While the U.S. federal government attempts to roll back progress on climate and decimate environmental justice programs, Front and Centered organizations right here in Washington State are collaborating to hold the line and make progress in environmental programs to protect the health of our communities. In the 2016 Washington State legislative session, Front and Centered, including the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Puget Sound Sage, Latino Community Fund, and Got Green, have been working with environmental allies to ensure adequate and equitable funding for the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA).
This Act, created in 1988 through a ballot initiative, is critical to protecting all communities in Washington State from toxic hazards. MTCA funds toxic waste prevention projects such as stormwater infrastructure; toxic site cleanups, and Public Participation Grants (PPGs) that allow community groups to inform and engage local residents around toxics.
This past January, Front and Centered released a report analyzing equity in the MTCA program. One of the report’s key findings, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that toxic sites are disproportionately located near low-income communities and communities of color, putting our communities at higher risk for various illnesses. But the report also found that out of the more than 6,000 cleanups funded through MTCA, a large share has also occurred in those communities disproportionately impacted by toxic pollution, making the program a crucial component of environmental justice in Washington State.
Unfortunately, funds for MTCA have been drastically reduced over the years for two primary reasons: decreasing revenue from the Hazardous Substances Tax due to declining oil prices, and diversion of MTCA funds to supplement other environmental programs at the Department of Ecology, which has seen its budget cut by more than half in the past 10 years. Consequently, critical projects such as cleanups and stormwater investments in communities across the state have been delayed. In its 2016 budget, the state legislature completely defunded Public Participation Grants, hampering community organizations from involving residents in research and decision-making around toxic sites.
This year, Front and Centered is supporting two bills, HB 1663 and SB 5501, that aim to solve this funding shortfall through a temporary surcharge on the Hazardous Substances Tax. Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition Coordinator James Rasmussen and I testified in favor of these bills in Olympia, along with port commissioners, city council members, and business and environmental leaders. As a result of our advocacy, the MTCA surcharge is included in the state House of Representatives’ proposed budget, but not the current state Senate budget. Promisingly, funding for Public Participation Grants, which support organizations to engage the community in identifying goals and solutions to waste and toxic sites, is currently included in both the House and Senate budgets; we need to be vigilant and advocate for this funding to remain in the final budget.
Front and Centered has also engaged in productive conversations with the Department of Ecology to ensure that equity is a higher priority for future Public Participation Grants (PPG), so that communities most highly impacted by toxic pollution have the resources to learn about and be involved in these issues. Front and Centered representative of the PPG advisory committee worked to make disproportionately impacted communities and low-income communities a priority for grant awards and helped define how these communities are identified. This shift to emphasize equity in PPG funding makes the sustainability of the MTCA program even more critical for environmental justice.
As the legislative session nears its end, we must continue to urge the state legislature to prioritize the health and safety of our communities by approving the MTCA surcharge bill, as well as including the Hazardous Substances Tax surcharge in the final budget to ensure that urgent cleanups, prevention, and public participation grants are fully supported. MTCA-funded projects have benefited and can continue to benefit residents in every single legislative district, from storage tanks to prevent untreated waste from flowing into the Spokane River, to cleanups in Tacoma around the Arkema chemical plant, to public participation grants enabling greater involvement among low-income communities and communities of color. We know this; our state legislators also need to know this and to act accordingly to protect our natural resources and our health. If you have a story about why the MTCA program affects you personally, please share it, and if you want to get involved with our campaign to protect all communities from toxic pollution, please contact [email protected]