Environmental justice became part of federal law in 1990. Washington might soon catch up. A proposed state law would infuse the concept into the work of seven key agencies.
The Washington Healthy Environment for All Act, or "HEAL Act," has passed the state Senate and is working its way through the House. Its aim is to implement the recommendations from an environmental justice task force that wrapped up its work last summer.
David Mendoza was the co-chair of that work and says the first thing the HEAL Act does is put a definition of environmental justice into state law. It starts with concepts of equity outlined in the 1990 executive order from President Bill Clinton.
“But what was missing, we think, in the federal definition, is what do you do with that? So what we say in this definition, to add in a layer, that the ongoing work must incorporate these perspectives, including rectifying past environmental harms and reducing disparities,” Mendoza says.
So the act would require certain state agencies to build environmental justice into basically any future planning. Charmi Ajmera is an equitable governance policy specialist with Front and Centered, the community group that led the task force. She says if the act passes, it will direct these state agencies to work the recommendations into things that they're doing anyway.
“So, for example, it specifies how to incorporate environmental justice into budgeting and funding decisions, into their strategic planning, into their community engagement plans,” she says. “And then also introduces this new idea of an environmental justice assessment for significant agency actions.”
She says that assessment is basically a checklist. It and other new requirements would be carried out with the help of a 12-member appointed Environmental Justice Council, which would include community members as well as representatives of the affected agencies. It would likely be confirmed by the Senate.
The seven agencies named in the bill are Agriculture, Commerce, Ecology, Health, Natural Resources, Transportation and the Puget Sound Partnership. All have been at the table with the environmental justice task force, working on the policy. Other departments of government would be encouraged to follow their lead.
Opponents - mostly in the construction industries - have voiced concerns about escalating costs for permitting. Proponents say the environmental justice work won’t be required at the individual project level.
The act would also continue to fund and enhance the state’s environmental health disparities map, which informed the initial work of the environmental justice task force.
You can read the task force's complete report to the governor and Legislature here.