Above: West Long Beach playground. Graphics by Baktaash Sorkhabi. Additional reporting by Alyssa Edwards.
In 2013, the State of California’s Environmental Protection Agency first released CalEnviroScreen, a tool examining pollution burdens and social vulnerability for all of the state’s Census Tracts—and it has been updated this year, providing even more details about everything from diesel particulate counts in the air to asthma rates.
The numbers, when comparing Long Beach neighborhoods, are astounding.
I decided to compare my zip code, 90803 (largely Alamitos Beach), to 90810, largely West Long Beach. Not a single census tract in my zip code even went above the 70th percentile when it came it hitting high scores for being burdened by pollution.
West Long Beach’s 90810 area? No census tract went below the 80th percentile, with three tracts reaching the highest in the state.
When it came to analyzing 90813—largely the southern end of West Long Beach and the entirety of Central Long Beach—things get even worse. Home to the mouth of the Port and Anaheim St., a stretch of auto shops and launders, this zip code is home to some of the state’s worst asthma rates, with every single census tract ranking in the 95th percentile or above in asthma. Half of the entirety of 90813 ranks in the 99th percentile in terms of diesel particulate matter in the air. These areas also mark some of our poorest, unemployed sectors in the city.
Some of the census tracts in West, Central, and North Long Beach had 20 times more diesel particulate matter in their air than in air I breathe sometimes less than a mile away.
The importance of this tool is that it responds to the growing concerns in the state of environmental justice issues as well as provides direction in how to best direct funding for the most environmentally burdened and marginalized communities as mandated by law—specifically California Senate Bill 535 requires the state to target 25% of financial resources from its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund “to projects that provide a benefit to disadvantaged communities.”
In addition, the creators of the tool envision its use in municipality and city planning, which a report read would allow “local and regional governments, including regional air districts, water districts and planning and transit agencies, may also find uses for this tool… helping to identify and plan for sustainable development opportunities in heavily impacted neighborhoods.”
The scoring for Census Tracts within the CalEnviroScreen model is a relative score which combines social variables and pollution burdens. The variables chosen were based upon existing literature in the fields of environmental justice, human health, and social vulnerability: asthma rates, percent children of low-birth weight, percent low educational attainment, unemployment and poverty rates, et cetera. Pollution burden variables included indicators on air pollution, pesticide, and toxic release exposure, traffic density, water contamination and threats, and solid and hazardous waste sites and exposure.
The scores for these variables were then combined to provide a relative ranking amongst all Census Tracts in the state, permitting identification at both the local and state level of neighborhoods experiencing both the greatest environmental burdens and social vulnerability to these burdens. The higher the score the greater the combined environmental burden and social vulnerability.
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