In a packed, airless room last night in Oakland, several hundred people grappled with the question of how to define those communities in California that shoulder a heavier burden of pollution than others.
The workshop was the third in a series of three—the other two were held recently in Fresno and Los Angeles–led by the California Air Resources Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to gather input on the question. The room was packed with experts and advocates from a wide variety of fields—emissions, housing, transit, recycling, you name it—and there may even have been a few members of disadvantaged communities present.
The question of how to define a disadvantaged community is not merely an academic one. Millions–potentially billions–of dollars are at stake. By law, a portion of all revenue generated from the auctions of pollution credits under the state’s cap-and-trade system must be spent in, or for the benefit of, “disadvantaged communities.”
The mayors of Richmond, Oakland, and Berkeley showed up, as did state Senator Loni Hancock. Invited to speak briefly, each brought up local concerns, with Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan quipping: “We’re probably all going to say the same thing.”
And indeed each mayor pointed out communities in their areas that bear a heavy pollution burden but did not show up on the preliminary maps of disadvantaged communities produced by CalEPA. Quan said she was surprised that several areas in Oakland were left out, including low-income tracts along the heavily traveled 880 corridor and East Oakland.
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, noting her city lays claim to the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, the Chevron oil refinery, added, “Our community has shouldered the burden of pollution and subsequent health impacts for 100-plus years. Those communities that suffer the most should be put front and center—not in the back, not in an appendix–for getting the resources that we need.”
Those preliminary maps, included in the ninety-plus pages of material passed out at the workshops, were developed by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as part of CalEnviroScreen. This was presented at the workshop as the state’s chosen tool for defining disadvantaged communities. It combines twelve pollution factors (such as ozone, diesel emissions, and groundwater threats) with seven population factors that studies have found make people more vulnerable to the effects of pollution (for example, asthma rates and poverty). The data is available at the census tract level so the information can be mapped at a fairly detailed level.
It’s a groundbreaking tool resulting from years of work, and is an impressive achievement. But as evidenced by the mayors’ remarks, it’s also just a starting point.