Yoohyun Jung, San Francisco Chronicle (MCT)
CalEnviroScreen — short for California Communities Environmental Health Screening — was developed by the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to help identify communities that are most burdened by environmental issues. It’s a science-based tool that helps decision makers put hundreds of millions of dollars in funding each year in places that need it most.
So what does that mean? Here’s what you need to know.
Q: What data goes into the screening tool?
A: The fourth and latest version of CalEnviroScreen, the first version of which launched in 2013, combines 21 different indicators — data points — that incorporate publicly available data from multiple sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau. The 21 data points break down into two broad categories, which are pollution burden and population characteristics.
Q: How were those 21 indicators chosen?
A: The CalEnviroScreen 4.0 report says that the 21 indicators “represent widespread concerns related to pollution burden or population characteristics in California.” The list of indicators has changed across versions, as has the data that informs those indicators.
Many people, including public officials and community advocates, have argued that the current indicators don’t reflect some of the key issues impacting their communities. For instance, despite escalating wildfire risk across the state, there is no wildfire-risk specific indicator — air quality, which is taken into account, can reflect wildfire smoke concerns indirectly.
Another example is the housing burden indicator, which scientists added based on community input. That indicator is based on housing cost, but does not factor in what types of housing situations people are in. In places like San Francisco’s single-room occupancy buildings where hundreds of households live together in tight quarters, the density and limited space increase housing burden for the residents.
Q: What is the CalEnviroScreen score and which data points matter most?
A: The CalEnviroScore is the overall score, ranging from 0 to 100, for each community, with higher scores indicating higher environmental vulnerability, generated by combining the 21 pollution and population indicators. The indicators for pollution exposure are the most heavily weighed, followed by population characteristics. Environmental effects indicators, which are meant to measure “the presence of pollutants in a community rather than exposure to them,” get the least weight.
Q: Why is CalEnviroScreen controversial?
A: CalEnviroScreen is the basis for identifying California’s “disadvantaged communities,” a legislative designation that makes the qualifying areas a priority for certain state climate-oriented funding.
But since the tool was created, an increasing number of government agencies and non-governmental organizations have started using the tools data to distribute funds. Receiving the “disadvantage community” designation can mean access to large amounts of money. Critics argue that it’s often inappropriately used as a way of identifying disadvantaged communities in general terms, and just focused on environmental disadvantage.
Q: What parts of California have communities that are most likely to be designated “disadvantaged?”
A: More Central Valley and Southern California census tracts have been given this designation than Northern California communities. In fact, several northern counties, including Humboldt, Del Norte and Siskiyou do not have any tracts that meet the criteria for “disadvantaged communities.”
Q: Why does this environmental screening tool include so much demographic data?
A: State officials have called CalEnviroScreen the “environmental justice” tool, because the tool’s methodology recognizes that poor communities are even more vulnerable to impacts of environmental degradation.
“This is reflecting a long standing environmental justice concern that some communities have not just cleanup sites, but they have poor air quality, poor water quality, or there’s a landfill nearby and in the downtown, a major traffic corridor with diesel trucks and so on and so forth,” Faust said. “Those are sort of the concepts that sort of underpin this cumulative impact concern.”
Q: CalEnviroScreen is now in its fourth version. What’s new in 4.0?
A: The new version includes a measure of children’s risk of lead exposure, which is common in older housing in low-income communities, CalEnviroScreen officials say. The update to this version also included improving the methods and data behind the indicators. For example, the scientists increased the number of pesticides that factor into the pesticides indicator.
Q: What are the data’s limitations?
A: CalEnviroScreen draws from publicly available data sources to be proxies for what the indicators are trying to measure.
The methodology behind some measures is straightforward, like air quality. For air quality, the tool pulls the annual mean concentration of particulate matter (PM) 2.5 of each census tract from California Air Resources Board data. Others, such as drinking water contaminants, are more complicated and involve combining data points from a variety of sources.
Many data points used in the tool are outdated. For instance, the drinking water index is calculated using data between 2011 and 2019, which means it may not represent the current drinking water conditions in each area. Officials involved with CalEnviroScreen say that’s because up-to-date data that spans across the state that breaks down to the community level aren’t always available.
The tool is constantly evolving based on feedback and suggestions, said Laura August, a research scientist at OEHHA, which developed CalEnviroScreen. “We are always open to input, not just during that window of public comment when we put out a draft.”
Yoohyun Jung is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @yoohyun_jung
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