Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing presenting the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN, a mapping and environmental justice screening tool that EPA developed to help fulfill its responsibility to protect public health and the environment. The tool, freely available to the public online, enables users to compare environmental and demographic information in locations across the country. EPA uses EJSCREEN to find communities that may qualify for extra consideration, engagement and analysis as the agency develops its enforcement, compliance and permitting strategies. Stakeholders outside of EPA may also find EJSCREEN helpful for community awareness projects, education, research, and many other uses. EJSCREEN can show users where minority and low-income areas are located, the demographics in these communities, and the environmental issues they face. The briefing's speaker showed how can you use EJSCREEN to learn more about environmental justice issues in your city, town, or Congressional district.

BRIEFING HIGHLIGHTS

  • Kevin Olp, Director of Communications, Office of Environmental Justice, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), provided an overview and hands-on demonstration of the EJSCREEN tool, which was released in June 2015. EJSCREEN is a geospatial environmental justice screening tool that EPA developed in order to comply with President Bill Clinton's Executive Order 12898 calling on federal agencies to address environmental justice issues. The free online tool provides environmental and demographic information at the neighborhood level for any part of the country.
  • Local, state, and federal agencies, along with community groups, are using EJSCREEN to address environmental justice issues in their policymaking and administrative efforts.
  • A new, updated version of EJSCREEN with the most recent demographic data from the American Community Survey, as well as map datasets pertaining to climate change and climate vulnerability, will be uploaded next month (June 2016).
  • Olp played an excerpt from a video, “EPA 20th Anniversary Environmental Justice Video Series: Kimberly Wasserman,” to help attendees understand the human side of environmental justice issues.
  • Olp noted that when talking about the environmental effects of coal plants, the focus is often on climate change and impacts on future generations. But people living in neighborhoods near coal-fired power plants are bearing the brunt of conventional air pollution in their communities right now.
  • Olp defined environmental justice as ensuring that low income and minority communities are properly protected and given the same basic rights that all Americans are afforded. He said that EPA’s environmental justice definition emphasizes fair treatment (everyone should experience “the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards”) and meaningful involvement (everyone should experience “equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work”).
  • In terms of demographics, EPA’s approach focuses on vulnerability (which considers intrinsic susceptibility and social stress factors, such as low socioeconomic status) and susceptibility (which takes into account sensitivity to toxics and exposure risks as a result of gender, life stage, behavior, or other such factors). [More details can be found here.]
    • For instance, children in lower income communities generally have less healthy houses, with more exposure to cockroach allergens, dust mites, mold, etc., which can trigger asthma. The effects of this are made even worse if a child also lives in a neighborhood that is exposed to air pollution from coal power plants.
    • Another example would be a child who is exposed to lead paint in a home and also does not have access to enough nutritious food, because lead fights against calcium absorption in the body. Cumulative impacts like these make children much more susceptible to negative health outcomes.
  • EJSCREEN, a web-based Geographic Information System (GIS) based on Bing Maps (similar to Google Maps), provides a preliminary tool for the analysis of fair treatment.
  • It is a product of Plan EJ 2014, developed with assistance from the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) and a peer review by academic experts in 2013.
  • EJSCREEN includes demographic data categories such as Low Income, Linguistic Isolation, Under Age 5 and Over Age 64, etc.
  • EJSCREEN includes environmental indicator categories such as Particulate Matter, Ozone, Lead Paint Indicator, Traffic Proximity, Superfund Sites, etc.
  • It also includes a feature called EJ Index. This combines the environmental indicators with a demographic index. The EJ index can help locate areas with the highest amounts of pollution and the highest concentrations of low-income and minority residents.
  • Users can download any dataset from the tool, upload their own datasets, and create printable PDF reports for a specific area or neighborhood.
  • Olp cautioned that EJSCREEN is not meant to be a final decision-making tool. Instead, it highlights areas for further review. EJSCREEN can be used to determine if there are potential environmental justice concerns in communities.
  • Olp recommended several EJSCREEN resources, to learn more about the platform.
  • Other federal agencies have mapping tools, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Flood Map Service, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Tool, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Public Health Tracking Network. Many agencies, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant Program, are integrating EJSCREEN into their programs to better address environmental justice concerns.
  • According to Olp, it’s important to understand the interrelated nature of environmental justice and community issues; while many federal agencies are getting better at addressing information gaps and collaborating, “we still have a long way to go.”

EPA released EJSCREEN in 2015, in time for its release of the Clean Power Plan, the United States' first-ever regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. Although there are many Clean Power Plan compliance options available to states, EPA is creating a model carbon trading scheme which states can adopt. Using EPA's model will allow states to be more confident their compliance plans will be approved. However, carbon trading schemes can have deleterious environmental justice consequences, as they could allow some dirty power plants to stay open for longer than they otherwise would under regulatory limits; these plants could continue to pollute surrounding communities, which tend to be low-income. EJSCREEN is an important tool as states and communities consider how best to address carbon emissions, and assess how power plants are impacting the people who live near them.  

EJSCREEN was developed in accordance with Executive Order 12898, which President Clinton signed in 1994 to require all federal agencies to "collect, maintain and analyze information assessing and comparing environmental and human health risks borne by populations identified by race, national origin or income." EPA has created several environmental justice mapping tools, of which EJSCREEN is the latest, replacing EJView.

This briefing is the latest in a series examining the Clean Power Plan and its environmental justice implications.