CalEnviroScreen: A Critical Tool for Achieving Environmental Justice in California

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In California, low-income residents, communities of color, immigrants, and indigenous communities experience a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution and related health problems. These inequitable impacts are caused by living in close proximity to multiple environmental health hazards. Meanwhile, socioeconomic vulnerabilities such as pre-existing health problems, disenfranchisement, poverty, and an inability to afford proper medical care can worsen the negative health impacts of pollution exposure.

In response to these challenges, environmental justice (EJ) groups have pushed state and national agencies to develop more comprehensive approaches for addressing the full range of environmental and socioeconomic burdens that communities face. Through the groundbreaking California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen or CES) developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), California has developed a unique tool to target local, state, and regional policies to protect our hardest-hit communities. While much progress still needs to be made, numerous laws, policies, and programs now include explicit commitments or set-asides for these environmentally impacted areas, based on the use of CalEnviroScreen. For examples of how CalEnviroScreen is being used within state and local policy.

CalEnviroScreen 3.0 (CES 3.0) is a place-based cumulative impact screening methodology that uses 20 indicators to provide a statewide ranking of California’s 8,000 census tracts. In this context, a “cumulative impact” assessment examines “multiple chemicals, multiple sources, public health and environmental effects, and characteristics of the population that influence health outcomes.” Areas with high concentrations of these factors have a greater “cumulative impact.”

CalEnviroScreen is an important departure from current environmental policymaking in two ways. First, although communities usually experience pollution from multiple sources, most environmental statutes and regulations address each source from an individual standpoint. CalEnviroScreen breaks free from this single-issue framework by assessing multiple, combined environmental stressors. Second, CalEnviroScreen considers socioeconomic and health related vulnerabilities that can aggravate pollution exposure, which are not often included in environmental decision-making. As a result, CES 3.0 provides a scientific assessment that corroborates the lived experience of many Californians. Some communities are exposed to more environmental problems and are more vulnerable to the effects of pollution than others, and these burdens tend to be unfairly distributed along race and class lines.

CES 3.0 provides one clear, accessible, and science-based method for identifying overburdened environmental justice communities or disadvantaged communities (DACs) and the particular challenges that they face. It has reshaped what is possible in state and local policymaking. It enables decision-makers to craft and implement policies that target our state’s most vulnerable communities, such as programs that direct improvements and investments to under-resourced neighborhoods, and regulations that minimize or avoid harms against already overburdened communities.

Although CalEnviroScreen has received widespread attention for its use in allocation of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Funds, it was developed to help achieve a much broader range of environmental justice goals. It is particularly well suited for strategies that reduce and/ or avoid pollution. CalEnviroScreen is readily applicable to land use and zoning decisions, permitting processes in overburdened areas, and regulatory enforcement actions. Decision-makers can utilize its data to reverse uneven environmental enforcement practices, protect sensitive populations, prevent an over-concentration of polluting facilities in vulnerable areas, and direct much needed capital and public service improvements to under-resourced neighborhoods. The tool is versatile and can also be modified or customized to meet the needs of different geographies, issues, or programs.

In addition, given the nexus between environmental, public health, and socioeconomic issues, CalEnviroScreen is applicable to focus areas that intersect with environmental concerns, such as housing, transportation, and public health. Depending on the public policy, however, other tools may be more appropriate for identifying context-specific burdens and forms of disadvantage. Tools such as the Environmental Justice Screening Method or the California Healthy Places Index can be used in tandem with or instead of CES to inform comprehensive state, regional, and local policies.

To advance the goals of environmental justice and social equity, CEJA recommends the following uses of CalEnviroScreen at the state, regional, and local levels:

  • Use CalEnviroScreen to inform the development of environmental laws, policies, and programs, including enforcement actions.
  • Integrate CES into land use planning, from General Plans and community plans to siting and permitting decisions.
  • Target critical investments and improvements such as accessible affordable housing and infrastructure into underserved and highly impacted areas.
  • Use CES to determine how certain programs will meet the needs of disadvantaged communities, provide meaningful and concrete benefits, and avoid producing harms.
  • Utilize CalEnviroScreen maps and data to strengthen local grassroots advocacy efforts for EJ.

By adopting CalEnviroScreen, an effective cumulative impact screening tool, California continues to serve as a national leader in environmental policy. CEJA hopes that the state of California will continue to expand its commitment to environmental justice by using CES in innovative ways to address long-standing environmental inequalities. In doing so, we can improve the overall quality of life for communities of color and low-income residents, while creating a healthier California for all.