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Environmental Justice for Whom? The Inaccessibility of Environmental Data for Latinx Communities

Screenshot of speakers at the May 13 event hosted by Environmental Enforcement Watch

To read the article in Spanish, go here

Watch a recording of the event here.

On May 13, EDGI’s Environmental Enforcement Watch (EEW) hosted an online event about the obstacles Latinx Communities face with accessibility to environmental information. During this event, EEW provided an overview of our project and introduced Spanish versions of the report cards we made targeting congressional districts and states with house representatives and senators who sit on the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Environment and Public Works Committees that oversee the EPA. Then, we presented a message from Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey on the importance of environmental data access, followed by lightning talks from activists working with Latinx communities. These talks were delivered by Dr. Teresa Córdova from the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Alejandría Lyons from the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), José Bravo from Just Transition Alliance, and Shanna Edberg from Hispanic Access Foundation. 

The health and livelihoods of Latinx communities are disproportionately at risk due to environmental hazards and climate change. For instance, Latinx people are burdened by 63% more hazardous air pollution than they create by their consumption. A recent report by Tessum et al. shows that while Whites on average are exposed to 5.9 μg/m−3 of particulate matter (solid and liquid droplets in the air that can harm human health), Latinx people are on average exposed to 7.2 μg/m−3. 

Environmental Enforcement Watch’s Congressional and State Report Cards in Spanish

Despite these burdens faced by Latinx communities, EPA resources are not fully available in Spanish. The little information that is available in Spanish can be overly technical and difficult to understand. The Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) interface provides the public with information they need about nearby facilities, such as when the EPA last inspected them, whether they have violated their permits, and if they have received any penalties. This information is not in Spanish except for the page to make complaints about facilities. Even in English, the interface can be daunting and only provides information about individual facilities instead of larger enforcement patterns.

For the past year, EEW has been working to enrich the public’s interaction with data from ECHO by developing open source Jupyter notebooks written in the programming language python that anyone can run to retrieve analyses that the ECHO website does not provide. So far, we have notebooks that provide information about enforcement in US congressional districts, states, the nation, zip codes, and watersheds. In particular, EEW has created congressional report cards to show facility violations, inspections, and penalties under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act over the past twenty years. The report cards also identify top companies violating their permits in their respective states or congressional districts. 

See our report “Democratizing Data” here, which gives a more in depth overview of the report cards. We have translated these report cards and the Jupyter Notebooks into Spanish (see an example of a Notebook here) for easier access to Spanish speakers.

Spanish Event Lightning Talk Speaker Summaries 

Dr. Teresa Córdova

Dr.Teresa Córdova is the director of the Great Cities Institute (GCI) from the University of Chicago. Córdova discussed GCI’s Our Great Rivers initiative to support communities addressing environmental issues in the area along the Calumet River region of Southeast Chicago. Historically, Chicago has been an industrial hub, she said, and its residents continue to deal with remaining water pollution from the steel industry. In recent years, additional polluting industries have relocated to Southeast Chicago, which is home to Latinx, Black, and low-income white communities. 

Through the “Great Cities, Great Rivers” project and Camulet Connect, a coalition of community stakeholders, the GCI developed a framework plan to deal with the pollution, highlighting community perspectives and providing people with the data needed to address environmental issues. Overall, the GCI focuses on making academic resources and environmental data available to stakeholders in Chicago so they can address urban environmental issues.

Alejandría Lyons

Alejandría Lyons is an environmental justice organizer with Southwest Organizing Project’s (SWOP) Albuquerque chapter on Tiwa land in New Mexico where they deal primarily with railyard, asphalt, and biofuel industries in the San Jose area. Access to information about emissions from these industries in Spanish is especially important given that 56% of San Jose residents speak Spanish in their homes, said Lyons. 

SWOP has especially worked on air monitoring and city ordinances. During a bucket brigade, a type of air impact study where community members fill a bucket containing a tedlar bag with air and send it to a lab to get tested, SWOP found highly volatile organic compounds and particulate matter in the area. Community-collected data has led SWOP to create and advocate for a cumulative impacts ordinance so no additional manufacturers can establish facilities in San Jose, where community members already face environmental hazards from existing facilities. SWOP has faced barriers to getting city officials to pass an ordinance, however, as the legitimacy of community-collected data about health-harming pollutants is often questioned.

José Bravo

José Bravo is the executive director of Just Transition Alliance, a non-profit coalition of environmental justice organizations and labor unions. Bravo said that not all policies are created equal; a lot of regulations depend on companies reporting their own violations, which rarely happens—especially in communities of color. In addition, regulation seems to be selective, functioning differently in predominantly POC and low-income communities than in affluent White communities. For example, in 2009, the Waxman-Markey bill pushed for a cap and trade system; however, as observed in various studies (Lambert 2014, Cushing et al 2018, Finley-Brook and Holloman 2016) cap and trade is not beneficial to communities of color. Instead, it creates an additional burden since facilities are permitted to pollute and their disproportionate impacts on underrepresented communities are not addressed.

When it comes to data access, Bravo states that many communities needing to access the data don’t have the capacity to understand technical terms and data unless it is translated by organizations like Dr. Córdova’s GCI. This is why GCI’s work, translating data and information then making them accessible to communities is so valuable. Bravo also touched on the importance of recognizing that Spanish varies a lot within different nationalities. For these reasons, Bravo recommends taking time to know and understand your audience before translating information for Spanish-speaking communities. 

Shanna Edberg

Shanna Edberg is the director of conservation programs at Hispanic Access Foundation, a national nonprofit that works with Latinx communities to promote environmental stewardship and leadership, and to elevate Latinx voices in policy and decision-making. She discussed how COVID-19 is an environmental health and justice issue, since studies (Contini and Costabile 2021, Comunian et al 2020, Shakor et al 2020) show COVID-19 spreads more easily in polluted air. Moreover, respiratory effects from air pollution compound COVID-19 respiratory symptoms, increasing the risk of COVID-19 complications and mortality rates. This especially pertains to Latinx and Black communities because they have been hit hard with both COVID-19 and air pollution. According to APM Research Lab, “Pacific Islander, Latino, Indigenous, and Black Americans all have a COVID-19 death rate of double or more that of White and Asian Americans, who experience the lowest age-adjusted rates.” 

Edberg also discussed trends of underrepresented communities living in areas with more contaminated air and with less access to green spaces. Because of this, Edberg said, environmental data access and usability are important because it allows community leaders to advocate for community health by alerting policymakers of ongoing issues with polluting facilities. Edberg argues, it also is important to make human stories and experiences available to policymakers to urge action.

Hispanic Access Foundation has a multi-prong strategy for addressing environmental injustice. They work with community members, often faith leaders, to bring information to the communities who need it, including hard-to-reach immigrant communities with language barriers. They also help organize a Latino Conservation Week where Latinx communities celebrate the outdoors and environmental stewardship. On the federal level, they work to get Latinx individuals internships in environmental stewardship, such as at national parks, and have begun pushing the Biden administration to hire individuals from fenceline communities. HAF has recently released a Conservation Toolkit whitepaper, available in both Spanish and English, with an easy-to-read overview of how climate change and pollution affect Latinx jobs, health, cultural heritage, recreation, disaster preparation, public opinion, and equity injustice. The toolkit also has policy recommendations to implement at a national level for climate justice and a healthy environment. 

Highlights From the Discussion With Our Panelists

During our discussion, several points came up about working with community groups, the role of EPA in regulating chemicals, and the importance of accessing localized data. Dr. Córdova stressed the importance of starting with an invitation from community groups, as self-determination is central to achieving environmental justice. Communities exercise self-determination when they speak for themselves about their own environmental injustices, as opposed to researchers or agency personnel using data metrics to decide whether to classify their area as an environmental justice community. In this sense, many areas get overlooked because some groups, such as undocumented immigrants, are not represented by Census demographic data, and demographic indexes may change according to geographic scale (eg., Census tracts, zip codes, block groups). 

The panelists stressed the importance of collecting and using localized data that cover smaller populations. This especially resonated with EEW’s work analyzing enforcement data in watersheds,  which cover large areas, and local environmental groups may be interested in sub-watersheds and smaller waterways.  

EEW would like to extend its thank you to the panelists and all of the attendees. If you missed the panel, you can watch it at the link above.