"Environmental Justice" Tool in the Works

capitol dome and EPA logo AP / CBS

The federal government pointed with pride to a sweeping national database that identifies pollution-stricken poor and minority neighborhoods to help officials better target billions of economic recovery dollars.

But it's a tool that doesn't exist - yet.

The elaborate system to assign "environmental justice" scores by Census tract, already years in the making, is still on the drawing board at the Environmental Protection Agency. It could take more than a year to finish because it's still being tested and the agency is asking business, academic, state and environmental advisors to weigh in on it.

That didn't stop administration officials from listing it on an EPA Web site among several "best practice" tools for spending of billions of government dollars to stimulate the economy - a message in line with Obama administration pledges to help poor and ethnic victims of pollution. The system is called the Environmental Justice Strategic Enforcement Assessment Tool with the acronym EJSEAT.

"Census tracts in each state are assigned an EJSEAT score," the Web site said. The scores combine data such as cancer rates, poverty levels, child mortality, toxic emissions, education and racial characteristics and density of industrial facilities, it said.

When The Associated Press recently asked to see the national scores, EPA officials acknowledged they are still working on the draft version of the tool. The Web site description, they said, "was only intended to inform the public and our stakeholders about EPA's latest thinking on the tool."

The AP's inquiry "brought to attention that the website gave the misimpression that EJSEAT scores were available for public use," said the e-mailed explanation from press aide Deb Berlin. The wording was changed, leaving a description of the tool in development, along with other information about environmental justice issues.

The system was envisioned as a way to identify minority and poor neighborhoods with disproportionate pollution and environmental health issues. Concern that many of the nation's toxic and industrial sites are located in minority areas prompted a 1994 presidential order urging government agencies to address the issue.

Local governments need consistent criteria to identify these areas for land-use and permit decisions, said Vernice Miller-Travis, a Maryland environmental consultant and member of an EPA advisory committee on school air pollution. The scoring system could remove debate about whether a community fits the bill, she said.

Miller-Travis and other advocates nonetheless anticipate strides from the Obama administration on environmental justice. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has pledged to protect the poor and minorities, and the White House has reached out to Miller-Travis and other advocates for specific recommendations.

Among the advocates' priorities are getting more teeth into the 1994 presidential order, and strengthening industrial waste disposal rules.
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