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AST: Environmental Justice in Hazardous Waste Clean-Ups

Held on August 26th, 2023 at Manuel’s Tavern, 602 North Highland Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, GA 30307

About

Environmental issues are unique because they are not confined to the geography location of their origin, and this lack of containment means that we all pay the price for environmental damage around the world. By using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) we can visualize how the burden of environmental degradation is dispersed in different locations. This doesn’t always happen in an equitable way, however. Enter: environmental justice, which describes the way we address the disproportionate burden of environmental issues among marginalized groups.

This has been identified fairly recently compared to other environmental issues, so most environmental policy was not created with environmental justice in mind. This is certainly true in the case of Georgia’s Hazardous Waste and Solid Waste Trust Funds. These were created to provide funding to help clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and landfills, but the current prioritization of these sites does not take environmental justice concerns into account. The Georgia Water Coalition and Science for Georgia are seeking to bring awareness to this issue by using GIS, in hopes that the funding will be given to the communities that are most in need.

Event Summary

by Julia Gonzalez

Cierra is Advocating for Change in the State of Georgia’s hazardous waste cleanup strategy!

Cierra Walsh, a Science for Georgia intern in her 4th year of studying geographic information systems at Kennesaw State University, is tackling environmental justice in Georgia’s hazardous waste cleanup strategy. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has created a priority list for hazardous waste sites that need funding, yet environmental justice criteria are  not being taken into account. Cierra and the Sci4Ga team aim to create an index that takes into account socioeconomic, geographic, and demographic factors that cause Georgia residents to be differentially at risk to the negative consequences of hazardous waste. They then aim to use the r index to advocate for the consideration of environmental justice in the EPD’s prioritization of funding.

Currently, there are two tools to designate census tracts as areas that are at greater risk to the negative consequences of environmental degradation. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Screening Tool (EJSCREEN) maps a variety of socioeconomic, geographic, and demographic factors by census tract. Only one factor can be viewed at a time, which makes it difficult to predict overall risk. This tool was improved upon in 2020 when the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) was created. This tool puts different factors into eight different buckets, which are filled when at least one factor is over the threshold of 90th percentile. This binary system leads to a certain amount of data loss. For example, a tract that is over the 90th percentile in historic underinvestment will receive the same score for the housing bucket as a tract that is over the 90th percentile in historic underinvestment, presence of lead paint, and lack of indoor plumbing.

Cierra has created an interactive map showing the location of hazardous waste sites recognized by the EPD, the location of GA river basins, the demographic index from the EJSCREEN, and the burden indicators from the CEJST and EJSCREEN.  She is also working on revising these indexes by including racial makeup of census tracts in the tract scores, and has collected feedback from the public about whether buckets could be broken down into fractional scores, and whether they could be weighed differently. The proposed new index would give a percentile score. In the above example – the housing category would get a score of .333 for the first tract (only one out of three factors) and a score of 1 for the second tract (three out of three). Science for Georgia and the Georgia Water Coalition will use their advocacy and outreach connections to identify one to two Georgia locations that have a Haz Waste site, a high EJ burden, and an organized community – so to work together to gain cleanup funds for the site. 

Cierra plans to compare the EPD prioritization list to her index and to include this on the map as a resource for advocacy for the consideration of environmental justice in the allocation of the GA hazardous waste trust fund.

Cierra Walsh, Science for Georgia Intern, Undergrad at Kennesaw State University

Cierra is a fourth-year undergraduate student at Kennesaw State University. She entered KSU as an environmental science student, but discovered an interest in geographic information systems (GIS) GIS and map-making during her time there. She is currently enrolled in the Geospatial Sciences program, with a concentration in Human-Environment Systems. Cierra’s interests lie mainly in environmental issues and human geography, and she hopes to use maps and GIS to help communicate information about these interests to as many people as possible. Her interest in science communication brought her to Science for Georgia, where she is part of a team that is creating a GIS tool to help evaluate environmental justice concerns throughout Georgia.

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