by David Malmquist, VIMS
July 19, 2021
The Elizabeth River Project (ERP) has partnered with researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and William & Mary to develop an online mapping tool that can help nonprofit and other community partners better understand environmental justice issues in planning and recovery efforts to integrate. Working with researchers was an environmental justice and justice subcommittee recently convened by ERP to develop its next Watershed Action Plan.
Joe Rieger, deputy director of restoration for ERP, says the US Environmental Protection Agency defines environmental justice, or “EJ,” as the fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people in the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and guidelines. . He says the new Elizabeth River Tool for Environmental Justice “Gives us a great additional opportunity to more consciously focus our planning efforts on historically underserved color communities.”
ERP is a local not-for-profit non-profit organization who works to restore the Elizabeth River to the highest practical level of environmental quality through government, business and community partnerships. The Elizabeth River is a three-armed tributary of Chesapeake Bay, which is mainly in the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Long notorious for centuries of urban pollution, it is now on the recovery path from decades of collaborative effort.
“We have always worked with different communities with a commitment to EJ,” explains Rieger, citing ERPs as examples Dominion Energy Learning Barge, free hands-on environmental education for traditionally underserved students and a Pilot project to support the historically Afro-American neighborhood of Chesterfield Heights in Norfolk to gain more resistance to coastal floods.
“But,” he adds, “a current national renaissance for environmental justice has given us new hope that the community will stand behind us when it comes to recognizing and addressing environmental injustices as a top priority.”
ERP’s focus on environmental justice builds on the Board of Directors’ 2020 commitment to be more proactive against racial differences and found a stepping stone in the group’s recent decision to update its community-based plan for the Elizabeth River restoration. “By forming our 170-strong Watershed Action Team in 2021, we were able to use additional resources and bundle stronger support for a more conscious focus on EJ topics,” says Rieger.
Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown, Professor and Jessie Ball duPont Endowed Chair of Social Justice Education at Stetson University and Vice President of the National Coalition for the Homeless, is helping the ERP and its Watershed Action Team deepen equity and environmental justice efforts. She says: “Focusing on EJ is imperative, especially given significant racial disparities and growing economic inequality. EJ promotes ecological, social and economic justice while working to find sustainable solutions to critical environmental challenges. It requires continuous commitment and moral courage, which the ERP visibly embodies and exemplifies. “
A partnership with VIMS
ERP reached out to VIMS for assistance in developing the new EJ mapping tool as VIMS is the lead agency tasked with assessing the ecological status of the urban waterway and which VIMS will join in 2020 from the Virginia General Assembly Funded an Elizabeth River Initiative In addition to helping develop the new online tool, $ 400,000 will be provided to VIMS to analyze levels of water and sediment contamination and assess fish health, including Cancer prevalence and tributyltin mirrors, track the integrity of ground communities, monitor the performance of past restoration projects, and provide scientific guidance for new restoration projects.
Under the direction of Dr. Molly Mitchell is part of the Elizabeth River Initiative team from VIMS Dr. Kirk Havens, Tami Rudnicky, Dr. Julie Herman and Dr. Andrew Scheld; plus W&M economist Dr. Sarah Stafford and Joseph Snitzer, an intern at the University of Virginia at ERP.
Mitchell says: “our online tool uses national EJ data from The existing EJ SCREEN. the EPA, as well as other social and environmental datasets developed for Virginia to provide a holistic view of the socio-ecological environment in the Elizabeth River. “
“The EPA’s EJ tool covers the entire country,” explains Rieger, “while we wanted a tool that was better tailored to the Elizabeth River basin and locally relevant issues such as flood-prone communities, existing canopy, and restoration opportunities. VIMS was able to add a number of factors to improve and expand the EPA’s model to create a powerful tool for the Elizabeth River basin. ”
The Elizabeth River EJ Tool offers planners a wealth of data layers in its Card viewer and dashboard. These include the location of superfound and fallow land, as well as allowable runoffs for domestic wastewater, FEMA flood data, urban canopy, potential wetland restoration opportunities, and industrial rainwater. For each US census block, the tool’s demographic strata show the percentage of low-income residents, people of color, people with less than a high school degree, and people with English as a second language.
A “redlining” layer outlines Norfolk neighborhoods subject to historic mortgage practices that discouraged African Americans from owning homes, while layers of infrastructure provide the location of law enforcement and medical facilities that could help plan an emergency response.
The tool also includes layers from the Coastal inventory developed by the Coastal Resource Management Center at VIMS. These indicate existing coastal protection measures and locations with public or private access to the water. Other environmental layers show public green spaces and natural and nature-based features such as salt marshes and freshwater wetlands. These “NNBFs” are typically less than 3 meters tall and provide several benefits to communities, including protection from tidal flooding. A layer of sea level rise and storm surge shows the areas most at risk to this growing threat.
While the many data layers in the Elizabeth River EJ Tool offer significant value to planners individually; their greatest value may come from the four “indicator levels” of the tool, which group selected levels into scorecards that identify the census blocks or areas with the greatest overall vulnerability to environmental risks, demographic conditions and combined environmental and demographics show factors or hazards and toxins.
“We used statistical analysis to generate vulnerability scores that show the combined distribution of 11 environmental stressors and 17 demographic indicators,” explains Mitchell. “Higher values indicate that the census Block is prone to many stressors. Lower scores indicate that the census pad is only susceptible to one or two stressors. “
Garry Harris, Chairman of the Equity, Inclusivity and EJ Task Force of the ERP Board, said, “It will be great to share this new tool with regulators, planners and city councils. It really helps us take a leadership position in terms of regional EJ and stock focus. A tool like this makes us the most important torchbearers and leaders in this important focus, not just in the affected communities, but across the region. “
ERP’s Watershed Action Team 2021 will use the online mapping tool to update its strategy for community-wide action to improve the Elizabeth River over the next 5-10 years. “The tool will help all of our community-wide partners to better target restoration, education and public relations efforts at historically underserved communities in our catchment area,” says Rieger.