How science could help US environmental justice research

A ConocoPhillips oil and gas refinery looms over the Wilmington neighborhood 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 – research to address pollution and other harms that disproportionately affect the health of marginalized communities – at the top of his internal agenda. Over the past decade, US researchers and activists have worked with city and state officials to develop a range of scientific tools, from maps and models to air pollution sensors, which can be used to identify those who are most threatened by a variety. of social, geographical and historical inequalities. Now they are pushing the Biden administration to deliver on its promise.

The cornerstone of the administration’s strategy – the Justice40 initiative – promises that 40% of the federal government’s investment in climate and clean energy will go to disadvantaged communities. These could include poor communities near polluting industrial facilities or racially segregated neighborhoods due to decades-old discriminatory housing policies. There is no fixed definition, but the administration must establish criteria to determine which communities qualify.

The White House has developed a screening tool to guide investment in justice40 that takes into account exacerbating factors, such as a community’s air pollution levels, its proximity to industrial facilities and polluting roads, and socioeconomic data, such as wealth and education. But critics say it does not provide a way to adequately assess the full “cumulative burden” of environmental and social injustices communities face. Nor does it incorporate direct information on race and ethnicity.

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

The Biden administration is committed to updating the tool based on feedback received and the evolution of research.

Scientists have already collaborated with regulators at state and city levels to develop screening tools for environmental justice, a movement that gained momentum in the wake of national protests against police brutality and racial discrimination after police Minneapolis, Minnesota, killed George Floyd two years ago. The tools remain a work in progress, and researchers are rushing to improve the data that feeds the models, including by developing new ways to measure air pollution on a street-by-street basis. Advocates of environmental justice hope the work will ultimately guide environmental law enforcement and regulatory decisions about where and how polluting plants can operate.

“We are looking for regulatory change and nothing less than it will be progress,” says Peggy Shepard, who leads WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a advocacy group in New York City, and is a member of the House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council. White .

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. Created with the help of researchers and activists, the statute requires environmental regulators to take into account the cumulative burden of communities when issuing permits to facilities that will produce pollution. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is ready to propose regulations that will guide the implementation of the law as early as June 6.

The statute will come into effect when regulators consider any community in which at least 35% of households have a low income or in which at least 40% of residents belong to ethnic minorities or have limited knowledge of the English language. If an application for authorization is made by a scrap metal processing plant or hazardous waste plant that wishes to build in such “overburdened” communities, regulators must use a geographic mapping tool to examine more than 30 additional factors , including data on air pollution and information on existing facilities and infrastructure. According to a first draft of the pending regulations, if most of these stressors are also above average, officials must deny the company a permit.

What makes New Jersey law unique is the power it confers on its regulators, says Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment and Design Center at the New School in New York City. Officials from state and federal agencies have long argued that they do not have the explicit legal authority to do this type of analysis when creating rules and have also raised technical questions about how to quantify social and environmental effects. The New Jersey statute expressly grants such authority and establishes a process for assessing cumulative impacts.

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

Regulators across the country, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington DC, are watching how New Jersey designs and implements its program, as well as how inevitable legal challenges unfold in court. once the state denies the permissions. “They will teach us a lot,” says Kristie Ellickson, an environmental scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St Paul.

Better data

Even efforts like those in New Jersey are only as good as the information that feeds them. The US air pollution monitoring station network only detects general trends in cities and regions and is not equipped to assess air quality at street and neighborhood levels. So environmental scientists are exploring ways to fill in the gaps.

In a NASA-funded project, researchers are developing methods to assess street-level pollution using measurements of aerosols and other contaminants from space. When the team trained its tools in Washington DC, the scientists found1 that the sections in the southeast of the city, which have a higher share of black residents, are exposed to much higher levels of soot pollution than the richer and whiter areas in the northwest of the city, mainly due to the presence of main roads and bus depots in the southeast.

Cumulative burden: Air pollution levels tend to be highest in the poorest and mostly black neighborhoods of Washington DC.

Source: ref. 1

The detailed pollution data has drawn a more accurate picture of the burden on a community that does not have access to high-quality medical facilities and has high rates of cardiovascular disease and other diseases. The findings help explain a more than 15-year difference in life expectancy between predominantly white and some predominantly black neighborhoods.

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

Other projects, including one from technology company Aclima, in San Francisco, California, are focusing on low-cost, ubiquitous sensors that measure street-level air pollution. In recent years, Aclima has deployed a fleet of vehicles to collect street-level data on air pollutants such as soot and greenhouse gases in 101 municipalities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their data showed that air pollution levels can vary up to 800% from neighborhood to neighborhood.

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


Although regulators at the city and state levels are beginning to face the challenge of determining the cumulative burden, scientists and activists say action at the federal level will be crucial. Responsibility for this task rests primarily with EPA chief Michael Regan, who has engaged with activists and promised to make environmental justice “a central driver in everything we do.”

In April, Regan pledged to prepare a comprehensive environmental justice framework, which the agency plans to publish in September 2023. Matthew Tejeda, who heads the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, says the agency is working and learning from states such as New Jersey and is reviewing its programs, which are currently governed by multiple statutes that do not specifically address the issue of environmental justice. A lesson from the states, he says, is that assessing cumulative effects doesn’t have to be as complex as it is generally thought to be.

“We have a lot more science there than I think most people would immediately recognize,” he says, adding that now is the time to get down to “nuts and bolts.”

Environmental justice leaders are confident, but they’ve been here before – the EPA has been talking about environmental justice for three decades with little success. Shepard says that progress is truly a matter of political and scientific will and whether society is ready to recognize the plight of disadvantaged communities and take corrective action.

“We are installing satellites and going to the moon,” he says. “Are you really trying to tell me that you can’t figure out how to assess cumulative impacts?”

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