Environment

With DEQ’s Community Mapping System, learn where polluters locate in neighborhoods of color

The proposed methyl bromide site would have added a major pollution source to the small towns of Acme and Delco. DEQ’s Community Mapping System provides data on polluting facilities, as well as demographic and health information. (Source: DEQ Community Mapping System)

Comment period on the mapping system ends Wednesday, July 10.

When Columbus County officials decided in 2018 to allow the Australian company Malec Brothers to emit 140 tons of toxic methyl bromide into the air at its log fumigation facility, they did not have the benefit of an environmental justice map.

They might not have known that the small towns of Acme and Delco, which are 50 percent communities of color, were already disproportionately burdened with several hazardous waste areas, Superfund sites and air pollution. A map, linked to several environmental and health databases, could have changed their mind.

There were no guarantees the planning board and commissioners would have consulted such a map, but the residents of Acme-Delco likely would have done so. And armed with that information, residents could have fought the facility from the get-go. As it turns out, under intense public pressure Malec Brothers decided not to use methyl bromide at its facility — but for residents of this small town, the fight, albeit successful, was time-consuming and stressful.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has released an early version of its Community Mapping System, an interactive tool that allows users to easily view and analyze environmental, racial, ethnic and health data.

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan told Policy Watch that developers, city planners and businesses can use the mapping tool to determine siting; the public can use it to advocate for or against a plan — and to watchdog a project.

“These conversations should be occurring before the planning process,” Regan said, “to avoid the battle at the end of the permitting.”

The mapping tool is the result of a 2017 federal Civil Rights settlement between DEQ and neighbors of industrialized hog operations in eastern North Carolina. It expands on the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening tool with  additional layers of information, such as health statistics and air, water and waste permitting.

“We wanted to have all of the information in an aggregated fashion,” Regan said, adding that the public and government officials — long before DEQ even gets involved — can ask important questions: “Does this make sense? Is this a good idea?”

This map of East Durham, which is predominantly Black, shows the dozens of pollution sources in the area. Clicking on the small crosses brings up a community demographics box; it also contains a link to more environmental justice information. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The map website features a user guide. The legend lists icons for different types of pollution sources, including hazardous waste sites, areas contaminated with dry cleaning solvents, old and currently operating landfills, and industrialized swine, cattle and select poultry operations. Click on an icon and see a link to public documents about the site, which are kept on the DEQ website.

You can get a summary of all the polluters by type, as well as set a radius for all contamination sources within a certain distance. Click on a neighborhood on the map and you’ll see a pop-up window with demographic data, as well as health and illness statistics.

 

Because of data gaps, two Superfund sites are missing from the map of Aberdeen. The sites, former pesticide dumps, lie just north and south of the new elementary school. The majority of the students who will attend the school are Black, Latinx or low-income. (Map: DEQ Community Mapping System)

The system has a few shortcomings:

  • The pollution locations are derived from documents and databases that could be incomplete. Policy Watch recently reported on an elementary school under construction in Aberdeen that lies within a mile of several pollution sources, including four former pesticides dumps, which are Superfund sites. However, only the main contaminated site appears on the map, not the satellite Superfund areas where additional dumping occurred.
  • Large poultry operations that use the “dry litter” method of waste disposal are not listed. Because state law doesn’t require these facilities to have a permit, DEQ doesn’t know where they are located. (During this legislative session, Sen. Harper Peterson and other Democratic lawmakers have tried to insert language into the Farm Act to study the potential environmental and health effects of these operations. Sen. Brent Jackson put the kibosh on any such transparency. )
  • The health and income data is compiled by census tract, not census block. This is important because tracts are much larger than blocks. For example, the presence of more affluent, white neighborhoods — unlikely to be located near major polluters — could obscure the effects of the contamination on people of color who live within the same large tract. Compiling key data by small census block could give a truer picture of who lives closest to the pollution sources and how their health might be affected.

The mapping tool is useful for broadly understanding the pollution sources within a community and who lives nearby. But maps are merely representations. Nothing substitutes for “ground truth” — visiting a neighborhood, talking with residents, and seeing, smelling, and hearing what they are exposed to every day.

The comment period ends Wednesday, July 10. There are several ways to send comments:

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