August 3, 2023

In 2018, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution affirming the County’s support for environmental justice and directed County offices to assess the current state of environmental justice in Multnomah County. In response, the Environmental Health Services Division has released the 2023 Environmental Justice Snapshot report, which uses a review of scientific literature and a series of maps to identify health disparities resulting from environmental justice issues and provide a baseline to evaluate ongoing environmental health and justice efforts throughout the County.

The resolution marked the commitment from the County to address policy decisions which have created lasting disproportionate environmental toxics exposure, hazardous built environmental conditions and health burdens for the County’s low-income populations and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). While the resolution anticipated an analysis of the environmental injustices present in Multnomah County within two years after its passage, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the analysis to be put on pause. 

“In 2018, I voted as a Commissioner for the resolution to develop the Environmental Justice Snapshot, because I knew we weren’t doing enough to look at the link between social determinants of health and environmental justice when making decisions that impact the residents of Multnomah County,” said Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. “As Chair, I’m just as committed to crafting policies that work to undue disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins, hazardous conditions in our built environments and health burdens for Black, Indigenous, Latine and all people of color.” 

Eleven scientifically-based environmental health indicators were analyzed for the Environmental Justice Snapshot and refined in consultation with the Coalition of Communities of Color. They include tree canopy cover, park access, walkability, access to transit, cancer risk from air toxics, life expectancy, structure age, energy costs and access to air conditioning. The indicators were applied to 2020 census tract geographies to calculate the average for each indicator in the parts of the County where the highest and lowest number of BIPOC live and averages for the County as a whole. 

“Things like shade, green spaces, sidewalks and clean air are not equitably distributed in our community, and have been at the center of the environmental justice movement for decades” said Environmental Health director Andrea Hamberg. “Having access to these things make communities more pleasant to live in, and healthier as well. In fact, safe roads, clean air and cooling shade can save lives. This report will give our communities a way to measure our progress on making sure that all communities have healthy environments.”

Each environmental injustice referenced in the report produces individual health burdens which cumulatively contribute to the finding that BIPOC people in Multnomah County have a significantly lower life expectancy than white, non-Hispanic residents. This snapshot of environmental justice can be used to guide strategic planning efforts, like the Climate Justice Plan, by prioritizing investments to address environmental injustices at the city, County and regional level.

“The Environmental Justice Snapshot report builds on and adds to a long history of research on environmental justice,” said Office of Sustainability director John Wasiutynski. “Black, Indigenous and people of color communities are actively working to address the issues identified in this report and it’s our job in government to ensure our plans and policies are responsive to the needs, ideas, expertise and leadership of these frontline communities so that everyone in our County can access the environmental benefits of clean air, clean water, a stable climate and safe access to the outdoors.” 

The Coalition of Communities of Color recently partnered with the Office of Sustainability and the Health Department to combine snapshot data, qualitative research and art to produce an Environmental Justice zine, or a short magazine meant for community consumption, which will help to bring these data to life through visual art and the story telling of community members. 

Key takeaways 

  • BIPOC people in the County live in areas which are covered by less tree canopy, less walkable and closer to major polluters than in primarily white, non-Hispanic areas. 
  • BIPOC people are living significantly shorter lives than the rest of the County (78 years and 80 years respectively) and that primarily white communities are living significantly longer (82 years).
  • BIPOC people have less access to air conditioning and pay a greater portion of their income on energy costs than households in primarily white, non-Hispanic areas. 

View the full Environmental Justice Snapshot.