The EPA Has a New Tool For Mapping Where Pollution and Poverty Intersect

To better target its efforts, the agency is identifying problem areas, where people are facing undue environmental risks

EJSCREEN overlays demographic data with EPA pollution data. EPA

Open up the Environmental Protection Agency’s new EJSCREEN tool, click into the map and pull up your neighborhood. Are you exposed to higher then average amounts of particulate matter? Or are you close to bunch of Superfund sites ridden with hazardous waste? And how do those environmental factors overlap with the demographic breakdown of your block?

EJSCREEN, which anyone can use through the EPA's website, pulls in the agency's pollution data and intersects it with census data, so users concretely see where groups and industries are being particularly destructive to the environment, and where people are being disproportionately exposed to pollution. It overlays 12 environmental indicators, such as air particulate matter, lead paint and proximity to waterway dischargers, with six demographic indicators, including low income populations and percent minority.

The maps are color coded to reflect different levels of pollution, with grey at one of the spectrum representing minimal levels of discharge to bright red at the other for the highest ones. For example, an area in South Seattle, which is in the 80th percentile for minority popluations, is also in the 80th percentile for ozone pollution, and the 90th for water pollution discharge. The map is splashed yellow and red in that neighborhood. The surroundings areas, which are less than 50 percent minority, have much lower rates of both kinds of pollution.

“EJSCREEN also provides standard reports that bring together environmental and demographic data in the form of EJ indexes. These are summarized as percentiles to put the information in perspective and facilitate comparisons between locations,” says the agency’s technical document about the tool.

Environmental justice is the idea that all people, regardless of their background, race or income level should be held to the same environmental risk standards. Yet, the reality is that low income, diverse areas are often exposed to significantly more environmental pollutants than other socioeconomic groups and neigborhoods. Environmental discrimination is a subset of almost every other kind of prejudice.

In 1990, the EPA established the Environmental Equity Workgroup to address the allegation that "racial minority and low-income populations bear a higher environmental risk burden than the general population." Since then, the EPA has used various mapping programs to try and quantify the issue. But in the last few years, as data visualization has improved, the agency has been able to increase the detail, and make it easier to use.

“In 2009, when then Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe was touring EPA regional offices, he found that each region had a different environmental justice screening tool and method for characterizing areas that may have vulnerable populations and pollution burdens,” says EPA Press Officer Jennifer Colaizzi. Perciasepe decided the EPA needed a consistent, nation-wide way to analyze environmental injustices, so in 2010, the agency started working on a  mapping program that they could make available to the public. Different regions had mapping projects, but they weren't consistent, so the agency pulled in the best parts of them for a tool—first EJVIEW, for internal use, and then EJSCREEN.

The EPA is using the tool to identify areas with undue environmental burdens, to pick project areas and to show progress in active cleanup efforts. But it might be even move valuable for individuals and local groups wanting concrete details about what’s going on in their own communities. The data is open source, and the tool is easy to use. Community groups, such as the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors, can use it to show the state government how unhealthy their area is and lobby for change and funding. Colaizzi says she can see it being used for grant writing and educational programs in addition to giving communities a baseline for their health. State governments are using it to put pressure on industries to take resposibility for cleanup projects, and to inform their state policy. The non-profit Houston Advanced Research Center is using the data to analyze air pollution in three communities near ship canals. And the public can use it to keep themselves informed. "By itself, the tool is useful for understanding the demographic and environmental characteristics of your neighborhood or a place of interest," says Colaizzi.

The EPA says it’s a “screening level look” and that more steps need to be taken to determine the existence or absence of environmental justice concerns in a given location. But the assessment can be a way to start the conversation, and to provide a clear marker for how different areas compare.

"One well-documented example [of environmental injustice] stems from the clustering of Mississippi’s swine concentrated animal feeding operations in low-income, minority communities," says Johnny Dupree, mayor of Hattiesburg, Mississippi and president of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors. "Location and demographics should not prevent anyone from gaining the same access to important resources."

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