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Environmental Justice Index Announced to Help Guide Federal Policy

August 16, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
U.S. 49 as its runs through the Mississippi Delta. (Photo by Brandon Rush, Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Health and Human Services is launching a new online tool to help communities gauge the extent pollution is contributing to health risks for their residents.

It is intended primarily to benefit residents of disadvantaged communities.

The tool, called the Environmental Justice Index, gives a single score to help public health officials identify locations in greatest danger of environmental hazards.

The score pulls together data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Census Bureau.

The 36 factors that go into the algorithm use data points representing household income, unemployment rates, air pollution levels and proximity to Superfund sites or incinerators. Other data points consider how great a burden pollution would create for residents based on their special vulnerabilities.

Persons with asthma, for example, would be more vulnerable to air pollution than the general population. The presence of coal mines or refineries could be contributing factors.

In one example, the index shows water contamination in Flint, Michigan, gave the city a rating lower than 85% of American communities.

The index furthers a Biden administration plan for eliminating inequities that result in disadvantaged neighborhoods enduring more of an “environmental burden” than wealthier communities. The index is part of the Justice40 program, which directs federal grants to sites where the environmental injustice is greatest.

The 40 in Justice40 refers to a proposal for putting at least 40% of federal environmental cleanup investment into clean energy and climate mitigation projects to benefit disadvantaged communities.

President Joe Biden announced the policy in a Jan. 27, 2021, executive order that said, “To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern.”

It added, “It is therefore the policy of my administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.”

By the end of July, the Justice40 grants were given to several regional development authorities, such as the Appalachian Regional Commission for infrastructure projects throughout the 423-county Appalachian region, and the Delta Regional Authority for projects that included remediation in the 252-county Mississippi Delta region.

Justice40, along with the Environmental Justice Index, faces political obstacles, regardless of its good intentions.

Final projects that receive the federal grant money are largely decided by local and state governments, some of which lie in predominantly Republican states. In Texas and other states, the Republican leadership sometimes has defied federal guidance to direct the money to help their poorest residents.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Environmental Justice announced the Environmental Justice Index in a press release last week.

It quoted CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, saying, “Addressing environmental injustice is critical to advancing health equity.”

The 2022 Survey of America’s Physicians reported that eight in 10 physicians believe that to improve health outcomes or reduce health care costs the United States strategies must address social determinants of health, such as access to education, good nutrition, transportation and a clean environment.

“CDC is taking action to address the adverse health effects associated with environmental injustice by identifying those most at risk with tools like the Environmental Justice Index,” Walensky said.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com and @TomRamstack

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