In limbo: Will Washington codify environmental justice into law?

A screenshot of Tukwila’s health disparities ranking, according to the Washington Health Disparities Map. Tukwila ranks in the highest tier of risk. People of color make up 61% of the population.

In Ekua-Yaaba Monkah’s neighborhood, Tukwila-Allentown residents carry a higher risk of death from cardiovascular diseases and all types of cancer due to environmental pollution in their community. 

Prior to her internship with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA), Monkah was unaware of the pollution in her community. However, during her time with the PSCAA, she was shown the environmental disparities on a color coded map between places like her hometown in Tukwila  and Chinatown-International District in comparison to places like Northgate or Mercer Island. 

The Washington State Environmental Health Disparities Map highlights colors ranging from blue (typically good) to red (typically bad).

Monkah’s home just south of Seattle rested in a sea of red, indicating the worst environmental impacts in that particular legislative district.

“That was the moment where I realized that this was such a huge issue and [it] also startled me because I [didn’t] know about this and I’m sure that a lot of other community members and residents in these high polluted areas don’t know either,” Monkah said.

Most residents are not even aware that their zip code reflects the chances of environmental factors influencing their health. This is subject to change with the fairly recent established Washington State Environmental Health Disparities Map. 

Monkah’s community is only one of the many marginalized minority communities that are subject to environmental injustice because of socio-economic factors, disproportionate environmental hazards, economic insecurity and racist housing policies.

During the 2019 legislative session in Olympia, the proposed Healthy Environment for All Act (HEAL) promised to prioritize and address directly impacted communities. However,the legislature failed to pass the bill after a grueling legislative process of proposed substitutions, amendments, and committees. 

In its place: a temporary task force where agencies such as Front and Centered, the Association of Washington Business, and Senator Rebecca Saldaña’s office are working together to ensure environmental justice into law. Saldaña, D-Seattle, initially proposed the bill and said that the task force is looking to understand and direct how the circumstances revealed within the Washington State Environmental Health Disparities Mapping Tool will shape public policy. 

The Task Force is set to ave a final report for the Washington state legislature and Governor by Oct. 31, which would restart the legislative process to codify environmental justice into law as Saldaña originally intended. 

Saldaña wanted Washington to shine a lens of equity on the state’s environmental work. She ended up with a temporary task force to create a report with no set definition of its usage, forcing environmental justice into limbo on Washington. It remains only a potential with no definite when or how despite the strong effect of climate change on communities of color.

 

Mapping environmental justice

The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map sits at the center of the HEAL ACT. The map uses color coding to show which communities in Washington are most impacted by environmental hazards, from a scale of 1 to 10. The map shows 19 indicators grouped into four categories: environmental exposures (such as airborne toxins), environmental effects (such as proximity to Superfund sites), sensitive populations, and socioeconomic factors.

A rank of 1 means a census tract is least impacted whereas a ranking of 10 means a community is most impacted by the indicators at hand. The rankings illustrate only that there is a difference in cumulative impact from one number to another; it doesn’t quantify what that impact actually looks like. Factors that degrade a city to become a 10 include airports, highways, industrial sites, landfills, and Superfund sites closeby, such as the case with the Lower Duwamish River. 

A sign warns people not to fish in this stretch of the Duwamish River by Harbor Island due to sewage runoff. Photo credit: Kamna Shastri

 

In SeaTac, proximity to the Sea-Tac International Airport, multiple highways, waste management, industry, Superfund sites in the lower Duwamish, wastewater discharge, and high risk sites all contributed to Tukwila Allentown’s high score.

If the HEAL Act had passed, state agencies would have been required to use this mapping tool to inform policy decisions to mitigate existing environmental health disparities. For example, by considering the data in the map for their region, agencies could avoid adding more environmental hazards to communities already burdened, or choose to allocate more clean-up resources to them.

The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map arose out of a unique partnership between grassroots community organizations, academia and government, said Esther Min, the researcher who helped create the map. Min is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. Min’s department joined other key players in creating the map, including Front and Centered, the Washington State departments of Health and Ecology, and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. 

“None of us had really a history working together,” Min said. “We aligned our goals from the beginning, which I think helped us be successful.” 

They were inspired by a similar map in California used to display pollution burden scores, the CalEnviroScreen 3.0 by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. 

Front and Centered initiated the effort by engaging communities of color across Washington in listening sessions and asking them what were the most pressing environmental issues affecting their communities. Attendees were asked about their opinion of the map, what they thought needs to be represented, and how to represent it accurately.

“The reason why we wanted to do [this] upfront was because we wanted [to be] really listening to the community first and then looking to see what data is out there, rather than doing a literature review on my end, and then just saying, ‘Well, these are the things I came up with,’” said Min. 

This kind of “community-responsive research” prioritizes equity, accessibility and the voices of those most impacted by pollution and toxins. After coding the results and finding the available data for the issues identified in the sessions, Min loaded it into the Washington Tracking Network’s (WTN) Information by Location (IBL) tool. The map was officially rolled out in January 2018 and can be found on the WTN site.

While the map is new, environmental injustice in Washington is not. It was critical to create the map to help prove to legislators and the general public that these issues were unfairly plaguing mostly low income, communities of color. 

“It’s an evidence-based tool with data sets that are the most readily available, and [is] the best that’s out there. I think it lays a good foundation to be used in whatever way people want to use it,” Min said.

Opposition to justice

When Senator Saldaña first introduced the HEAL Act, it came with the backing of dozens of organizations but later faced strong opposition due to separate and unrelated legislation. Pushback from the Association of Washington Business and the Washington State Farm Bureau stalled the bill in committee.

Tomás Madrigal, a volunteer environmental justice task force member representing Community 2 Community Development, said that the business and grower lobbies opposed the bill in retaliation to Saldaña’s introduction of Senate Bill 5693, which attempted to improve farm worker conditions and agricultural supply chain transparency.

“[The business and grower lobbies] used being upset about the other laws, and they did all they could to basically thwart the HEAL Act from moving,” Madrigal said.

“They love task forces because task forces don’t have any teeth, they just make recommendations.”

The business and grower lobbies were also concerned that the environmental justice mapping tool could be used to enforce existing regulations, he said.

Senator Saldaña agreed, saying that opponents were committed to killing the bill simply because she had the gall to introduce the farmworker bill. 

“The fact that at one point the whole Republican Caucus stonewalled on this bill — it didn’t seem proportionate to the legislation before them,” Saldaña said. 

Amidst lobbyist machinations, the HEAL Act became a collateral casualty.

However, Saldaña and her allies were able to salvage key parts of the HEAL Act and pass a Budget provision which authorized funds for the environmental justice task force.

Once sidelined into a task force, Madrigal thinks the HEAL Act became less threatening to the business and agricultural lobbies. 

“They love task forces because task forces don’t have any teeth, they just make recommendations” said Madrigal. 

There are two spots for members of the business and agricultural lobbies on the environmental justice task force.

Despite their initial doubts on the HEAL Act, a source at the Association of Washington Business said that its earlier concerns were addressed in the legislative session. Representatives from the AWB and WFB did not respond to requests for comment.

When task forces strike

Ben Henry, founder and principal consultant of Ben Henry Associates, was reluctant to say that the taskforce was a setback, instead seeing it as an opportunity. Communication between businesses and community members through the efforts of the Environmental Justice Task Force may be a step in the right direction.

Henry has been pushing progressive policy in the social justice community for a decade, and has worked in allyship with Front & Centered, whose legislative director is chairing the HEAL Act Environmental Justice Task Force. Although Henry was aware of the various ways a task force could stall the productivity of a policy, he also felt it was “an opportunity to congeal opposing forces and bring groups together.”

“It’s an emotional thing. You put your heart and your soul in this legislation,” he said. “When you’re told, ‘Interesting idea but we need to think a little bit,’ it can feel like a slap in the face. But it can also feel like, hey, [they’re] looking at it.” 

Henry has gone a few laps pushing for policies in Olympia and has seen reform get sidelined like this. He wasn’t convinced it was over this time around. 

“With the HEAL act, it’s interesting that an advocate from the community group is the chair of this. And so he has a lot of power in that role, and that’s a good thing,” Henry said. “That’s what we want … the next session is going to be the key to see whether we’re kicking the can down the road or if we’re actually making progress here.”

In other words, whether it will establish environmental justice into state law or suffer the same fate as the 2018 Workgroup Bill, which was crafted to protect agricultural workers and communities from hazardous pesticide drifts. In its initial form, it called for protections from pesticides for agricultural workers and community members, oversight of uses of pesticides, and the ability to investigate claims and fine organizations for violating the act. It became merely a pesticide application safety work group to develop recommendations for improving the safety of pesticide applications.

“If the same communities are always impacted and that doesn’t change for ten years, then clearly we’re not addressing it.”

Regardless of how informative it is, Min said it won’t matter if state agencies do not use it in a meaningful way.

“Over this next year — 2020 — the [HEAL Act’s] Environmental Justice Task Force will really grapple with … recommending how to use that tool in what ways and create measurable goals for reducing environmental health disparities. Because it shouldn’t be just a checkbox of ‘good, you looked at the map; check.’” said Min.

Min says that the Washington Department of Health will be maintaining the map going forward and updating it with new data from the American Community Survey annually. Min and everyone who worked on the map has high hopes of being able to track changes over time, as that will provide an additional form of accountability. 

“If the same communities are always impacted and that doesn’t change for 10 years, then clearly, we’re not addressing it,” Minh said.

While the map is still being introduced to the public, Millie Piazza, the Environmental Justice & Title VI Senior Advisor at the Washington State Department of Ecology, says that there is a huge potential for its application. She believes that mapping is a powerful way to create more transparency in government; state agencies are able to consult the map to influence their decisions, and hopefully use it to reduce existing disparities.

An Aerial view of Seattle’s industrial district, including Harbor Island and the West Seattle Bridge. Photo Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Toward HEALing

While the coming legislative session is months away, the task force is busy working to see how the map can be applied in Washington, said David Mendoza, Director of Government Affairs at Front and Centered and the co-chair of the Environmental Justice Task Force. When meeting, they break into groups to have neighborhood-based conversations so they can hear directly from the public.

“We thought that it’s a better way to give people an opportunity to tell us about the concerns they see,” he said, “and it’s better than the two minute public testimony format – we also do that, but we add onto it by having these deeper conversations.”

The task force is still currently holding public meetings in various locations through August 2020,  to develop recommendations for state agencies on how to best utilize the map. They are expected to create a final report for the Washington state legislature and Governor by October 31, 2020. 

Out of the organizations that endorsed the HEAL Act’s initial bill, most agencies like Shift Zero and PSCAA who work with communities on environmental issues anticipate and support the work of the task force.

Mendoza says that the HEAL Act was the first step in addressing the environmental concerns of Washington localities. Every community will need a unique, targeted approach.

“Each of the problems you face in these communities are multi-faceted and will take a broader range of work and services to address health disparities, the level of pollution and toxics we find, but that simply directing government focus and work on that is a significant step for it,” said Mendoza.

Whether the task force is enough to mitigate the environmental damage already done and prevent further harm in most impacted communities is yet to be seen. Supporting agencies of the original HEAL Act and community members are optimistic for the recommendations the task force will produce, and how state agencies will use that information. The HEAL Act and the new Environmental Health Disparities Map represent a solid springboard for future policies to be created to reduce the burdens of those most directly affected by environmental health risks and diseases.

Henry said he’s encouraged, watching Mendoza leading the charge on this task force, that environmental justice is headed in the right direction in Olympia.

“To see a group of agency heads huddled around an advocate from a nonprofit organization just rapt with attention and wanting to hear what he has to say, that’s a win,” he said. “But ultimately, that could all be more nothing if we don’t take action.”

 

This investigative piece was reported by The Seattle Globalist’s Environmental Justice Investigative Journalism Fellowship Program. Four fellows worked on investigating, reporting and writing as a team and will be producing their own individual piece through summer 2020. The Fellowship was made possible by The Environmental Justice Fund from the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment in partnership with the Seattle Foundation.

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