Medical students are taught early on to "first, do no harm." Make sure the cure doesn't harm the patient more than the disease. Government could learn from this.
Well-intended laws or regulations often end up harming a community more than helping it. This is the case with the California Environmental Protection Agency's (Cal/EPA) pending California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen), aimed at identifying disadvantaged communities most eligible to receive state funds to help remedy the effects of pollution.
CalEnviroScreen is a proposed health hazard assessment that would use multiple factors to identify areas that may be disproportionately affected by pollution and contain socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. Results of the screen would be posted on a Google map sorted by ZIP code, creating a comparison of areas of the state.
But many business organizations and local government officials are concerned that this process will rank many of our communities with disproportionately high (negative) scores, making it appear there is inadequate environmental regulation.
One problem is that the data will result in high ratings even if there is no potential for exposure or any connection to health impacts. Another is that sometimes emissions could be counted more than once, in some cases tripling the perceived impact from a single source so much so that the maps mistakenly make it look like our mouths are attached to all the tailpipes on the Highway 99 corridor.
There are numerous tough restrictions to protect public health whenever a farmer uses a pesticide. But this tool would classify every application as 100 percent exposure to folks that live in the same ZIP code as that application.
There is also great concern that use of CalEnviroScreen could backfire by not clearly defining how its results can be fairly used and how they should not be used.
For instance utilizing the rankings in land use and permitting decisions, including review under the California Environmental Quality Act, would add another complicated layer to an already costly and challenging process frequently cited as a major deterrent to business development in California. This would be like hanging a sign at the county line or city limits that says: "Don't even think about trying to do business here."
Our underserved communities and indeed our entire county need help. Jobs are the primary answer.
The economic transfusion that new businesses can provide is vital. New businesses create jobs and the revenues that enable our local governments to deliver services.
We should do everything we can to encourage that positive growth, not erect barriers to it.
The challenge now is for the California Environmental Protection Agency to define in no uncertain terms how the tool can and can't be used starting with concise language keeping it clearly out of the land use and planning arena and away from further burdening farming and other highly regulated business activities. Otherwise this well-intended tool will create distortions sure to hurt the valley far more than help it.
Our communities are suffering from the diseases of unemployment, poverty and blight. Let's not put them at further risk by denying them the economic remedy of investment, business growth and job creation.
First, do no harm.
Chiesa, a Hughson-area farmer, chairs the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.