Controversial tool highlights polluted, disadvantaged communities

Ontario dairy farmer Patricia Van Dam worries that a proposed health screening tool will lead to onerous new environmental regulations that fail to distinguish between her farm and polluting industries nearby. Photo: Chris Richard/California Health Report

For decades, San Bernardino County has been a state leader in the statistics of despair: low educational attainment, high unemployment, low household income, low birth-weight babies, high pollution levels, inadequate health care.

The baleful statistics mounted up, but policy makers had no uniform way to bring them into a framework and chart their interactions. Now, a state agency is preparing a tool that will coalesce such indices in a color-coded map, one that highlights the communities that are most vulnerable to environmental health risks.

The proposed California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool will help local government officials determine where to direct resources and programs, said George Alexeeff, director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which is overseeing the project.

Maps produced by early versions of the tool show much of San Bernardino County tinted dark, a visual marker of compounded health risks.

Some fear the colored maps will stigmatize their communities, increasing the burden of regulation on businesses already there and scaring prospective employers away.

“I’m concerned that government is going to be the ones who identify the disadvantaged communities,” said Assemblyman Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga. “In other words, they pick the winners and the losers.”

Morrell predicts businesses seeking to open in areas the map labels disadvantaged will face additional, burdensome restrictions on what they’re allowed to do and new regulation on how they do it.

“This will be a job killer,” he said.

Lee Brown, executive director of the California Construction Trucking Assn., said his industry already has complied with state and federal regulations to clean up air pollution, including a move to lower-emission diesel vehicles that he estimated cost heavy-equipment users billions of dollars statewide.

“How clean do you get? Do you get like a clean room environment? Is that going to be good enough?” he asked. “They set a standard, they keep lowering it. Set a standard, keep lowering it, lowering it. And there’s a cost every time you lower that standard. A huge cost.”

Alexeeff said the tool is designed to further California’s eight-year-old environmental justice program. That program, administered by the state Environmental Protection Agency, is charged with analyzing and preventing or reducing the cumulative impacts of pollution, especially among minorities and the poor, who disproportionately live in highly polluted areas.

The technology to be employed in compiling the maps already is commonly used by such agencies as forestry services, to determine where fire risks are high, and by police departments that identify crime hotspots, then develop community-based policing or patrol strategies to quell them.

But Patricia Van Dam, who owns a 400-cow dairy farm in Ontario, faults the proposed environmental tool for basing its analysis on zip codes.

“Behind me, I have 3,500 houses. I have 40 acres with nothing on it. But I’m going to be lumped in with all the houses in the same zip code,” she said.

Van Dam considers many of the current state and federal regulations on her industry arbitrary, laid down by bureaucrats who don’t understand farming. Gayle Covey, executive director of the San Bernardino County Farm Bureau, has told Alexeeff’s staff that she wants a prohibition on using the tool to regulate business, raise permitting fees or require the replacement of polluting equipment.

Penny Newman, executive director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, agreed with Van Dam’s criticism of mapping according to zip code. Focusing the tool on census tracts would provide more precise information, she said.

Newman, though, is less patient with business resistance to the concept of a comprehensive look at the health risks to residents of high-poverty, high-pollution neighborhoods.

“If anybody’s going to be paranoid, (neighborhood residents) have the right to be paranoid. They’ve been left out of everything. This methodology that’s being put together is really to identify those unique situations and to start doing something to correct it,” she said.

“If we’re going to utilize the few resources we have, we need to focus them on the places that need them the most.”

As an example, Newman cited the neighborhood just north of the BNSF freight transfer facility in the city of San Bernardino. The goal set in the federal Clean Air Act for an acceptable exposure to airborne toxins is that they might cause at most one case of cancer per million people. But according to a 2008 report for the state Air Resources Board, the estimated cancer risk for that San Bernardino neighborhood is about 3,300 chances in a million.

“These communities have been targeted over and over again for the worst facilities, for the most pollution,” Newman said. “It doesn’t happen by accident, and it’s damn well time that we start correcting it.”

In the San Bernardino Mayor’s office, Chief of Staff Jim Morris said he likes an approach that sees more than one source for public health ills. He said the environmental contamination poses one health hazard, but poverty makes that hazard worse by limiting health care options.

“We’re understand that the solution is complicated and requires a multi-faceted approach, But the goods movement industry can’t just say, ‘Don’t target us because if you adopt more strict standards about emissions, we won’t be able to survive,” he said.

“Let’s talk about, ‘What regulatory environment can you live with? How can you contribute to overcoming those other challenges that are also contributors to those same public health problems, such as educational attainment?’”

In the neighborhood just north of the BNSF yard, several businesses have closed, leaving rows of empty storefronts on Mt. Vernon Boulevard. The houses behind the once-thriving commercial thoroughfare are small.

They look battered.

Lifelong resident Sandra Ramirez, 48, said she worries about how exposure to diesel fumes from the freight facility might be undermining her teenage son’s health. But, Ramirez said, she’s out of work and too poor to move away.

She doubts things will improve, with or without a new health risk screening tool.

People who are worried about putting food on the table don’t have time or energy for activism, Ramirez said.

“Me, personally, it would bother me if they pollute the area,” she said. “But then at the second hand, you know, hey, if it brings jobs, people are going to want them.”

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