Map quest

Agencies take advantage of online tool delineating eco-hazards in neighborhoods

Deputy District Attorney Hal Thomas (left) and Butte County DA Mike Ramsey regularly prosecute environmental cases.

Deputy District Attorney Hal Thomas (left) and Butte County DA Mike Ramsey regularly prosecute environmental cases.

photo by chris saraga

In spots around Butte County, particularly in south Chico and south Oroville, ecological hazards threaten health and safety. Some residents know; some don’t. Polluters tend not to advertise when they’re breaking the law, and residual toxins from decades past represent some of the biggest risks.

A field of activism, advocacy and prosecution known as environmental justice addresses these issues. Simply put, environmental justice (or EJ) promotes fair enactment and enforcement of laws to protect all people and places, regardless of demographics such as ethnicity and income.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has produced an online mapping tool, EJSCREEN, to empower citizens for this fight. Anyone can log on (, search their city or county, then compare data in 12 categories to state and national averages.

The California Environmental Protection Agency has its own tool, CalEnviroScreen—more detailed, with 20 categories—accessible through the EJ site (

How does a map link to justice?

According to Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, “a clean and healthy environment versus dirty, unhealthy, polluted environments really have a lot connected with geography.”

Wealthy neighborhoods don’t have to deal with these problems because residents there tend to “squawk very loud if dirty industrial sites were in their backyard—and they would prevent them from going in, and choose not to live near those sites.” Lower-income individuals don’t always “have those opportunities to speak out and prevent those sites from going in,” she continued, and neighborhoods with less expensive housing often are located “near these sites that are visually less attractive and have these health problems that their families may be affected by.

“So, to be able to see a geographic dispersion of contamination sites, environmental and public health issues, is very telling,” DiFalco continued. “That’s why it’s so important to give visibility to that—that’s why it’s so important to have the EJSCREEN tool and the one that California does … otherwise, a lot of these communities are out of sight, out of mind.”

Of course, actions speak louder than words—or data points.

Locally, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office and the Environmental Health Division of the Butte County Department of Public Health have authority to stop health hazards. Meanwhile, environmental groups such as BEC pursue advocacy, outreach and education. Each of the three is plugged into EJ mapping, but in a different way.

The DA’s office, turns out, supplies data for the map as opposed to using it. BEC uses the map, but as a research library rather than a means to shape policy. Environmental Health is still on the ground floor, exploring how comparable departments employ the technology.

All three share a common limitation: a lack of resources. They can’t respond to every problem, and more work on one area means less work on another.

“I think the focus on environmental justice is misplaced,” said Hal Thomas, special deputy district attorney, who works full time prosecuting environmental crimes for the county. “Not that we shouldn’t be focusing on it, but it’s a larger problem [than demographics]; it’s a problem of public health.”

Chico Scrap Metal represents a case study of EJ mapping in action. The recycling center on East 20th Street, near Chapman Elementary School, has been at the center of pollution charges since 2007. Butte County DA Mike Ramsey pursued charges against the owners, George Scott Sr. and his adult children, who were ordered to pay hundreds of thousands in fines and for cleanup. The matter has continued to haunt the operation, resurfacing this year during Chico City Council deliberations involving the business’ future at its location. While the owners said the site has been cleaned up, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control found evidence that contamination remained.

BEC has been actively involved in the case. While looking for Chico Scrap Metal information on CalEnviroScreen, other Scott-owned properties popped up, which prompted BEC to broaden its investigative efforts.

“You can sometimes see the bigger picture and realize something is not an isolated event but more symptomatic,” DiFalco said.

The DA’s office doesn’t need an EJ map to look for trouble. Thomas has been involved with environmental enforcement for 28 years, including the past 15 in Ramsey’s office, which has had a full-time prosecutor dedicated to eco-crimes for over 20 years. Experience, plus complaints brought forth by the public and other agencies, drives the prosecutorial agenda.

Ramsey says “a lot of the data that we’ve provided because of our cases and prosecution efforts have ended up in the databases. We’ve created a number of the data points on those EJ indexes. So we were ahead of the curve.”

Similarly, BEC tackles problems that people bring to the organization’s attention, and those matters shape the entire agenda: advocacy, outreach, events and education.

“Things come to us so many different ways that rarely do we have the luxury of going out and looking for a battle to fight,” DiFalco said. “We have more than we can tackle.”

Environmental Health, meanwhile, faces not only limited resources but also legal constraints. The division has specific requirements for enforcement, plus the department reports to different government agencies depending on the category (water, solid waste, etc.).

Nonetheless, the division has some wiggle room, and EJ mapping could influence how this part of the Public Health Department operates. Brad Banner, director of Environmental Health, learned about the basics at a conference last year and at an upcoming conference hopes to hear about how the technology is being applied in several California cities.

“It’s a pretty cool tool,” Banner said, “and it has a lot of potential.”