Improving CalEnviroScreen: organization says some poor rural communities left out

May 8th, 2013 | by Ian James | Comments

State officials are still tinkering with a tool that aims to pinpoint communities disproportionately burdened by pollution, and the organization California Rural Legal Assistance says there is plenty of room for improvement.

I’ve previously written about the tool, known as CalEnviroScreen, in this blog. It’s eventually going to be used by state officials to identify communities most heavily affected by pollution and deemed to be most in need of assistance.

California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides free legal help to low-income people in rural areas, has written to state officials expressing concerns. The organization says some rural communities may be excluded under the tool’s current methodology and not be identified as “disadvantaged,” thereby leaving them off a list of communities that will be in line to receive financial assistance from proceeds of the state’s cap-and-trade program auctions.

Phoebe Seaton, Community Equity Initiative program director for California Rural Legal Assistance, said rural areas are underrepresented among the communities identified by CalEnviroScreen due to gaps in available data about pollution. She said that in the Coachella Valley, waste sites on the lands of American Indian communities also aren’t tracked.

The tool currently provides a map showing the top 10 percent of highest scoring zip codes in the state. While the zip code of Coachella, 92236, pops up among the top 10 percent – with relatively high levels of ozone, pesticides and “groundwater threats” – the other nearby communities of Mecca and Thermal don’t make the list, despite similar problems and high poverty rates.

“Especially in rural areas, there are all these data gaps,” Seaton said in an interview at the organization’s office in Coachella. “How do you either fill those data gaps or how do you somehow create some sort of handicap or some sort of kind of alternative metric or measure so you’re not disadvantaging rural communities? A lot of very, very low-income communities are left out.”

She said she thinks that CalEnviroScreen is a great tool but that it needs to be improved.

“Mecca and Thermal, because of these data deficiencies, are left out unfairly,” Seaton said, adding that the definition of “disadvantaged” could be broadened to capture more poor communities with air or water pollution problems that require state assistance.

CalEnviroScreen was developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and state officials say they are heeding such input.

“We are committed to continuing to revise and improve CalEnviroScreen to incorporate new and better data and new ways to communicate its information more effectively. That is why this version is called CalEnviroScreen 1.0,” said Sam Delson, deputy director for external and legislative affairs for the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “Improvements we expect to add within the next year include the addition of a drinking water indicator and providing information at the census tract level in addition to the current ZIP code level. We also hope to develop a mobile phone app.”


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