In response to community requests for citizen science tools, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed a toolkit of Geographic Information System mapping tools to support communities with environmental justice concerns.Introduction to Environmental Justice
The equitable distribution of environmental benefits and hazards requires basic access to clean water, clean air, housing and recreation as well as proportionate exposure to environmental stressors including pollutants, toxics, chemical and non-chemical stressors regardless of race and income. This is the context of environmental justice. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (2014).
As early as 1970, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) acknowledged that lead poisoning was disproportionately affecting African-American children, and by 1982 residents of Warren County, North Carolina, described the siting of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in their backyards, as ‘environmental racism’ (Rechtschaffen 2009). Increasingly over the past 30 years, regulating entities, policy development bodies and enforcement agents have been confronted with a dynamic approach to environmentalism. This ‘radical’ attitude looks at the environmental movement from an all-encompassing or cumulative perspective including principles taken from socio-economic justice and civil rights law. Environmental justice calls for the equal distribution of environmental benefits and hazards for all communities regardless of income and race. This means that top-down decision making entities are expected to consider this principle when carrying out their functions and that communities should be adequately involved and capacitated to contribute to the regulatory or decision-making process in a way that ensures their actual needs are understood and met.
In February 1994, President Bill Clinton enacted the ‘Executive Order on Environmental Justice.’ The Order stipulated federal actions to be taken to address environmental justice concerns in minority and low-income populations. Greater than the fact that this executive order made environmental justice a discussion item on the national agenda, it also has advanced federal implementation, setting of agency responsibility and developing interagency activities related to environmental justice. Environmental justice advocates propose that disparities can be found in the siting, compliance and cleanup process as noted in Warren County, North Carolina. The possibility that inequities can be exacerbated if decision-making bodies fail to consider these issues when regulation and program development activities are developed is of great concern.
Thus, effective environmental justice advocacy entails consideration of the rights and interests of underserved communities at every step of the regulatory process; particularly during policy formation, permitting, enforcement and the designing of new programs.
Today, in addition to considering environmental justice when government agencies perform their core functions, agencies have begun to address or consider the environmental justice implications of their work in standard setting, administration, environmental cleanup and legislative action. The result has been the formulation of broader initiatives and efforts to respond to community needs and requests for environmental justice action.
Community-Based Cumulative Risk Assessment
Assessing a community’s environmental justice concerns cannot be done if considered in the narrow, one-dimensional approach dictated by a traditional human health risk assessment. Although many communities are faced with exposures to environmental stressors such as air pollution, water pollution, land contamination and nuisance from noise or particulate matter, the health effects of these risks cannot be considered unilaterally in the environmental justice analysis.
In communities with environmental justice concerns, the harms that are expressed by these stressors become compounded since the community environmental health burden includes issues arising from exposure to a multiplicity of contributory stressors. Ultimately, the exposure risk in these communities can be an ‘urban toxic soup’ or ‘rural pesticide slurry’ of toxic agents, non-chemical stressors and socio-economic disparities. Toxic agents can be chemical, biological or physical substances presenting toxic composition. Non-chemical stressors are those resulting from demographics such as age, gender, income, education and occupation which are aggravated by correlated factors such as disparities in access to healthcare, proximity to food and recreation, and exposure to violence, poor housing conditions and lifestyle. These should all be incorporated in the analysis.
An agency’s failure to account for the impacts of this mix of stressors in their assessment is likely to lead to a significant underestimation of risks and ineffective prioritization of action steps in response plans. This is why environmental justice advocates promote evaluation using a Cumulative Health Assessment. The cumulative health assessment requires considering the likelihood and severity of environmental hazards that communities are susceptible to bearing in mind all the factors described. Since customary risk assessments do not account for the actual health consequences from exposure to a laundry list of contributing stressors that underserved community’s experience, cumulative health assessments paint a ‘portrait’ or a ‘map’ of community and environmental health issues.
Assessing a community’s environmental justice concerns cannot be done if considered in the narrow, one-dimensional approach dictated by a traditional human health risk assessment. Although many communities are faced with exposures to environmental stressors such as air pollution, water pollution, land contamination and exposure to hazardous waste or chemicals, the health effects of these risks cannot be considered unilaterally in an environmental justice analysis.
In communities with environmental justice concerns, the harms that are expressed by these stressors become compounded since the community environmental health burden includes issues arising from exposure to a variety of contributory stressors. The potential exposure and risk in these communities can be a combination of toxic agents, non-chemical stressors and socio-economic disparities. Toxic agents can be chemical, biological or physical substances presenting toxic composition. Non-chemical stressors are those resulting from demographics, such as age, gender, income, education and occupation. These are aggravated by correlated factors such as disparities in access to healthcare, proximity to food and recreation, exposure to violence and poor housing conditions. These are all important considerations to be incorporated in an analysis.
In considering these community environmental health issues, failure to account for the impacts of this mix of stressors in assessments could to lead to a significant underestimation of risks and the ineffective prioritization of action steps in response. This is why environmental justice advocates promote evaluation using a Cumulative Health Assessment. The cumulative health assessment requires considering the likelihood and severity of environmental hazards that communities are susceptible to, bearing in mind all the factors described. Since customary risk assessments do not account for the actual health consequences from exposure to a laundry list of contributing stressors that underserved communities’ experience, cumulative health assessments provide a “portrait” or a “map” of community and environmental health issues (Rechtschaffen 2009).
The cumulative assessment calls on agencies, nonprofits and health professionals to improve the transparency and applicability of their programs and actions. Specifically, to make these accessible to the affected communities. This type of meaningful interaction with the people and stakeholders that decision making practices ultimately affect also requires bridging the gap between community expectations and the regulation process of these bodies (Zartarian 2011).
Communities have understandably great expectations of agencies and health professionals. Conversely, agencies and regulating bodies need clear indications from communities of the issues and priorities at ground level. Once these two hurdles are overcome, both can begin to work collaboratively to address environmental justice concerns. If agencies performing top-down functions and people on the ground affecting bottom-up policies have a clear lay of the land regarding the potential exposure to environmental stressors and risks to community and environmental health, then better policies, mitigation measures and regulations can be developed. The EPA has identified Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping as one tool that can play a part in this process (Zartarian 2011). GIS maps which can capture, analyze and present a plethora of spatial or geographically based data, allow agencies to facilitate popular access to the best science and support citizen science initiatives – research collaborations between community members and scientists. GIS maps can show a community’s local scale sources of exposure in an objective way and inform geographically defined issues that communities want addressed (Lendzion 2013).
Community-Focused Exposure Risk Screening Tool
EPA is currently developing decision support tools to engage communities faced with exposure to environmental stressors and environmental justice concerns, such as transit, exposure to pollutants, water issues and a call to clean up contaminated soil and sediment. One such tool being developed by the EPA is C-FERST (Community Focused Exposure and Risk Screening Tool).
C-FERST is a web-based GIS mapping and resource access tool. It has a user-friendly interface that assists with multimedia, community-scale human exposure and risk screening. C-FERST is being developed by the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program. Presented as an online map built using ArcGIS, with information from the Agency’s Geoplatform, C-FERST is an accessible decision support tool for community-based, environmental public health assessment. It supports community decision-making and assists communities as they identify local scale environmental stressors and sources. While still being populated with data and information, the tool generates community maps that allow the user to input their ZIP code and see their local exposure or proximity to a variety of environmental stressors such as EPA-registered facilities, highways, contaminated waterways, air data from the National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) and much more. This data can then be overlaid with demographic data at census tract level from the American Community Survey (ACS) such as age, income, linguistic isolation and education. Users can save their maps (currently via an ESRI account) and/or export their data to Excel or PDF. Users can also upload data from other resources onto C-FERST to supplement the existing map layers. C-FERST includes the option to follow step-by-step community assessment roadmaps generated, such as those developed through the EPA’s Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) program or the National Association of City and County Health Officials (NACCHO) Protocol for Assessing Excellence in Environmental Health (PACE-EH). The tool also gives users access to solutions and programs implemented by communities and tribes in response to specific issues such as childhood asthma. Although C-FERST can generate environmental issues profiles based on the ZIP code and environmental stressors identified by users, C-FERST is a risk screening tool and should never be used as the sole basis to characterize risk or make decisions regarding community public health. C-FERST is not inherently a robust cumulative risk assessment tool. At present the beta version of the tool, which is being developed and vetted in phases, simply assists with screening user-identified potential exposures and risks at the community level and gives the option to explore potential solutions. A function that allows comparison based on local, regional and national averages is also under development. In December 2013, Region 10 of the EPA was awarded a grant for the Regional Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (RESES) Research Program in collaboration with the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) Human Exposure and Atmospheric Modeling Division (HEASD) and the Region 10 Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs to assess C-FERST in collaboration with communities and stakeholders in EPA Region 10. In an ongoing effort, the Region aims to assess how EPA developed science tools, like C-FERST, can support community based programs and enhance collaborative decision making at the local level.
A goal of C-FERST is to give communities the capacity to use the best-available science in promoting community and environmental health by assessing public health issues and risk/exposure at the community level. Using internal data and program mechanisms, EPA Region 10 identified the Tacoma area of Pierce County, Washington, as a candidate for the initial C-FERST evaluation. Through a collaborative partnership model created by Region 10 with Solutions HCE, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus, the community had access to training and use of C-FERST.
The beta version of C-FERST, was trialed with faculty and students of Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus. Students and faculty were involved in this assessment where 50 percent of participants were federal or EPA employees, 28 percent were academia, 17 percent community members and 6 percent city/county representatives. Through ground truthing, local stories and community knowledge as a basis for comparison, local and public health representatives assisted in the development and training aspects of the project. Training participants assessed the benefits, merits and limitations of C-FERST, bearing in mind community members who expressed concerns such as high infant mortality rates, exposure to industrial pollutants, and housing with lead hazards.
Results in Tacoma
In Tacoma, research using C-FERST focused on environmental stressors including proximity to rail, highways and ports as well as housing conditions and proximity to EPA-regulated facilities. The research demographic was focused on children/infants as well as the homeless/transient population in Tacoma. By looking at age, income and education, the research participants were able to analyze the potential exposure and risk issues faced by these populations. Participants went one step further by ground truthing – linking remote data screened on C-FERST with field research. C-FERST allows for community based screening with state of the science data. However, it should not be the sole basis for correlative inferences on public health issues since it essentially provides a framework for collaborative research and information sharing. C-FERST increases the accessibility of scientific data to communities and engages local nonprofits, public health officials and partners to assess the lived experiences of underserved communities.
Communities in Portland, Oregon have requested use of C-FERST for community-based assessment projects. Portland has a unique demographic makeup; the presence of Tribal or Native American populations, immigrants and diverse low-income communities, particularly along the Willamette River and in the Portland Harbor area, make for a prime opportunity for analysis of C-FERST’s capacity to support local scale screening. In Portland, the goal of community outreach and engagement is to create meaningful partnerships with locals and stakeholders to facilitate their use and access to C-FERST. Further, to enhance the training and tutorial aspects of C-FERST, while supporting community based projects, more in-depth case studies and stories recounting community reports from the two locations will form a larger part of C-FERST data and training.
Since the enactment of the executive order on environmental justice, federal agencies have taken significant strides in incorporating environmental justice principles into their operations. At the local level, programs like the RESES research program in EPA Region 10 create meaningful forums for engaging and supporting community based initiatives. The collaborations and partnerships that can be achieved through GIS tools like C-FERST, give opportunities for advancing the principles of environmental justice and supporting communities with environmental justice concerns.
The author would like to acknowledge Thuli B. Makama, founding executive director of Swaziland’s Environmental Law Center (ELC) for teaching her to stand up for the rights of underserved communities. This research was supported in part by an appointment to the research participation program for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Research and Development (ORD), administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) through an interagency agreement between the U.S. Department of Energy and EPA.
ORISE Research Participant
U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development
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The United States Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Justice. 2014. Accessed: October 2014. http://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/
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Zartarian, Valerie G and Schultz, B. The EPA’s human exposure research program for assessing cumulative risk in communities. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology (2010) 20, 351-358