According to a new study by the University of Michigan, environmental justice advocacy groups across the country are supporting state-level environmental justice screening tools.
These screening tools show the communities most affected by environmental injustices. U-M researchers reviewed environmental justice screening tools at the state level and interviewed nearly 30 stakeholders in the United States to find out their views on the utility of such tools in order to advance environmental justice goals.
The researchers identified states that have developed state-specific environmental justice screening tools, analyzed existing state-specific screening tools and how they informed their respective states’ environmental justice policies and programs, and identified the benefits of screening tools. They also identified the possible reasons for resistance to the use environmental justice screening tools, and suggested strategies to overcome this resistance.
The researchers interviewed stakeholders from California, Minnesota, Washington, New Jersey, Maryland and Michigan, where the state’s official environmental justice screening tool, MiEJSCREEN, is expected to be released in 2022. Stakeholders identified several benefits of screening tools, including the ability to share information, assist in community advocacy-based activities, and influence regulatory/policy-based decision-making.
“Many frontline community members across the United States have shared their experiences of pollution and its impacts on public health. However, these testimonies are rarely incorporated into decision-making processes by polluting industries, or state and local authorities,” said Molly Blondell, one of the study’s co-authors and a graduate of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.
“By combining socioeconomic data with health data, these EJ screening tools can visualize areas with the greatest environmental injustices and support community testimony. Our interviewees spoke of the versatility that these tools have to aid in the development of EJ policy and community-oriented decision-making processes.”
The study was carried out in partnership with Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. They have been actively involved in pushing for the use a Michigan-based environmental screening tool to establish environmental laws and ensure justice-based community actions.
This study is timely, given the “considerable interest around the country in developing state-specific EJ screening tools that can help locate and document where disproportionate cumulative environmental burdens occur,” said Paul Mohai, a professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability and one of the study’s other co-authors.
Mohai noted that the state of Michigan used previous environmental justice research conducted by former U-M graduate studentswhich identified “hot spots” of environmental injustice across the stateas a guide when creating the Michigan-specific screening tool.
Although there are many positives to screening tools, researchers discovered that there could be resistance from stakeholders to their development. This can happen both internally (within state government agencies and agencies) or externally (from outside groups, industries and organizations).
For instance, screening tools may be met with resistance by industry, state officials or community members who question the tools’ relative scope, data accuracy and capacity for implementation, the study shows.
“We found that, while each state had their own socio-political concerns, there were common groups that our interviewees thought were resistant,” said Arianna Zrzavy, the study’s lead author, who also is a graduate of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. “Some groups were already familiar to us, as they have appeared in environmental justice literature. However, the ways that state governments or agencies would be resistant to a screening toolby impacting their resources or internal processes, for examplewas surprising for us to learn.”
Researchers sought input from stakeholders to determine how to overcome resistance through messaging and framing.
“Many of our interviewees noted that resistance to EJ screening tools came from a lack of understanding of how these tools can be used for decision-making,” Blondell said. “In response to this, our interviewees discussed how EJ screening tools could be framed as information-gathering and educational resources. They also noted how these tools are adaptable, as they can capture state-level and local-level matters.”
While environmental justice screening tools are “crucial for promoting EJ policies,” Zrzavy noted, a key takeaway is that “these tools are only impactful insofar as they are used to correct environmental injustices. State decision-makers in Michigan and across the U.S. must work to improve the health and well-being of communities experiencing cumulative impacts by using these tools together with community testimony.”
Over the years, many definitions of justice for environmental issues have been proposed, including one by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. According to the EPA definition, environmental justice refers to fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people, regardless of race, color or national origin, in the development, enforcement, and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.