SB 535 (de Leon; 2012) directed CalEPA to identify disadvantaged communities using geographic, socioeconomic, public health and environmental criteria in order to assist implementation of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.
In response, CalEPA created CalEnviroScreen and the first version of the tool was released for public comment in July 2012. CalEPA then held a series of public meetings throughout the state to solicit comments. Following the first comment period, CalEPA released a revised second draft of CalEnviroScreen in January 2013.
Before the second comment period ended on Feb. 1, CalEPA representatives also presented CalEnviroScreen to the League’s Housing, Community & Economic Development and Environmental Quality Policy Committee meetings in January.
The League’s primary concern regarding CalEnviroScreen has been the intent and purpose of the tool and how it will ultimately be used. Without a clearly defined purpose, definitions of terms and scope of the tool, its data could be misused, especially for CEQA analysis.
The application of the tool for CEQA analysis is a big concern. While CalEnviroScreen takes into account socioeconomic factors, CEQA guidelines contain no provisions requiring special treatment of environmental justice issues and do not treat socioeconomic facts as environmental impacts.
Further, the community scores given through CalEnviroScreen are based on pre-existing datasets. There is no evidence the indicators included in the tool were the sole cause of the environmental health issues in the affected community. There are many factors that have an effect on the health of a community, including lifestyle and personal environment. The tool simply cannot provide a scientifically supportable assessment of these environmental health factors and what lead to the misrepresentation of environmental impacts in the affected areas.
The unintended consequence of the tool could be undue influence on land use and zoning requirements based on CalEnviroScreen scores, resulting in businesses avoiding high scoring areas for development or expansion, a loss in the ability to promote local job growth, and a reduction in in-fill housing opportunities.
Some advocates from the business community have publicly argued that CalEnviroScreen should not be used for CEQA purposes and these concerns are very similar to the concerns of the League. However, when those business advocates submitted their recommended changes to CalEnviroScreen the exact language in their recommendations would have ultimately limited local control.
Given the League’s mission to protect local control and flexibility, we chose not to support their petition and instead submit our own comments. The League’s comments reflect an effort to improve the tool by clearly separating it from CEQA and preventing any mandates that the tool must be used by local governments while carefully preserving local flexibility and access to the tool’s data should a jurisdiction choose to use it. Local governments should be allowed to use any data in the tool they find helpful, especially given this data is already available in other forms.
The League submitted its comments, both as part of a larger local government coalition and in a separate letter. The League’s suggested changes to the tool were outlined in a recommendation document that was submitted following the letters.
CalEPA officials have indicated that the final tool is expected to be released in late March.
More information about CalEnviroScreen can be found on the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s website.