negatives," Case said. "For example, some council members were worried that Native Americans are not all noted in the census."
There are also significant data gaps in land, water and other environmental data in the United States, making it necessary for EPA to rely mostly on air toxics data. Drinking water pollution data, for example, is often incomplete when received yearly by EPA from regions. Health indicators, such as cancer rates and neurological effects, can be even sparser.
But even with sparse data, removing health as an indicator in the tool radically changes the scores of the sites, according to EPA officials at the meeting. This gives a vague indication of the health burdens of environmental pollution.
"Data is critical, and often data is not great when it comes to health," Case said. "So it [EJSEAT] is a screening tool."
For decades, reports have found that the poor and minorities face disproportionate pollution burdens. A 1983 report by the General Accounting Office, since renamed the Government Accountability Office, found that minorities are more likely to live around hazardous waste landfills in the three Southeastern states it reviewed. And new permits issued by regulators did not take the existing environmental burdens into account.
According to the report, there were four off-site hazardous waste landfills in Region IV's eight states. Blacks made up the majority of the population in three of the four communities where the landfills were located. At least 26 percent of the population in all four communities had income below the poverty level and most of this population was black.
In 1994, President Clinton developed Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations," which requires most federal agencies to actively collect, monitor and use information on health and environmental effects within populations.
Since then, federal agencies including EPA have failed to actively follow through, according to the Government Accountability Office. As late as April 2005, the office issued the report entitled, "EPA Should Devote More Attention to Environmental Justice When Developing Clean Air Rules." In 2007, it again criticized EPA, saying that although the agency had made some progress, significant challenges remained. With Jackson as administrator, the issue has regained prominence, as she has toured the country to meet with minority communities affected by environmental pollution (Greenwire, July 27).