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Washington’s Environmental Justice Task Force Considering Initial Recommendations

David Mendoza, Front and Centered Representative to the Washington State Environmental Justice Task Force

Since last fall, Washington’s 16-member Environmental Justice (EJ) Task Force and many more volunteers have been hard at work collecting data and generating ideas for recommendations on how state agencies can incorporate environmental justice principles into their work. Advocacy by Front and Centered, our members, and allies helped create this Task Force during the 2019 Legislative Session in order to develop strategies that address environmental health disparities with guidance from the communities most impacted by pollution.

In this blog post, we are excited to release a draft of the initial recommendations being considered. Front and Centered, as Co-Chair and  taskforce co-chair Victor Rodriguez of the Governor’s Council on Health Disparities, along with all taskforce members, are eager to receive your thoughts, comments, and additional ideas as we move toward finalizing these recommendations later this summer.

Vancouver Community Conversation with Noble Foundation (Dec 2019)

Undoubtedly, COVID-19’s devastating and racially disproportionate impacts have added new urgency to our work. In addition to the range of recommendations we’ve been considering, we are also putting forward a standalone recommendation on how the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map should be used to help plan and prioritize communities hit hard by Covid-19.

The Task Force aims to deliver proposals that reshape the way the state government plans, develops policy, distributes funding, and enforces laws. Our goal is nothing short of ensuring every corner of Washington has air that is safe to breathe for the most medically vulnerable, water that is clean enough for anyone to drink, swim or fish in, and soil that is free of contamination. This will require the enhanced use of analytical tools such as the Environmental Health Disparities Map, as well as institutional changes around government agency staffing, public involvement strategies, and the allocation of resources.

As a reminder, the Task Force is charged with issuing policy recommendations on how our State can concretely advance EJ objectives in a report due to the Washington Governor and State Legislature by October 2020. Our findings must be based on input gathered across regional public meetings (five held so far) and research conducted by the Task Force subcommittees. Along with that, we are relying heavily on input collected at four community meetings already organized by local organizations in Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver and Tacoma with support from Front & Centered members and staff.

Lakewood, Official Meeting (Sep 2019)

Many of these ideas have yet to even be discussed by the full Task Force so these ideas are very much in flux and any and all input we receive can change their final form. Below we highlight four recommendations from this full list of preliminary recommendations. We welcome your input on every single recommendation we are considering, including:

Definition of Environmental Justice

Recommendation: The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. With a focus on the equitable distribution of resources, benefits, and burdens in a manner that prioritizes communities that experience the greatest inequities, disproportionate impacts, and have the greatest unmet needs.

This definition offers State Agencies a guiding principle for incorporating environmental justice into their work. The proposed definition is a modified version of the EPA’s EJ definition. It includes EPA’s language on the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people, but is enhanced with a component of distributional equity and calls out the reason for it. In our nation’s dark past – native genocide, slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japan internment camps – Black, indigenous, and people of color have carried enormous social burdens but have enjoyed little to no benefit from governmental investment or legal protections. The legacy of systemic racism in America is revealed today in many ways, including the stark differences in life expectancy in populations across Washington varying by zip code and tracking closely to race. To solve this problem, the government must be dedicated to increasing the life expectancy of those living in the most impacted zip codes, by among other things, prioritizing investments that benefit the people who live in them. And the feedback that we heard directly from community members is that we need to acknowledge past harms – by mentioning burdens – to help us heal and to provide a basis for why future resources and benefits should be allocated proportionally.

COVID-19 Relief/Recovery Response

Yakima Community Conversation with NAACP, Nuestra Casa, and community health workers coalition for migrants and refugees (Nov 2019)

A recent Harvard study suggests that poor air quality can increase COVID19 mortality – that, “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” In Washington State, confirmed cases statewide show 31% of people testing positive for COVID-19 are Hispanic or Latino. The percentage of COVID-19 patients who are Black is also slightly above that population’s overall percentage and so are people who are multi-racial. At this point in data collection, white COVID-19 cases make up 48% of those sickened by the virus, but make up 68% of the state population. Finally, the WA Department of Health is currently reporting that the ethnicity of 36% of confirmed cases (not just deaths as reported in Crosscut) is completely unknown. Meaning we may never have an accurate picture of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had among communities of color in Washington. Given this context, in order to ensure that COVID-19 relief/response funds and programs are effectively targeted to areas most impacted, the Environmental Justice Task Force is considering a recommendation that would direct state agencies to prioritize and focus their COVID relief/response efforts on areas in the Environmental Health Disparity mapping that show high levels of disparities.

Prioritizing Investments in Impacted Communities

Funding should be dedicated for and invested in communities with high levels of health disparities as identified by the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map. Currently, the Task Force is considering a percentage threshold should be between 35%-50% of an identified fund. Potential sources of revenue that could be dedicated to this type of investment could include funds raised through the Model Toxics Control Act that currently collects hundreds of millions of dollars on the amount of oil consumed in Washington. Other sources could include a future carbon tax or fee.

This idea builds off of Front & Centered’s work on Initiative 1631 which had a similar requirement of 35% that would have been allocated to highly-impacted communities had that initiative passed.

Spokane Community Conversation held via video conference (May 2020)

Required Use of Cumulative Impact Analyses

Cumulative impact analyses are a type of analysis that identify environmental health risk as a factor of environmental burdens and vulnerable populations – the Washington Environmental Health Disparity Map is one example.

The recommendation being considered by the Task Force would require agencies to implement the use of cumulative impact analyses to identify highly-impacted communities, to create target environmental health standards, and to prioritize these communities and their vulnerable populations in the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, policies, and funding decisions.

What do you think? If you have changes or additions that can help strengthen these recommendations, we strongly urge you to email the Task Force with any messages of support, concern, or suggestions to improve. Feel free to cc me ([email protected]). It is important your feedback be a part of the public record. The Task Force will hold two additional meetings, on June 22 via Zoom and our final one on August 7 (format TBD). Victor and I are planning on scheduling votes on these recommendations by June 22. There will still be opportunity to modify them prior to our last meeting in August, but it is unlikely that substantial, high-level changes will be made after that.

As the COVID-19 crisis has laid bare, we depend on each other to meet our basic needs more than we know it. We will not prosper as a society until we recognize our interconnectedness and treat each other with the dignity and respect we each deserve. Figuring out how to achieve that through public policy is fundamentally the goal of the Task Force. Your input is vital to help shape these recommendations, as will be your involvement in convincing the Legislature to implement these recommendations, ensuring that environmental justice is fully embedded in our laws. Thank you for staying engaged, and stay tuned for more updates!