Close this search box.

Now That Frontline Communities Have the Government’s Attention, How Will They Be Defined?

In the 2023–2025 budget cycle, over $650 million will be spent to benefit “Vulnerable Populations” and “Overburdened Communities” across Washington State. The Healthy Environmental for All (HEAL) Act requires state agencies to center Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities by conducting environmental justice assessments and community engagement, among other actions. Furthermore, the state’s Climate Commitment Act (CCA) and the federal Justice 40 initiative directs 40% of relevant investments to “overburdened” and “disadvantaged” communities.

Front and Centered’s advocacy to prioritize frontline communities in the pursuit of a healthy environment for all is clearly now the mainstream in policy. But how and who do we prioritize? The state government is tackling this question right now.

Why Center Frontline Communities?

Numerous assessments of the environmental and climate impacts on Washington State residents reveal that certain populations and regions are disproportionately affected. A report by Front and Centered in collaboration with the University of Washington found that Black, Indigenous, People of Color and individuals with lower incomes are at greater risk from the impacts of climate change. The same report also finds that geography is a significant determinant of one’s exposures to environmental hazards. For example, households living along the coast are at higher risk of flooding, while those living in eastern Washington are at higher risk of wildfires.

Such disparities are due to a number of historical and present harms created and reinforced by institutional barriers in the form of policies, procedures, and infrastructure. Washington State must prioritize these communities in its decision making to reverse past wrongdoings and create an equitable future. By targeting areas and populations that face the greatest harm, we can make sure everyone achieves the goals of a clean environment.

Definitions of Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities, and Their Significance

“Frontline communities” is a term Front and Centered uses to describe communities of color, Indigenous peoples, and people with lower incomes who are impacted first and worst by environmental hazards and climate change. In the HEAL Act and the CCA, frontline communities are labeled Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities. We generally avoid using descriptors like “vulnerable” and “overburdened” due to the way they place disempowering and othering labels on communities of color and others who continue to be marginalized by institutional power.

At the same time, Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities are terms of art, meaning they have precise definitions in all state environmental laws, rules, and policies. These terms are codified and ensure a uniform understanding of frontline communities across agencies to aid in the development of targeted policies and the allocation of resources. Therefore, these two terms are used throughout this post to align with the state’s understanding of frontline communities in discussing how best to identify and prioritize them. 

In statute, a Vulnerable Population (VP) is defined as a group of people that is more likely to be at higher risk for poor health outcomes in response to environmental harms due to socioeconomic, demographic, work, and health sensitivity factors. Vulnerable Populations include but are not limited to: racial or ethnic minorities; low-income populations; populations disproportionately impacted by environmental harms; and populations of workers experiencing environmental harms. RCW 70A.02.010 (14)(a)(b).

An Overburdened Community (OBC) is a geographic area where vulnerable populations face combined, multiple environmental harms and health impacts and includes Tribal lands and highly impacted communities as defined in the Clean Energy Transformation Act. RCW 70A.02.010 (11).

Vulnerable PopulationOverburdened Community
Describes a group of people with shared characteristics.Describes a geographic area where vulnerable populations live, work, play, worship, or recreate.
People at higher risk for poor health outcomes in response to environmental harms caused by an agency action.Regions where people face combined and/or cumulative environmental hazards.
Identified based on an assessment of an agency action’s potential impacts.Identified based on the location of an agency action and the scope of its impacts.
History of Identifying Overburdened Communities

The history of how Washington came to define Overburdened Communities dates back to 2016, when Front and Centered convened an environmental justice mapping work group, a collaboration of community, public health researchers and governmental agencies, with the goal of developing an environmental justice mapping tool. The work group conducted listening sessions across the state, learning from immigrants, Tribes, farmworkers, and the elderly, among others, as they developed a methodology to rank, map, and monitor areas with known environmental injustices. The work group’s efforts eventually culminated in the Washington State Environmental Health Disparities (EHD) Map (pictured below) in 2019.

The concept first emerged in statute as “Highly Impacted Communities” in the Clean Energy Transformation Act and in the Rules for the Model Toxics Act Public Participation Grants, then later as Overburdened Communities in the State EJ Task Force report, the latter of which stuck and was codified in the HEAL Act.

Statutory Obligations to Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities

The Healthy Environmental for All (HEAL) Act requires seven state agencies to develop community engagement plans that describe how they will engage with members of Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities (VPs and OBCs), conduct environmental justice assessments to develop harm mitigation and benefit maximization strategies, and equitably distribute relevant funding and expenditures. Furthermore, the HEAL Act and the CCA set a goal of directing 40% of grants and expenditures that create environmental benefits to VPs and OBCs. That means that by law, nearly $1.12 billion of CCA revenue alone must benefit VPs and OBCs.

Agencies are tasked with identifying VPs and OBCs across the state and developing policies to ensure these statutory obligations are met. But how will these communities be identified, and how should they be prioritized?

Which Communities Are Overburdened, and Who is Vulnerable?

State agencies rely on the EHD Map as the best available tool that ranks census tracts based on key environmental and health indicators. Other tools such as the EPA’s EJScreen and the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool are used to supplement the information gathered using the EHD Map. Agencies are also encouraged to conduct community engagement to help identify additional communities not captured by the available mapping and screening tools. The agencies covered by HEAL are currently working together to develop a streamlined process to identify VPs and OBCs in their environmental justice efforts.

Front and Centered recommends two OBC identification approaches depending on the type of action an agency pursues: 

  1. Inclusive approach: When assessing the potential environmental health impacts of an action, adopt the precautionary principle, which states that preventive action should be taken in the face of unknowns or uncertainties. A timely example is the state’s pursuit of carbon markets linkage. Despite recommendations from the Environmental Justice Council to not pursue linkage, the Department of Ecology has decided to move forward with linkage, concluding that their rushed and insufficient assessment revealed no significant adverse effects on VPs and OBCs. Yet, studies have shown that linkage poses risk of exacerbating existing environmental health disparities and other inequities. In this case and in many other cases related to agency actions like rulemaking and program implementation, the state should follow the precautionary approach to avoid unintended harms to Overburdened Communities.

    In practice, this means capturing all census tracts with a score of 7 or above on the EHD Map and additional tools as needed. Many agencies currently only consider census tracts with a score of 9 or 10 as Overburdened Communities. However, aligning with the precautionary principle requires identification of communities that fall below the known harm threshold.

  2. Prioritized approach: When making resource allocation decisions such as funding and budgeting, agencies should identify and direct benefits to the most under-resourced communities. This means prioritizing census tracts ranked 9 or 10 on the EHD Map and addressing their unique needs with the largest share of resources. Agencies should then identify the needs of census tracts that scored lower than a 9 and disburse any remaining resources towards these communities, with preference given to communities ranking 7 or 8.
Inclusive Approach
for Harm Prevention
Prioritized Approach
for Resource Allocation
EHD map score of 7 or above.EHD map score of 9 or 10.

Front and Centered recommends that Vulnerable Populations should include, at a minimum, individuals:

  • at or below 80% of the median income or 200% of the Federal Poverty Level;
  • who identify as a racial or ethnic minority;
  • who are members of Tribal communities;
  • who have limited English proficiency; or 
  • who work outdoors or in high exposure environments.

Additional recommendations:

At the legislative and agency-wide level, a consistent, straightforward definition that provides the ability to measure and track key metrics should be developed. This definition must result in a publicly available list of all communities across Washington State that are considered to be Overburdened, identified using one common tool. For this purpose, the EHD Map and the Tribal Lands data provide the best available information and should be used to develop this universal list.

At the programmatic level,  agencies should use the universal list developed at the legislative and agency-wide level as a foundation for specific programs as they identify additional VPs and OBCs based on relevant sensitivity factors and exposures. Community engagement is therefore critical at this stage. Agencies must work with community members to identify potential impacts of an agency action and any communities or populations that may be affected. A self-identification and appeals process should also be established at both the agency-wide and programmatic levels. We strongly recommend agencies provide a sufficient window of time after releasing a list of VPs and OBCs for communities and individuals to request inclusion in or exclusion from the list. 

Identification of VPs and OBCs will be for naught if existing environmental health disparities are not alleviated or eliminated. Relevant indicators and data in absolute, not relative, numbers must be tracked to monitor trends in VPs and OBCs and overall environmental health disparities. Agencies should work with community members to develop a set of metrics that sufficiently evaluates the efficacy of agency efforts. Making the relevant data of VPs and OBCs public will also help promote transparency and accountability.

To Conclude

As the state works to develop a process for identification and prioritization, we urge state agencies to adopt our recommendations, which consist of both an inclusionary and targeted approach. We believe that this recommended process provides agencies with the roadmap to meet their statutory obligations and prioritize Vulnerable Populations and Overburdened Communities as promised.

People and communities most impacted by environmental and climate hazards must be centered in participatory decision making, harm prevention, and resource allocation. Only then will we advance environmental justice in Washington State.

Summary of Recommendations

Legislature/Agency-wide definition for Overburdened Communities:

  • Harm Prevention use case (inclusive): Include areas that are ranked 7 or higher on the WA Environmental Health Disparities (EHD) Map, are Tribal lands, or are on the White House CEQ Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST).
  • Resource Allocation use case (need-based): Include areas that are ranked 9 or higher on the WA EHD Map or are Tribal lands.

Legislature/Agency-Wide definition for Vulnerable Populations:

  • Include households or individuals at 80% of area median income or 200% below Federal Poverty Level (FPL), who identify as minority, who are members of a State-recognized Tribal community, who have limited English proficiency, or who work outdoors or high-exposure settings. 

Programmatic definitions:

Include the agency-wide/legislative definition as foundation, and layer additional tools, engagement, and additional research and engagement relative to the program/ subject matter to improve the match between the community interest with the program.

All uses must result in publicly visible lists made available in one place, a petition/appeal for inclusion and consistent evaluations by communities, and public reports. The identification process should include transparent methods to update the criteria and list with the best available data and migration patterns. The definition must also include tracking and evaluation data demonstrating how, over time, the factors affecting each community ranked have changed. For more detailed recommendations, see Front and Centered’s HEAL Progress Report.