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HHS launches community-level environmental justice hazard calculator

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Wednesday formally launched its Environmental Justice Index (EJI), which will assign communities numerical scores based on the health burdens of environmental conditions.

The EJI is based on data from the individual census tract and assigns an overall environmental score based on 36 factors. The tool also includes data for individual possible hazardous sites within a community, such as coal mines or lead mines, and planned and built environmental features that can alleviate environmental burden, such as walkability or houses built after 1980.

For example, the EJI analysis for Flint, Mich., the site of an ongoing water crisis as a result of lead contamination in drinking water, shows that its individual neighborhoods have more severe cumulative environmental impacts than 85 percent of American communities.

Zooming in further, the county’s 26th census tract, which has a population of 2,616, has an 0.93 percent total rank out of a possible 1, with a score of 0.98 for the presence of treatment, storage and disposal sites, and a score of 0.83 for water pollution.

In St. James Parish, La., part of an area that has become known as Cancer Alley, census tract 403 has a 1.00 for cancer risk from air toxicity, the maximum possible score, and an 0.90 for walkability—in other words, residents have few options but to increase pollutants by driving.

“Too many communities across our nation, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, continue to bear the brunt of pollution. Meeting the needs of these communities requires our focused attention and we will use the Environmental Justice Index to do just that,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

The White House Council on Environmental Quality has separately launched a tool that uses geospatial mapping to determine areas at particular environmental disadvantages. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan has separately identified environmental justice as a major priority for the administration.

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