A ConocoPhillips oil and gas refinery looms over the Wilmington neighbourhood of Los Angeles, a community with one of the highest cancer rates in Southern California.Credit: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty

When US President Joe Biden took office in 2021, he put environmental justice — the quest to address pollution and other harms that disproportionately affect the health of marginalized communities — at the top of his domestic agenda. For the past decade, US researchers and activists have been working with city and state officials to develop a range of scientific tools, from maps and models to air-pollution sensors, that can be used to identify those who are most threatened by a variety of social, geographic and historical inequities. They are now pushing the Biden administration to make good on its promise.

The cornerstone of the administration’s strategy — the Justice40 initiative — pledges that 40% of the federal government’s investments in climate and clean energy will go to disadvantaged communities. These could include poor communities near polluting industrial facilities, or neighbourhoods that are racially segregated because of decades-old discriminatory housing policies. There is no set definition, but the administration must lay out criteria to determine which communities qualify.

The White House developed a screening tool to guide Justice40 investments that takes into account exacerbating factors, such as a community’s air-pollution levels, its proximity to polluting industrial facilities and roads, and socio-economic data, such as wealth and education. But critics say that it does not provide a way to adequately assess the full ‘cumulative burden’ of environmental and social injustices that communities face. Nor does it incorporate direct information about race and ethnicity.

“The major driver of environmental injustice in this country is racism,” says Sacoby Wilson, who heads the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health at the University of Maryland in College Park. “You cannot address environmental injustice without addressing race.”

The Biden administration has committed to updating the tool based on feedback it has received, and on evolving research.

Scientists have already worked with regulators at the state and city level to develop screening tools for environmental justice — a movement that has gathered momentum in the wake of national protests against police brutality and racial discrimination after police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, murdered George Floyd two years ago. The tools remain a work in progress, and researchers are rushing to improve the data that feed into the models, including by developing new ways to measure air pollution street by street. Environmental-justice advocates hope that the work will eventually guide environmental law enforcement and regulatory decisions about where and how polluting facilities are allowed to operate.

“We’re looking for regulatory change, and anything less than that will not be progress,” says Peggy Shepard, who leads WE ACT for Environmental Justice, an advocacy group in New York City, and serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Screening for injustice

All eyes are on New Jersey, which enacted the most powerful environmental justice statute in the United States less than four months after Floyd’s death. Crafted with the help of researchers and activists, the statute requires that environmental regulators take communities’ cumulative burden into account when issuing permits to facilities that will produce pollution. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is poised to propose regulations that will guide how the law is implemented as early as 6 June.

The statute will kick in when regulators consider any community in which at least 35% of households have a low income or in which at least 40% of residents are from minority ethnic groups or have limited proficiency in English. If a permit application is submitted by a scrap-metal processing facility or a hazardous-waste facility wanting to build in such ‘overburdened’ communities, regulators must use a geographical mapping tool to review more than 30 additional factors, including air-pollution data and information on existing facilities and infrastructure. According to an early draft of the pending regulations, if most of those stressors are also higher than average, officials must deny the company a permit.

What makes the New Jersey law unique is the power it gives to its regulators, says Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School in New York City. Officials at state and federal agencies have long argued that they don’t have the explicit statutory authority to do this kind of analysis when crafting rules, and have also raised technical questions about how to quantify social and environmental effects. The New Jersey statute expressly grants that authority and sets out a process for assessing cumulative impacts.

“It took a bunch of academics and environmental-justice activists to put something together and break that stalemate,” says Baptista, who worked with state lawmakers to develop the legislation. “It’s going to be a real test of political will once you start saying no to industry.”

Regulators across the country — including at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington DC — are watching to see how New Jersey designs and implements its programme — as well as how the inevitable legal challenges play out in court once the state denies permits. “They are going to teach us a lot,” says Kristie Ellickson, an environmental scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul.

Better data

Even efforts such as New Jersey’s are only as good as the information that feeds into them. The network of US monitoring stations that detect air pollution catches only broad trends across cities and regions, and isn’t equipped for assessing air quality at the level of streets and neighbourhoods. So environmental scientists are exploring ways to fill the gaps.

In one project funded by NASA, researchers are developing methods to assess street-level pollution using measurements of aerosols and other contaminants from space. When the team trained its tools on Washington DC, the scientists found1 that sections in the city’s southeast, which have a larger share of Black residents, are exposed to much higher levels of fine-soot pollution than wealthier — and whiter — areas in the northwest of the city, primarily because of the presence of major roads and bus depots in the southeast.

Cumulative burden: Air-pollution levels tend to be higher in poorer and predominantly Black neighbourhoods of Washington DC.

Source: Ref. 1

The detailed pollution data painted a more accurate picture of the burden on a community that also lacks access to high-quality medical facilities and has high rates of cardiovascular disorders and other diseases. The results help to explain a more than 15-year difference in life expectancy between predominantly white neighbourhoods and some predominantly Black ones.

The analysis underscores the need to consider pollution and socio-economic data in parallel, says Susan Anenberg, director of the Climate and Health Institute at the George Washington University in Washington DC and co-leader of the project. “We can actually get neighbourhood-scale observations from space, which is quite incredible,” she says, “but if you don’t have the demographic, economic and health data as well, you’re missing a very important piece of the puzzle.”

Other projects, including one from technology company Aclima, in San Francisco, California, are focusing on ubiquitous, low-cost sensors that measure air pollution at the street level. Over the past few years, Aclima has deployed a fleet of vehicles to collect street-level data on air pollutants such as soot and greenhouse gases across 101 municipalities in the San Francisco Bay area. Their data have shown that air-pollution levels can vary as much as 800% from one neighbourhood block to the next.

Working directly with disadvantaged communities and environmental regulators in California, as well as with other states and localities, the company provides pollution monitoring on a subscription basis. It also offers the use of its screening tool, which integrates a suite of socio-economic data and can be used to assess cumulative impacts.

Scaling up

Although regulators at the city and state level are beginning to step up to the challenge of determining the cumulative burden, scientists and activists say action at the federal level will be crucial. Responsibility for that task rests mostly with EPA head Michael Regan, who has engaged with activists and promised to make environmental justice “a central driving factor in all that we do”.

In April, Regan committed to preparing a comprehensive environmental-justice framework, which the agency plans to release in September 2023. Matthew Tejeda, who heads the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, says that the agency is working with and learning from states such as New Jersey and is reviewing its own programmes, which are currently governed by multiple statutes that do not expressly address the question of environmental justice. One lesson from the states, he says, is that assessing cumulative effects doesn’t need to be as complex as people generally assume it to be.

“We’ve got a lot more science there than I think most people would immediately recognize,” he says, adding that it’s now time to get down to “nuts and bolts”.

Environmental-justice leaders are hopeful, but they have been here before: the EPA has been talking about environmental justice for three decades to little avail. Shepard says that progress is really a question of political and scientific will, and whether society is ready to recognize the plight of disadvantaged communities and to take corrective action.

“We’re putting up satellites, and we’re going to the Moon,” she says. “Are you really trying to tell me that you can’t figure out how to assess cumulative impacts?”

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