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Biden’s EJ Order Shows HEAL’s Reach, Gaps

The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act (SB 5141), our state’s landmark environmental justice (EJ) policy, is a significant step towards eliminating environmental health disparities. It is a testament to the tireless efforts of the Front and Centered coalition and frontline communities across Washington State. As one of the first policies of its kind in the country, HEAL has made strides in its two-year implementation journey, revealing both obstacles and new opportunities along the way. 

Thanks to the work of local communities whose influence extends beyond state boundaries, EJ is now becoming central to the activities of the federal government. Within two weeks of taking office, President Biden signed Executive Order (EO) 14008: Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The order prioritizes the climate crisis in foreign and domestic policy and instructs executive agencies to make achieving EJ a part of their missions. This order was further reinforced in April 2023, when President Biden signed EO 14096: Revitalizing Our Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, marking the nation’s most significant commitment to EJ yet.

By comparison, Washington’s HEAL Act leads in several areas like accountability and agency responsibilities, but there are still lessons to be learned. The alignment between these EOs and HEAL presents an opportunity to strengthen EJ efforts in Washington State and across the nation. Here, we explore President Biden’s most recent EO on environmental justice and identify key action items that we can learn from to build upon HEAL and enhance the policy’s impact.

Co-governance: Meaningful Participation and Collaborative Relationships

The advancement of EJ must be guided by the Just Transition framework, which aims to move away from an extractive economy towards a regenerative, living economy—not just manage harm on the margins. Achieving a Just Transition requires co-governance structures that foster the meaningful participation of frontline communities in the planning and decision-making spaces that directly impact their lives. We recognize the importance of collaborative relationships built on trust and emphasize that such relationships cannot be exploitative or extractive. By actively involving frontline communities, HEAL can establish a governance structure where frontline voices are heard, respected, and incorporated into EJ policies and decisions.

HEAL’s Leadership and Advancements

HEAL has emerged as a trailblazer in several areas of EJ. For instance, the policy mandates that covered agencies conduct an EJ Assessment for all significant agency actions and other agency activities with EJ implications. These Assessments require agencies to identify impacted communities, potential environmental and health impacts of the action, and feasible mitigation measures. While the EO also directs executive agencies to conduct EJ Assessments, its purpose is to evaluate the effectiveness of their Strategic Plans.

HEAL also established the Environmental Justice Council, composed of community representatives (along with Tribal, agency, and industry representatives) to guide agency advancement of EJ. By applying some of the directives outlined in President Biden’s EO to HEAL, we can further amplify its impact and serve as a model for other states.

Applying Lessons from Biden’s EJ Executive Order

The order establishes several new committees and leadership positions to guide agency work. The creation of accountability positions and work groups such as the Environmental Justice Subcommittee of the Natural Science and Technology Council, the White House Office of Environmental Justice, and the Federal Chief Environmental Justice Officer reflects the president’s commitment to EJ. We can act similarly and create a Washington State HEAL Implementation Director position to provide leadership and align the EJ-related work of covered agencies.

The EO also prioritizes equitable research and development efforts. For instance, the Subcommittee of the Natural Science and Technology Council is tasked with holding an annual summit on navigating the intersection of EJ-related science, data, and research, and policies and legislative actions. This highlights an opportunity for Washington to identify ways to implement equity-focused data collection and research through methods such as participatory science and funding of EJ policy research. These are just a few examples of initiatives that we can adopt in Washington.

The table below summarizes key lessons from EO 14096 that we can apply to the HEAL Act:

IssueHEAL ActExecutive Order 14096Key Lesson for
Washington State
Covered AgenciesSeven agencies: Agriculture, Commerce, Ecology, Health, Natural Resources, Puget Sound Partnership, and TransportationAll executive agencies except Government Accountability OfficeRequire all state and executive agencies to comply with HEAL
Strategic and Implementation PlansDevelop a plan detailing agency-specific EJ goals and actions, performance metrics, timelines, and methods to embed community engagementSet visions, goals, priority actions, and metrics to advance EJ and identify ways to improve accountability and complianceAssess and remove existing policies and regulations that undermine EJ, identify agency’s contributions to existing EJ issues, and identify implementation barriers and strategies to overcome them
Transparency and AccountabilityOffice of Financial Management Dashboard that describes agency progress on HEAL obligationsEnvironmental Justice Scorecard: agency progress on achieving goals of the order

Public clearinghouse: provide appropriate and accessible materials on EJ and related agency efforts
Develop a public-facing website that tracks EJ progress of all covered and opt-in agencies free of jargon, and provide culturally and linguistically relevant EJ materials
Research and DevelopmentEnvironmental Health Disparities Map: continue to develop and maintain with the most current information necessary to identify cumulative environmental health impactsAnnual summit on intersection of science, data, and research, and policy and action related to EJ

Biennial EJ Science, Data, and Research Plan that addresses gaps in data collection and research and ability to advance EJ
Identify gaps and needs in EJ-related science, data, and research, and conduct research through an equity lens

Fund participatory science opportunities
Creation of Positions and Work GroupsEnvironmental Justice Council

Interagency Work Group
Federal Chief Environmental Justice Officer

Environmental Justice Subcommittee of the Natural Science and Technology Council

White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council

White House Office of Environmental Justice (within CEQ)
Create HEAL Implementation Director in the Governor’s Office to facilitate alignment across agencies and streamlining responsibilities outlined in existing policies

Multiple advisory groups to guide EJ advancement

Removing obstacles to achieving environmental justice is essential. We can leverage the initiatives set forth in the EO and advocate for the establishment of community assemblies, participatory science, and participatory budgeting opportunities to empower communities and ensure their voices shape environmental policies.

A Healthy Future for All

The HEAL Act represents a significant milestone in the environmental justice movement, born out of the collaborative efforts of the Front and Centered coalition and frontline communities. As the policy nears its two-year anniversary, it remains crucial to prioritize meaningful participation and build collaborative relationships based on trust. The recent EJ EO signed by President Biden presents an avenue to further advance HEALs goals. By aligning with these directives, HEAL and Washington State can strengthen their environmental justice initiatives, dismantle existing structures that impede progress, and create a more equitable and healthy future for all.