Last week I attended the 4th Annual Moving Forward Network Conference in Los Angeles. The Moving Forward Network aims to transform the global trade system by bringing together community leaders, researchers, planners, policy makers, industry, and regulators to improve conditions in communities of color and low-income that bear the burden of adverse health impacts from exposure to air pollution. There were many opportunities to learn about – and from – other communities working to address environmental justice.
Because I love data and thinking about ways to use it to inform action, I attended a session about screening tools and public health data. I learned about CalEnviroScreen, a mapping tool that helps identify areas most affected by multiple sources of air pollution. The information can be used by communities to apply for grants from California EPA’s small grants program. The tool supports the state’s 2004 Intra-Agency Environmental Justice Strategy, established to address environmental justice issues in California.
While the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has an “Environmental Equity Program”, its aim is to ensure “non-discrimination in TCEQ processes” so that all residents can “enjoy” full participation in TCEQ decision-making. This does not address, however, the opportunity for TCEQ to prioritize the public health of historically underprotected communities in areas of high industrial siting and pollution impacts. We know that a person’s health is directly linked to where they live, but ensuring we reduce exposure to hazardous air in our most vulnerable communities first requires that the data available are used to inform TCEQ’s programs, practices, and policies.
For our region, we know that communities of color and low income communities are predominately sited near industry and major industrial sources of pollution. According to TCEQ and the Houston Regional Monitoring Corporation, Houston is home to the most extensive air monitoring network in the country although that network provides an incomplete picture of air quality issues in Houston. Furthermore, various studies show increased risks of cancer and respiratory illnesses in communities along the Ship Channel.
We need to use this information to implement policies that consider cumulative impacts that will better protect public health. Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 has been around since 1994. Twenty-three years later our state has no real program in place to address environmental justice issues and although it took 17 years, the EPA recently settled a racial discrimination case against TCEQ.
There is no reason why TCEQ cannot transform and leverage the data it has available to develop a meaningful environmental justice program for Texas. But for TCEQ to take that step, it requires them to prioritize public health, and particularly public health for those closest to these industrial sources. Attending the Moving Forward Network conference and learning about what other communities are actively doing to address environmental justice, highlighted that there is much work left to be done to bring about change in Houston and Texas.