HEAL Act, “The Cornerstone of Any Environmental Policy,” Makes Its Way Through Legislature

by Jack Russillo

During the 2019 legislative session, two state senators from South King County sponsored a bill that aimed to improve environmental justice for all of Washington’s residents, but only some of the policy actually became a reality. 

This year’s new legislative session, which opened last week, has already seen numerous senators co-sponsor the same policy — including one of the bill’s original champions, the 37th Legislative District’s Rebecca Saldaña — and reintroduce the bill in an attempt to lay the groundwork for achieving a universal standard of environmental health quality across every community in Washington. The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, Saldaña says, would lay the critical groundwork to effectively implement any environmental legislation that is passed in the State Senate.

“It’s not cheap and it’s not easy,” said Saldaña in a phone interview with the Emerald. “Any of those other policies on their own won’t produce the results we need if they don’t incorporate environmental justice at its core. They will continue to have disparate impacts on the environmental justice communities and on our sovereign nations. That’s why, for me, the cornerstone of any environmental policy and strategic investments in transportation that we make this year must include the passage of the HEAL Act.”

In 2019, the parts of the HEAL Act (ESHB 1109, section 221, subsection 48) that were passed resulted in the State Legislature creating a budget proviso and allocating money to establish the Environmental Justice Task Force, which has worked since then to develop policy recommendations for embedding environmental justice into each State agency’s responsibilities. The 16-member committee produced a final report with 26 strategy recommendations to guide Governor Jay Inslee and the State Legislature’s next moves for improving the equity of Washington’s environmental justice policies. 

The final report includes recommendations across four different categories: guidance for using the Washington Environmental Health Disparity Map to identify communities that are highly impacted by environmental justice issues; best practices for increasing meaningful and inclusive community engagement that takes into account barriers to participation; measurable goals for State agencies to reduce environmental health disparities for each community in Washington State; and model policies that prioritize highly impacted communities and vulnerable populations for the purpose of reducing environmental health disparities.

Building on the work of the task force, this year’s iteration of the HEAL Act (SB-5141) would aim to implement many of the task force’s recommendations, which are focused on addressing and reducing the health disparities that occur in communities working in essential and frontline jobs especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the pandemic, frontline populations are often Indigenous and other People of Color, with lower incomes, and are linguistically isolated. These frontline communities have historically and most frequently been on the frontlines of climate and environmental change. They are hit first by the effects of pollution and extractive practices and policies, making their existing health and economic disparities worse, and yet these frontline communities are often not prioritized in corrective policy that leads to healthier and more sustainable futures.

A main priority of the HEAL Act is to define environmental justice in State law and require its application across all strategies, goals, programs, and enforcement. The task force’s recommended definition for environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This includes using an intersectional lens to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts by prioritizing highly impacted populations, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm.

“It’s about how we approach all the work that we do,” said Saldaña at a virtual community briefing hosted by Front and Centered on January 7. “It’s about the accumulation of unintended and intentional lack of centering Black lives, Indigenous lives, and the Communities of Color and immigrants in the work that has led to having a map that shows that there are certain communities across our state that pay a much higher price in health and in opportunity than others in our state, and that it was by design. And so it is by design, at the central part of how our agencies function, that we must embed environmental justice into the statute of Washington State.”

After being introduced in the Senate on January 12, the bill is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology on January 20 at 8 a.m.

Front and Centered, alongside David Mendoza, who’s co-chair of the environmental justice task force, have been working on the bill since its inception, when it was the previously defeated Initiative 1631

Another main priority of the HEAL Act is to direct funding with environmental benefits toward investments in, and determined by, highly impacted communities. This ties into another focus of the act, which is to ensure and promote Tribal sovereignty and rights in environmental justice issues. 

The HEAL Act strives to improve the overall equity and accessibility of community participation in planning, resource allocation, programming, and enforcement. This includes advancements in language accessibility, screening tools like the Washington Environmental Health Disparity Map, community engagements targeted by State agencies, reducing barriers to funding, contracting with community-based organizations, and consultation with Washington Tribes.

“The HEAL Act is going to help protect and provide environmental justice for all of our communities,” said Debra Lekanoff, who represents the State’s 40th Legislative District in the House of Representatives and is the only Native American woman to currently serve in the State Legislature, at the virtual community briefing. “We are going to enforce the HEAL Act and implement it across all agencies. We are going to build the capacity to where Washington State is going to honor our most vulnerable communities, we are going to invest in our most vulnerable communities, and we are going to protect the health of Washingtonians.”

Other priorities of the HEAL Act are to establish and fund an “Environmental Justice Council” that will support integrating environmental justice into State government and require environmental justice assessments of all — past and present — environmental legislation and budgets. The act also seeks to fund and apply the Washington Environmental Health Disparity Map to identify the cumulative impacts to overburdened communities while using additional tools to measure the connections between environmental quality and human health, broken down by race.

“This is an important moment in the journey to move to an equitable and just society where our government actually works to serve and protect all of us,” said Kurtis Robinson, a wildland firefighter and the first vice president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP, at the virtual briefing. “That means undoing the racial oppression in our institutions that manifest in the disproportionate numbers of African Americans and our BIPOC community unjustly locked up in prisons or living in neighborhoods with the greatest number of environmental health risk factors because of the legacy of oppression and segregation. Everything is connected and we need these policies that take a holistic approach to protecting our health, our environment, and our well-being.”

“We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we can make sure that our government repairs the damage caused by being better focused on justice and equity, protecting the environment, and health and well-being of everyone,” said Robinson. “Our government can take important steps in this direction by improving outreach practices, working to enforce health protections and laws on the books, and making it a priority to fund programs in these high need areas. This means everything from school breakfasts, afterschool programs, transit services, public health inspections, and environmental cleanup programs. The HEAL Act can set a precedent for this approach.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: A screenshot of the Washington Environmental Health Disparity Map.

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