New mapping tool aims to clarify Virginia environmental justice debates

By: - June 16, 2021 12:03 am

A new interactive mapping tool aims to identify Virginia hotspots where residents are facing disproportionate pollution and socioeconomic burdens. (Virginia Mercury)

Amid persistent conflicts over what communities should be considered “environmental justice” communities when state officials weigh whether to grant air, water or waste pollution permits, a new interactive map of Virginia aims to identify hotspots where residents are facing disproportionate pollution and socioeconomic burdens. 

“Policymakers are not good at responding to what they see as anecdotal evidence,” said Adam Buchholz, executive director of the Mapping for Environmental Justice initiative, a team of policy experts and data scientists funded through the Earth Island Institute that wants “to increase the power of communities in ending environmental injustices.” 

Maps, he said, can provide a broader view of trends, particularly regarding what’s known as cumulative impacts — the term used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to describe “the combined, incremental effects” of human activities occurring in a particular place and time that might be insignificant on their own but when taken together can overburden a community. 

Developed jointly by Mapping for Environmental Justice and the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative, a group created in 2015 to provide statewide coordination on environmental justice issues, the Virginia map assigns a “cumulative environmental justice impact” score to each census tract in the commonwealth. The higher the score, the greater the tract’s overall environmental impacts and vulnerabilities are considered to be.

Each score was generated based on an array of population characteristics and measurements of pollution burden drawn from federal and state sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA’s EJSCREEN tool. 

Population characteristics include the proportion of the population who are people of color, poverty and education levels, English proficiency, unemployment, housing burden — a metric related to how much of a household’s income is spent on rent — and adult asthma and heart disease incidence.

Pollution burden includes data on ozone, particulate matter, lead paint, air toxics, traffic, mines, hazardous waste and high-risk chemical facilities and federal cleanup sites. 

“Obviously there are maps out there already that do a good job in terms of identifying, highlighting areas of concern, but what we did not find in those other maps” was a clear picture of cumulative impacts, said Monica Esparza, a Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative board member.

Among the hotspots identified by the new map are the Richmond, Danville and Norfolk regions. A narrative feature provides users with additional background on environmental issues in certain high-scoring tracts or those where controversial projects linked with environmental justice concerns have been planned. 

“Just the numbers were not telling the whole story. … What was very important in our map was highlighting the narratives in our community,” said Esparza. 

Buchholz said it was “interesting but not at all surprising the map ends up highlighting areas where there are people fighting this. These communities know they’ve been targeted for disproportionate amounts of pollution for decades.” 

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Greg Bilyeu said in an email that the agency’s new Environmental Justice Office “has been in contact with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative and a call is planned to discuss this map — a tool we see as helpful to sharing communities’ stories.” 

Identification of environmental justice communities across the commonwealth outside of the permit review process has been a particular focus of a public engagement committee convened by the State Air Pollution Control Board. 

Opponents of a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in Buckingham County protested outside the General Assembly Building ahead of a State Air Pollution Control Board meeting in 2018. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Dec. 19, 2018)

Both the board and DEQ received a high-profile rebuke from the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in January 2020 for what the court portrayed as inadequate treatment of environmental justice concerns in a decision to grant an air permit to a pipeline compressor station planned to be built in the majority-Black community of Union Hill in Buckingham County. 

Part of the court’s decision hinged on the state’s reliance on EPA’s EJSCREEN tool for identifying environmental justice communities. 

Air Board vice-chair Kajal Kapur has repeatedly urged the public engagement committee to consider developing a map or inventory of the state’s environmental justice communities. 

Engagement happens not just when there’s an issue in front of the board or when there’s a hearing or when there’s a permit or a regulatory process, but there is outreach performed … on an ongoing basis,” she said at a July meeting. 

In another committee discussion in October, DEQ Director David Paylor said the agency likely had the capability to overlay information from other mapping tools with DEQ systems. 

“I think part of the issue, you know, is whether or not we’re satisfied with the tools that exist,” he cautioned the committee. “I think what we don’t have the capacity to do is to develop an independent tool.” 

Other states have in recent years shown an increasing interest in using cumulative impact maps like the Mapping for Environmental Justice Virginia map in permitting, enforcement and planning decisions. California in particular has extensively used such maps as a tool in hazardous waste permit review and cap-and-trade allocation, among other applications.

Virginia legislators during the 2021 regular session, however, balked at incorporating cumulative impacts into existing environmental justice laws, with the Senate expressing concerns about how broadly the concept could be interpreted. 

Buchholz said the Virginia map was developed under the same approach as that used to create the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, or CalEnviroScreen, a tool that assesses cumulative impacts of environmental pollution and hazards on the census tract level.  

“The thing that we really like about this methodology is it was really grounded in reflecting the lived experiences of communities. There was a lot of ground truthing that was done,” he said. 

Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative coordinator Queen Zakia Shabazz said the map, which the groups expect to continue refining over time, would “be centralizing to Virginia and Virginia communities.” 

“We’ll be able to pinpoint the different communities and what’s already been there and use that as an argument to say why we do not need a polluting entity in those communities,” she said.


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.