Cal/EPA Identifies Racial Factor in Pollution Burden, then Removes It from Pollution Calculator

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A year-old Cal/EPA online tool for calculating the burden of pollution by ZIP code across the state shows that African-Americans and Latinos are more heavily impacted by pollution than whites. Having established that, the agency has now ceased using race as a factor in its calculations.

CalEnviroScreen 1.0 debuted in 2013 to identify communities impacted by multiple sources of pollution in order to target them for assistance in pursuit of its environmental justice mission. But complications ensued.   

“CalEnviroscreen 1.1 is the latest iteration of the CalEnviroScreen tool,” the agency explained in the preface of a guide (pdf) it put out with its project partner, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).

“It uses the same methodology as Version 1.0 except that the indicator for race/ethnicity was removed from the calculation of a community’s CalEnviroScreen score. This change was made to facilitate the use of the tool by government entities that may be restricted from considering race/ethnicity when making certain decisions. While race and ethnicity will not be used in compiling a score using CalEnviroScreen, a new section has been added that provides information on the racial and ethnic composition of communities throughout the state.”

The guide came out last September and, true to its word, a separate but presumably equal section (pdf) was produced with information detailing the disproportionate harm done to minorities.

Nearly two-thirds of residents in the top 10% most polluted ZIP codes were Latino. Latinos are only 38% of the population. Blacks, who make up 6% of the population, were also overrepresented (10%) in the top 10%. Whites, who make up 40% of the population, constitute just 16%.

The overall CalEnviroScreen ratings take into consideration a number of factors, including: population, ozone, particulate matter, diesel pollution, pesticides, chemicals from facilities, traffic, impaired water bodies, solid waste facilities, low birth rates, incidents of asthma, age, education, poverty, racial makeup and linguistic isolation.   

The tool also factors in income, which, due to the nature of our society, can be a parallel indicator of racial impact. But Cal/EPA cites studies that indicate non-white low-income groups are burdened more by pollution than their white counterparts, making the racial factor important in its own right.

The California Environmental Justice Alliance, while generally supportive of the Cal/EPA effort, has expressed reservations about the agency’s methodology. Some of its suggestions have already been incorporated in the tool.

The group thinks that zip code designations are too broad and miss pockets of devastation that have been balanced out by less-afflicted neighbors. Environmental hazards that are in close proximity to sensitive sites, but not in the immediate zone, aren’t given sufficient consideration. Critical sources of pollution are missing from the assessment, including airports, rail yards, ports and shipyards. Smaller sources of hazard, like auto body shops, are also off the radar, according to the Alliance.       

Cal/EPA sidesteps the why of the discrepancy between race and income. “The mechanisms by which differences in race or ethnicity may lead to differences in health status and response to pollutants are complex and are not well understood,” its report says. It could be that racism is socially stressful or there exists a particular physical vulnerability to a toxic environment. Or something else.

Whatever the cause, Cal/EPA won’t be plugging the racial factor into its equation.

–Ken Broder    


To Learn More:

Pollution Burden Higher for State's Latinos and Blacks, Report Finds (by Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times)

The Usual Suspects Dominate New Cal/EPA List of Communities with High Health Risks (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Analysis of Calenviroscreen 1.1 Scores and Race/Ethnicity (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment) (pdf)

California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, Version 1.1 (Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment) (pdf)

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