Enviro screen will help, not hurt, poor communities in California

April 22, 2013 

Last year, environmentalists and advocates for disadvantaged communities came together to enact Senate Bill 535, historic legislation to bring clean energy investment to our state's most polluted and economically struggling areas. Now some are trying to strangle this life-saving effort before it begins.

At issue is the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, or CalEnviroScreen, being developed by the California Environmental Protection Agency. CalEnviroScreen represents the critical first step in the process: identifying the low-income, high-pollution areas that most need help.

Astonishingly, some are objecting to this process, claiming that identifying these troubled areas will hurt them. A few have even compared it to redlining — the now-illegal practice in which banks and other businesses refused to invest in low-income or minority neighborhoods, literally drawing red lines on the map to mark off areas they wouldn't touch.

What nonsense.

Those making these assertions either have a fundamental misunderstanding of redlining or are choosing to stand reality on its head. Their complaints ultimately come down to arguing that identifying a problem will make it worse.

At The Greenlining Institute, which led the fight for SB 535, we know something about redlining. Greenlining and its coalition were born from the fight against redlining, and have spent four decades battling it. SB 535 and the tools to implement it are the opposite of redlining.

Redlining singled out communities of color for disinvestment. It resulted in a century of siting the most polluting and harmful businesses in racially segregated communities. What CalEnviroScreen does is much, much different.

Instead of identifying neighborhoods for disinvestment, it identifies neighborhoods that are opportunities able to yield triple-bottom-line returns for entrepreneurs with courage. It identifies those neighborhoods that are already burdened by harmful pollution and are, without investment, economically unable to mitigate and adapt to these burdens. Rather than redlining communities, it identifies green investment zones. And it's backed by a real mechanism that will bring investment dollars to these communities.

The public should ask: Who gains by not identifying polluted areas? Who's better off if this information is kept hidden? Clearly it's not the people who are breathing toxic air and who will be impacted first and worst by climate change.

The notion that the way to prevent negative economic consequences from pollution is to avoid acknowledging the problem makes no sense.

Are there improvements needed to CalEnviroScreen? Sure. We will be working to ensure that refinements will more accurately identify the communities that need the most help. But make no mistake, this tool is long overdue and this kind of science-based identification should be embraced at all levels of policy-making.

CalEnviroScreen will be an important tool for ensuring that California's most disadvantaged communities are "greenlined" instead of redlined. Despite what polluters and their allies would have you believe, some of the neighborhoods that benefit most will be here in the valley.

Young is legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute and León is executive director of Valley LEAP.

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