2023: Opportunities for Disadvantaged Communities

2023: Opportunities for Disadvantaged Communities
Figure 1 shows a breakdown of the disadvantaged communities nested in the Central Valley. Image courtesy of CalEnviroScreen 4.0
Figure 1 shows a breakdown of the disadvantaged communities nested in the Central Valley. Image courtesy of CalEnviroScreen 4.0

It is hard to believe that the first month of 2023 has already ended, but what has not ended are the needs and challenges faced by disadvantaged communities. Which are these communities and why are they called that? What are the challenges, but also the opportunities, for these communities?

Although I am not a fan of the term disadvantaged communities, it is widely used by government agencies to refer to communities that suffer from a combination of economic, health and environmental burdens. These burdens include poverty, high unemployment, air and water pollution, and the presence of hazardous wastes, as well as a high incidence of asthma and heart disease.

Are you thinking that many communities in Fresno County and other Central Valley counties fit this description? You are right.

For specific names and to learn what type of pollution is more prevalent in these communities, you can access CalEnviroScreen, an analytical tool created by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) that combines different types of data to create a score that determines which communities are most disadvantaged.

The most recent edition of CalEnviroScreen in July of last year identified 2,310 Census tracts that fall within the “disadvantaged” category, of which 124 are in Fresno County.

As depressing and pejorative as this term sounds, it means some advantages for the communities that are deemed by CalEnviroScreen standards as “disadvantaged.”

For example, SB 535, which went into effect on July 1, 2022, directed that at least a quarter of the proceeds of the cap-and-trade program go to projects that provide a benefit to disadvantaged communities and at least 10% of the funds go to projects located within those communities.

Other government agencies at the federal, state and regional levels also use this “disadvantaged communities” classification (although in some cases they use other terms such as “overburdened”) to determine eligibility for funding and programs.

For example, President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative and Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad directed that 40% of the overall benefits of certain federal investments flow to overburdened communities that face disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental impacts.

The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District established residency in a disadvantaged community as one of the eligibility requirements to qualify for free air purifiers or other incentives.

Although allocating more funds and programs to disadvantaged communities is a good first step, it is not enough to remedy a history of unfair treatment of communities, predominantly communities of people of color and/or low-income residents. These communities have been subjected to disproportionate impacts from one or more environmental hazards, socioeconomic burdens or both. Residents have been excluded in policy-setting or decision-making processes and have lacked protections and benefits afforded to other communities.

While not all the systemic problems will be resolved in the short term, let’s review a few of the opportunities that 2023 brings for disadvantaged communities.

On Jan. 9, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) announced the availability of approximately $100 million for projects that advance environmental justice in underserved and overburdened communities across the country. This funding, made possible through President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, marks the largest amount of environmental justice grant funding ever offered by the U.S. EPA.

Furthermore, also in January of this year, U.S. EPA Region 9 released the first draft of its “Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights Implementation Plan.” The goal of this plan is to outline what is needed to achieve tangible progress in fiscal 2023 and beyond for historically overburdened and underserved communities and ensure the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income in developing and implementing environmental laws, regulations and policies.

These two concrete actions are a good start for the year, and we look forward to monitoring their implementation and evaluating if they will end up benefiting our disadvantaged communities.

At the state level, there are also opportunities on the horizon. In terms of funding, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research announced in January an investment of $125 million in grants that will support projects that advance climate resilience with a focus on supporting communities most vulnerable to climate change impacts, including disadvantaged communities.

Having extra dollars is helpful, but it is as important to have information of where these investments are needed the most. One way to do this is by following the example of the recently adopted “Racial Equity Action Plan” of the State Water Quality Control Board, which will identify climate change impacts (related to State Water Board authorities) and how they might disproportionately impact BIPOC communities and will collect additional data to better identify gaps in programs and policies that help advance racial equity and environmental justice.

Efforts to support disadvantaged communities by promoting environmental justice through policies and programs are not new, but they are certainly increasing, and we will keep our eyes open to identify and report on those opportunities that can help the 455 disadvantaged communities (Census tracts) that are nested in the Central Valley. A breakdown of these Census tracts by county is provided in Figure 1.

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