CA’s flawed tools could deny billions of dollars of access to contaminated communities



In summary

Researchers say the state’s environmental policies bias which areas are designated as disadvantaged. While some immigrant neighborhoods may be left behind, other groups are overrepresented.

A new study shows that the system California uses to screen areas at risk of environmental harm is highly subjective and flawed, resulting in billions of dollars being lost to local communities. There is a possibility of missing.

The study was conducted by researchers who initiated the project at Stanford University, which the California Department of Environmental Protection established in 2013 as the nation’s first comprehensive state-run initiative to identify communities disproportionately burdened by pollution. We investigated the tool developed as an overall environmental health screening tool.

Communities designated as “disadvantaged” by a system called CalEnviroScreen can be eligible for significant government and private funding. The tool has been used to specify large swaths of the Central Valley, communities around the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, and neighborhoods in Bay Area cities such as Richmond and Oakland.

Researchers found that the screening tool utilized a small number of health problems, which could lead to bias in which communities were designated. About 16% of the state’s census tracts could be ranked differently due to EnviroScreen’s model changes, according to the study.

This system raises issues of fairness as it can be biased in favor of certain groups over others and can cause groups to compete for funds in what is essentially a winner-take-all or loser-all system. It is said to be causing it. research.

For example, “we found that existing models may underestimate the foreign-born population,” the researchers wrote.

Community groups and environmental justice advocates have long argued that the tool overlooks communities that should be designated as disadvantaged.

There is a huge amount of money at stake, researchers reported, amounting to about $2.08 billion in the last four years alone.

This discovery comes as scientists increasingly demonstrate that algorithms can be just as biased as the humans who create them, and that many algorithms can disproportionately harm marginalized people. It was announced during the

“The big takeaway is that if you asked 10 different experts in California to come up with their own screening algorithms to determine which areas are ‘disadvantaged,’ they would probably come up with 10 completely different algorithms. That’s what we’re going to get,” said lead author Benjamin Q. Hein. He is a doctoral student at Stanford University and currently a researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “These things may seem like very technical things, but when you look at the numbers, you see billions of dollars flowing…in these seemingly very technical details. That is actually very important.”

CalEPA Office of Environmental Health spokeswoman Amy Gilson said the study’s recommendations are under review. Any potential changes to CalEnviroScreen would have to go through a “thorough scientific evaluation” and “an extensive public process,” she said.

“CalEnviroScreen’s methodology is transparent enough to allow for this type of external evaluation, and we welcome discussion of the merits of different approaches,” Gilson said in an emailed statement to CalMatters.

CalEnviroScreen identifies neighborhoods by census tracts (localized areas that typically contain 1,000 to 8,000 residents, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau). California released its fourth version of its CalEnviroScreen in October 2021.

CalEnviroScreen assesses 21 environmental, public health, and demographic factors to determine which regions are most vulnerable to environmental damage. Factors considered include air and drinking water contaminants, pesticide use, toxic emissions, low birth weight, poverty, and unemployment rates. The tool then ranks the 25% most disadvantaged neighborhoods in California. This determines which regions receive billions of dollars in government and private funding.

State law requires that at least a quarter of the money from the California Climate Investment Fund be spent in these communities. The money comes from California’s cap-and-trade market program, which allows polluters to buy credits to offset their emissions.

The fund paid $1.3 billion for nearly 19,500 new projects in 2022, according to the state Air Resources Board. Of that amount, $933 million went to disadvantaged and low-income communities, the aviation commission said.

“When you look at the numbers, you see billions of dollars flowing…These seemingly technical details are actually very important.”

Benjamin Q. Huynh, Johns Hopkins University

Huynh said he became interested in CalEnviroScreen's zoning after reading a 2021 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article found that some of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods were ineligible for funding, largely due to their ranking on CalEnviroScreen.

"Under such high-uncertainty models, all subjective model decisions implicitly become value judgments," the study authors wrote. "Any variation of the model may favor one subpopulation and not another."

The tool includes only three health components: low birth weight, cardiovascular disease, and emergency department visits for asthma. This rules out other serious health conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which could mean excluding communities with large numbers of foreign-born residents, the authors said. Although immigrants may have lower rates of asthma or be less likely to seek emergency care, they still have other serious respiratory illnesses, the study says.

It also excludes other common health problems, such as cancer and kidney disease, which can skew which areas are designated as disadvantaged. The authors said changing the tool to include these diseases could result in fewer Black communities being designated as disadvantaged. That would diminish the importance of low birth weight babies, which disproportionately affect black people.

Race is not a factor in the vetting system. But researchers found that tweaking the model could make a big difference for communities of color. For example, we found that changes in indicators meant that more non-white communities with higher levels of poverty were classified as disadvantaged.

Richmond's Chevron Refinery is located at the back of a nearby neighborhood on February 21, 2024. Photo credit: Loren Elliott of CalMatters
Chevron Refinery in Richmond. Photo by Loren Elliott of CalMatters

The research team proposed several possible solutions to "alleviate equity concerns," including using multiple models. This would increase the number of designated communities by 10%.

"As there is no single 'best' model, we suggest assessing robustness through sensitivity analysis and incorporating additional models accordingly," the researchers wrote.

Additionally, "safeguards such as external advisory boards comprised of subject matter experts and local community group leaders can also reduce harm by identifying ethical concerns that may be overlooked internally." It may help you.”

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