In the 2019 legislative session, led by our partners Front and Centered, and supported by the Climate Alliance, we pushed for the creation of an Environmental Justice Task Force to develop strategies that address environmental health disparities with guidance from the communities most impacted by pollution. 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. These recommendations are due to Governor Inslee and the Legislature by October 2020.
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 community thoughts, comments, and additional ideas as they move toward finalizing these recommendations later this summer.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19’s devastating and racially disproportionate impacts have added new urgency to our work. In addition to the range of recommendations the task force is considering, they 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. The Task Force’s 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.
The Task Force’s findings must be based on input gathered across regional public meetings (five held so far) and research conducted by the Task Force subcommittees, relying heavily on input collected at four community meetings organized by local organizations in Yakima, Spokane, Vancouver and Tacoma with support from Front & Centered members and staff.
Many of these recommendations have yet to even be discussed by the full Task Force so these ideas are very much in flux and any and all input the Task Force receives can change their final form. Below we highlight four recommendations from this full list of preliminary recommendations.
The Task Force welcomes community 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
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.
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.
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.