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As Commonwealth Begins Environmental Justice Work, New Tools Emerge

screenshot of map tool
A new digital mapping project shows the impacts of environmental damage - like air pollution - on communities across the state. (Screenshot: Mapping for Environmental Justice)

The environmental justice movement has been around for decades, but Virginia is still in the early stages of adopting the concept after passing the Environmental Justice Act in 2020.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice means fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of background when developing and implementing environmental policies and actions.

One year following the passage of the 2020 act, Virginia established a new office to oversee environmental justice initiatives. The first director of that office, Renee Hoyos, told VPM that the COVID-19 crisis and ongoing discussions of system racism have created new political will and energy.

“Buy-in’s not a problem now, now it’s just operationalizing what we’re doing,” Hoyos said. “How are we going to give people meaningful opportunities to engage in a process that can affect their lives?”

Hoyos and her team are seeking to connect with people - and to do that, they need good communication tools, like a map detailing Virginians’ environmental burden, developed by a coalition of non-profit organizations.

The Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative partnered with the researchers and policy experts at Mapping for Environmental Justice to develop the map. 

Adam Buchholz, executive director of Mapping for Environmental Justice, says they use a methodology based on the “CalEnviroScreen” - a tool that California uses in a variety of its environmental policy decisions.

“These maps are based on the premise that the impact of pollution is a product of both the vulnerability to pollution and exposure to it,” Buchholz said.

For example, an area with high rates of asthma in conjunction with heavy air pollution is particularly burdened.

Buchholz says taking a broad view helps lawmakers connect stories from their constituents with clearly represented data.

“[Advocates have] been saying it for a really long time, and so what these maps can do is they can create a bridge between environmental justice advocates and policy makers,” he said.

Hoyos agrees that the map gets people’s attention and helps them visualize environmental disparities - she pointed to the stories highlighted by researchers throughout the state.