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Task force says reparations may be needed as state works toward environmental justice

As they prepare for the next legislative session, state lawmakers are reviewing areport that calls for laws to ensure environmental justice.

It comes from a new entity, created in 2019 and charged with developing strategies to address findings in the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map.

The map was a collaboration between researchers at the University of Washington and several other entities at the state and federal levels. They found data – and clearly displayed it – showing that where you live in Washington affects your life span.

To address that, theenvironmental justice task force met for more than a year, engaging communities statewide to get input and develop 26 policy recommendations. They also came up with a recommended definition of environmental justice for the state.  The nine meetings took place both in person, before the start of the pandemic, and then online – allowing even a greater level of accessibility and participation.

“Environmental justice in its roots is a racial justice movement," says David Mendoza, who co-chaired the task force. He says as the region grappled with the killings of George Floyd and Manny Ellis, a key concept repeatedly came up in the task force discussions: the idea that there should be reparations for harm done to environmental health, which tends to fall disproportionately on lower-income communities and people of color. It became one of the task-force policy recommendations, although the task force didn’t specify exactly what form that should take.

“We are saying we need to study what are the harms of different communities of color faced from discriminatory policies at the state level, at the local level in Washington state,” Mendoza says. “And what would a reparations program look like?”

He says it could mean earmarking revenue from environmental regulations to go to certain communities. That’s a concept that came up recently in the form of the latest carbon fee initiative (I-1631) that voters ultimately rejected. The initiative was developed with a large coalition of communities of color, tribes and lower income groups at the table and stipulated that the revenue raised by taxing carbon had to be invested in communities that have been hardest hit by the carbon pollution that causes climate change.

Mendoza, who was with the environmental justice advocacy group Front and Centered when the task force was meeting and has since moved into a new community engagement position at The Nature Conservancy, says the meetings are done, but the work continues.

The creators of the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map are working to update and expand it. And lawmakers continue to work on sweeping legislation that would require most major state agencies to consult that map in all of their policymaking.

The proposed law is called the Healthy Environment for All, or HEAL Act. It passed the state House but ultimately failed last session, although lawmakers funded the work of the task force. Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle)will again sponsor the bill in the Senate.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to