SACRAMENTO – The Imperial County town of Brawley is one of the most polluted places in California, according to a new environmental justice mapping tool released last week by the State of California. In fact, ZIP Code 92227 surrounding Brawley ranks in the dirtiest five percent in the state, earning especially bad marks when it comes to pesticide pollution, hazardous waste, and impaired bodies of water.
ZIP Code 92236 in nearby Coachella and Thermal in Riverside County is less polluted, but not by much. Its ranked score on its residents’ exposure to pollutants ranging from ozone and diesel exhaust to hazardous waste and particulate matter are high enough to put it in the top 10 percent of polluted California ZIP Codes.
That’s according to CalEnviroScreen, more cumbersomely known as the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, a free online tool released this month by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Ca/EPA) and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
The agencies sifted through data on a range of environmental hazards in the state sorted by ZIP Code, including concentrations of ozone and particulate matter, diesel exhaust, pesticide use and toxic releases from facilities, dumpsites, traffic density, and a handful of other environmental stressors, and assigned the level of each of these stressors a numerical value for each ZIP Code. They then did the same with each ZIP Code’s demographics, including the prevalence of children and elderly in the area, rate of low-weight births, prevalence of asthma, income and education, racial makeup, and linguistic isolation, all of which social factors make people much more vulnerable to environmental illness.
Multiplying the numerical values for the local pollution burden and demographics gave each ZIP Code a “CalEnviroScreen score” that describes that area’s environmental health status.
Though this does provide a way of comparing the relative environmental misery of ZIP Codes in different parts of the state, it seems that the scores may well inadvertently mask certain regional realities in the desert. The ZIP Codes that occupy the not-so-coveted slots in the dirtiest 5 and 10 percent are clearly concentrated in an arc between the Southern and Northern California’s industrial population centers, with the broad bulk of the arc in the populous agricultural and industrial easten half of the Central Valley.