As state lawmakers gear up for the new legislative session, advocates for environmental justice are urging them to pass the HEAL Act of 2021. The acronym stands for “Healthy Environment for All.” It aims to target state investments into areas that have suffered the worst effects of pollution. Many of those places have already been pinpointed in the Washington Health Disparities Map that was launched by the state Department of Health in January 2019.
The roots of the HEAL Act go back at least five years. Advocates from a coalition of communities of color-led groups called Front and Centered helped defeat the bipartisan carbon tax initiative in 2016, saying it did not do enough for low-income communities and people of color, who are often the hardest hit by the effects of climate change. That same organization and many other affiliates and local tribes helped develop the alternative carbon fee initiative in 2018, a key feature of which was the requirement that revenue collected on carbon pollution permits be invested in those hard-hit communities.
After voters rejected that initiative, a first version of the HEAL act was put forward in 2019. It failed to pass the state Legislature, but lawmakers acknowledged the need for work on the issues, and funded a state task force on environmental justice.
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle has been a leader of this work all along. She says they’re making progress. The task force has just wrapped up 18 months of community outreach.
“When we first built it, we didn't have the agencies at the table,” said Saldaña of the first HEAL Act, which would have directed eight key state agencies to target their work using the health disparities map.
This time, she says they were included in the discussions.
“As well as business and agriculture and other interested parties, that (…) whenever we're doing changes, are watching what the impact will be to them,” Saldaña says.
A report on the task force’s findings was published last week, shortly before they filed a draft of the bill. They’re expecting a first hearing in the second week of the legislative session.
Saldaña says one challenging aspect of crafting the latest version is coming up with a realistic fiscal note, while addressing as many affected interests and groups as possible – amid the pandemic and resulting financial crisis.
Front and Centered led the community outreach work and compiled the new report. Sameer Ranade, the group’s civic engagement and policy manager, said its findings lay the groundwork for the new draft of the law.
“And I think the HEAL Act is one step closer to bringing us to a government that is truly of the people, by the people and for the people,” he said.
Saldaña said she grew up near a Superfund site in the Duwamish River Valley, the daughter of an immigrant farmworker. She also has support for the bill this session in the House from state Rep. Debra Lekanoff of Bow, who is the only Native American woman currently serving in Washington’s Legislature.
Lekanoff commented that the fight for environmental justice is a fight “for every person of color, for every community … for our most vulnerable communities” and said she is excited to introduce it in the House.
“We are the ones who are living in the most polluted areas for our vulnerable and rural communities. We're the ones who are breathing the dirty air, who are living in a pollution-based economy,” Lekanoff said, adding that in her role as a legislator, “we are going to invest in our most vulnerable communities and we're going to protect the human health of Washingtonians, because that is what we do.”
Update, Jan 12: This story has been corrected to identify Front and Centered as a statewide coalition of communities of color-led groups.