Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

An Index for Environmental Justice County Creates Its Own Criteria to Refine the State's Formula and to Better Prioritize Communities That Need Help

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

An Index for Environmental Justice County Creates Its Own Criteria to Refine the State's Formula and to Better Prioritize Communities That Need Help

Article excerpt

McCandless, a relatively affluent, mostly white community in northern Allegheny County, probably shouldn't have been listed as an "environmental justice" community by the state Department of Environmental Protection, but it was.

Etna wasn't and it probably should have been because of air, water and noise pollution, at least according to the Allegheny County Health Department, which recently unveiled its new environmental justice index, designed to better identify communities with the biggest environmental health impacts and prioritize where help is needed.

The DEP created the Office of Environmental Justice in response to concerns that lower-income areas were more likely to be exposed to adverse environmental impacts and to make sure that residents of those areas are informed about matters that could affect their air, land and water and have an opportunity to comment on them.

The DEP notes on its website that minorities and low-income residents historically have been forced to bear a disproportionate share of adverse environmental impacts.

The state bases its Environmental Justice program determination solely on income and race statistics, but the county health department was looking for a more refined measure when it began putting together its Environmental Justice index a year ago, said LuAnn Brink, the department's chief epidemiologist.

"The reason we redefined it is we wanted to look at areas of high need and disparity, but it also address legacy issues of environmental pollution in communities that have a lack of resources to advocate for themselves," Ms. Brink said. "The index will be used to help guide decisions about where to target programs and resources."

Developed as part of the department's "Plan for a Healthier Allegheny," a living-well blueprint for the region, the new index ranks all 393 census tracts in the county based on their averaged scores in 10 environmental health categories.

The categories include the percentage of population that is below the federal poverty level; the percentage of minority residents; diesel particulate matter concentration; green space accessibility; high school grade attainment; impaired streams; fine soot concentration; home vacancy percentage; railroad tracks and traffic density.

The county index rates 31 of the county's census tracts as having the "highest need," and another 84 census tracts as having a "high need" for help in addressing environmental health issues.

The five highest-priority Pittsburgh census tracts are in the neighborhoods of Beltzhoover, Mount Washington, North Shore-East Allegheny, Sheraden and Elliott. Outside the city, census tracts scoring highest on the index are in the municipalities of Duquesne, McKeesport, East Pittsburgh, Sharpsburg and McKees Rocks.

A comparison of maps showing county health department environmental index communities and state Environmental Justice program communities shows significant overlap but also important differences.

For example, McCandless was one of more than 660 census tracts across the state that the DEP designated in 2010 as an Environmental Justice area, based on a poverty rate slightly higher than 20 percent. …

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