After one year of service, California environmental regulators will switch to using ZIP codes — and no longer consider race or ethnicity — in the pollution calculator they use to identify “communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution.”
The state’s environmental protection agency, Cal/EPA, launched its “CalEnviroScreen” score in 2013 as a way of showing which communities were most affected by pollution in the state.
Version 1.0 of the program factored in race and ethnicity into its calculations, under the assumption that “African-Americans and Latinos are more heavily impacted by pollution than whites,” reports AllGov California.
California developed this pollution calculator as a potential guide for state and city planners who could adjust their zoning and planning laws to mitigate the pollution problems affecting different areas. Cal/EPA says there is scientific literature supporting the notion that “pollutant exposure, stress, and health outcomes can vary based on race and ethnicity,” but apparently there are potential legal problems with using race in their calculations.
“In light of concerns over whether CalEnviroScreen’s inclusion of a race/ethnicity indicator may place legal barriers to certain uses of the tool by government agencies, Cal/EPA has determined that removing it would best support these additional applications,” Cal/EPA said in a report. “Version 1.1 incorporates this change.”
Cal/EPA has made it one of its top priorities to integrate “environmental justice” principles into its operations, which state law defines as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
“This definition should not just be words or an illusory concept; rather, it must be a goal to strive for and achieve,” Cal/EPA says. “Cal/EPA’s mission is to restore, protect and enhance the environment, and to ensure public health, environmental quality and economic vitality. Environmental justice and investment in communities burdened by pollution are critical to accomplishing this mission.”
In 2013, Cal/EPa found that nearly two-thirds of California residents living in the most polluted ZIP codes were Latino, according to AllGov. African-Americans were also “over-represented” in the top polluted communities, AllGov notes. Whites, on the other hand, only made up 16 percent of the population in the most polluted ZIP codes.
But even Cal/EPA admits the relationship between race, income and pollution is not that well understood. CAL/EPA says that, “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.”
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