The Promise of Environmental Justice Screening Tools in Maryland and Beyond

Darya Minovi

April 20, 2021

Since President Joe Biden assumed office, environmental justice has been at the front and center of his administration. One key initiative: developing better mapping tools to identify communities that may bear a disproportionate burden of toxic pollution and climate change impacts. Biden’s environmental justice (EJ) plan emphasizes the value of these tools and the need to improve them.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current tool — known as EJSCREEN — dates to 1994, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to collect, maintain, and analyze information on environmental and human health risks borne by low-income communities and people of color.

The EPA published EJSCREEN in 2015. It integrates demographic data (such as percent low-income, under the age five, over age 65, etc.) and environmental pollution measures at the block group or census tract level nationwide. The mapped data provide a visual of a community’s estimated pollution burden.

Though widely used by researchers and advocates, EPA EJSCREEN is not without faults.

A geospatial map, of course, is only as good as the data it uses. Unfortunately, the national air quality monitoring network is underfunded and outdated, and the devices have been found to routinely miss major chemical releases. These monitors are also not often located at the “fenceline” of industrial facilities, where many people live.

Furthermore, some data are based on uncertain estimates, and the environmental indicators are primarily related to air pollution, leaving measures of drinking water quality largely absent. Perhaps most important, EPA EJSCREEN doesn’t combine the indicators into a final score, making it difficult to understand communities’ overall burden.

The EPA claims to use EJSCREEN to identify areas that may require further consideration in environmental permitting, enforcement, or compliance or where additional outreach may be necessary. And it warns against using the tool to identify an “environmental justice community,” quantify risk, measure cumulative impacts, or serve as the basis for agency decision-making.

A racial and social justice movement

The agency is right to not use this tool to identify an “EJ community.” The environmental justice movement — at its core a social and racial justice movement — has been and will continue to be led by affected communities, most often Brown, Black, and Indigenous people. The EPA ignored these communities when they sounded the alarm about injustices ranging from oil and gas development in Standing Rock, North Dakota to drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan. The agency has no place co-opting labels regarding a movement it has historically disregarded, and doing so only nullifies the struggle and victories of environmental justice leaders.

The decision to use the “EJ community” identifier should be up to members of the affected community. If labels are needed for regulatory decision-making, the EPA should consider using words like “overburdened” and “affected” because they point to external factors causing environmental and public health harm.

Some states have also improperly used EPA’s tool to justify decisions that go against community concerns. Virginia, for example, used EJSCREEN’s “percent minority” data to justify approval of an air permit for a proposed power plant in a rural town — over strong opposition by local advocates. A survey later showed that the data were off by nearly 45 percent.

The Biden administration has initiated efforts to build on EJSCREEN, but some states are developing their own in the meantime. California is the furthest along, having developed a tool that incorporates more indicators and state-specific data, community input, and a combined environmental justice score. And, while EPA’s tool is wishy-washy about its threshold for screening, California’s CalEnviroScreen clearly defines priority communities and targets them for state climate investments.

A new tool in Maryland

Other states are following California’s lead. In the Chesapeake Bay region, where much of CPR’s programming is focused, researchers have created a mapping tool modeled on California’s approach. In 2018, Dr. Sacoby Wilson and his colleagues at the University of Maryland developed Maryland (MD) EJSCREEN, which uses 22 environmental and demographic indicators and calculates a combined score.

Some indicators are state-specific and were identified in partnership with communities affected by environmental racism. Last year, the tool was updated to include “context layers” like COVID-19 cases, access to healthy food and green space, and the quality of local health care infrastructure.

Unlike CalEnviroScreen, MD EJSCREEN was developed by independent academic researchers. Therefore, state regulators aren’t required to use it, but they should be. Nearly 20 years after the state established a commission to develop criteria to assess and prioritize which areas may be of environmental justice concern, Maryland still does not substantively consider the cumulative burden of environmental and social stressors in communities in regulatory decision-making. Meanwhile, environmental justice concerns continue to mount across the state, from Baltimore and Brandywine to the Lower Eastern Shore.

Last summer, Wilson and environmental justice advocates across the state called on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to develop a state environmental justice plan, citing the commission’s failure to do so. In an apparent response to their concerns, Maryland’s Department of the Environment (MDE) published a plan in December that aims to engage affected communities in environmental decisions, review and respond to concerns regarding specific facilities, and prioritize infrastructure financing in affected communities.

The four-page plan has a long way to go, but it’s a start. As a first step, the agency should reexamine the use of “environmental justice communities,” which are defined as those with a “low-income or minority population greater than twice the statewide average.” This definition seems arbitrary; the criteria for identifying affected communities should be evidence-based. For example, in a bill passed in New Jersey last year, one of the criteria for an “overburdened community” is an area where 40 percent of households are “minority.” This cutoff was selected based on state-specific values; in the state overall, the non-White only population is approximately 45 percent.

Whether MDE’s plan will result in substantive changes remains to be seen. In the meantime, CPR continues to push the agency to incorporate MD EJSCREEN and other assessments of cumulative impacts in its decision-making. When it comes to environmental justice, Maryland, and the nation, must do better.

To learn more about CPR’s work to integrate MD EJSCREEN in Maryland’s environmental regulatory decision-making, watch my recent presentation at the American Geophysical Union Conference.

Top image by Flickr user uusc4all, used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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