OPINION: Clean Air Everywhere, for Everyone in Washington

by Paulina López and Troy D. Abel  

Recently, legislative debates turned from carbon pricing to the Healthy Environment for All Act (HEAL) uplifting environmental justice (EJ). This is important legislation, but what we really need are bold solutions and different laws addressing a persistent form of unjust and ongoing pollution. Air toxic exposure disparities and their impacts on communities like the Duwamish Valley are still being ignored by politicians and industry. This inattention continues even as new research suggests that higher air pollution may increase COVID-19 vulnerability and deaths.

Many environmentalists in our region not only overlook decades of toxic air pollution injustice, some even gloss over the problem. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Seattle office announced that industrial toxic releases declined in the Northwest. Pollution dropped 12% in 2019 for 752 facilities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. They further asserted “that U.S. companies that use and manage chemicals and metals continue to make progress in preventing pollution.” 

But we knew that regional averages likely obscured trends in our heavily polluted Duwamish River Valley neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park — often first documented by our community. EPA analysts lumped air, water, and land pollution together. When viewed separately, air and water pollution went up in the Northwest. Surface-water discharges increased by 1.17 million pounds and air pollution by 610 thousand pounds between 2018 and 2019. 

So, we examined pollution trends for 19 facilities near the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods. Air pollution grew by 14,289 pounds between 2018 and 2019. This heavier air pollution exposure burden results in part from the Duwamish Valley hosting Seattle’s largest industrial and maritime trade centers, three highways, and a Superfund site. EPA data also shows that since 2007, only 2013 was a more polluted year for air toxics than 2019 was for Georgetown and South Park. 

According to EPA’s EJ analysis tool, 71% of the population in the six Census Block Groups encompassing Georgetown and South Park is nonwhite. When air pollution disparities coincide with predominantly Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, we call it environmental injustice, one of the clearest examples of systemic racism. But we have only scratched the surface of our nation’s and the state’s air toxics assessment and management failures. 

Reuters reported recently that significant problems plague our 50-year-old air monitoring system. Researchers documented residents struggling to breathe around the nation in air toxic hotspots and when industrial explosions choked neighborhoods. For example, on June 26, 2018, a Duwamish River barge fire sent toxic smoke billowing across the South Park neighborhood that could be seen for miles. Yet on that day, EPA’s daily Air Quality Index (AQI) for the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue (STB) region reported good air quality for the region. 

Toxic pollution blindspots riddle an antiquated air monitoring network. For instance, there are only two air toxics monitors in Seattle. Our state’s Department of Ecology manages one atop Beacon Hill. It’s over a mile from any industries polluting the Duwamish Valley. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA) operates another air toxics monitor near the Federal Center South campus. It’s over a half-mile to any significant industrial polluter and failed to record air toxics data for five of the last 10 years. In fact, environmental health researchers appealed for better localized air pollution data to assess its relationship to COVID-19 trends. 

We call on Congress and the new administration to fix the hotspot and microclimate pollution blind spots in the Clean Air Act (CAA). But we can also advance clean air justice here in Washington State. Our legislators and administration should support amendments to our own Clean Air Act that address our inadequate air quality regulations, monitoring, and management systems. Start by looking south to Oregon. 

In 2018, Oregon completed a rulemaking overhaul of its air toxics program titled Cleaner Air Oregon (CAO). It combines a geographic and cumulative assessment of air pollution in addition to the minimum source control strategy currently required by the CAA. Oregon also requires large and medium stationary sources to audit their air toxics hazards. If they aren’t safe enough, polluters must develop toxic pollution prevention plans. Companies instead of communities are burdened with the assessment of local air pollution disparities.

The measurable disparities of COVID-19 on Duwamish Valley communities of color pile onto the pollution and health inequalities already documented in an eight-year old study. Another national study documented how unequal consumption of goods and services also leads to air pollution inequities. Scientists estimate that relative to pollution caused by their consumption, Black and Hispanic communities bear on average 56% to 63% excess Particulate Matter (PM) exposures. We can and need to end the air toxics disparities burdening BIPOC communities least responsible for that pollution. As we address our historic environmental injustices in conjunction with the new adversities  presented in 2020, we will continue to inform our work with the best information, science, and community-led solutions. Passing the HEAL Act is important. But we also need to strengthen Washington’s toxic air pollution policies to achieve cleaner air everywhere, for everyone.

Paulina López leads a non-profit where she promotes action on local social and environmental justice issues, such as the Superfund clean-up of the Duwamish River. She currently serves as the executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition to ensure the cleanup of the Duwamish River, a superfund site since 2001.  Originally from Ecuador, Paulina is the mother of three boys and has made Seattle her home for the past 15 years. Paulina holds an LLM in Human Rights. 

Troy D. Abel is a professor of environmental policy at Western Washington University. His teaching and research focus on environmental injustices and climate risk governance. He also serves as a technical advisor to the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Originally from Indiana, Troy has called Seattle his home since 2014. 

Featured photo by Paul Joseph Brown.

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