Large pipe with dirty green water and discolored mud and branches flowing out from it

OPINION: Let’s Call It What It Is — Pollute and Trade

by Melina Rivera

I live in an industrial area of town. For the last 12 years, my South Seattle neighborhood has experienced the changes of gentrification. The punk rock house with a sign that read “don’t trifle with us” still stands, but its inhabitants and the sign are now gone and townhomes with six to a dozen units per lot have popped up with more on the way. I have new sets of neighbors where I see more young children and young parents walking their dogs and taking their children for an outing down my alleyway. In fact, my alleyway serves more like a sidewalk as folks walk by with strollers and kids on bikes as we exchange pleasantries. My new neighbors are also homeless with different types of RVs and makeshift homes lining our streets and a tiny-home village with folks who care about the community as much as those with a fixed roof over their heads.

What has not changed in my neighborhood are the toxic odors that I wake up to most mornings.

Between the hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and later in the afternoon, the air is filled with a heavy diesel and exhaust smell. I haven’t been able to pinpoint where the smell comes from — it’s hard to track air — but I can’t have a cup of morning coffee on my front porch without regretting it as a headache sets in with longer exposure to that acrid smell. Industry is all around my house — trains transporting all types of cargo including open coal beds; the airport where we see small luxury airplanes and private jets land along with cargo airplanes carrying the many things that people have shopped for online; and different types of factories and industries that employ hundreds that commute into my neighborhood for their industrial jobs. 

My experience is no different than the many other people who live in or near industrial communities in Washington State. Whether in rural or urban areas, we experience firsthand the effects of pollution and climate change. As someone who lives near industry, I understand the importance of these jobs to our economy. I believe that industry and people can coexist and that industries can thrive without sacrificing the health of neighbors or neighborhoods. There are many industries that are creating greener jobs and pathways — just look at all the solar panels on your next neighborhood walk. Yet, on a daily basis I am reminded about the bad quality of air in my neighborhood, and it made me think, “What can I do about it?” 

There is a bill in the State Senate, SB 5126, concerning cap and trade that claims to limit pollution but doesn’t actually require any industries to substantially reduce emissions. As I looked into the bill, I asked, “What is ‘cap and trade?’”

Since I’m a visual learner, this is what cap and trade is if it were a simplified graphic:

  1. Visualize three chimney stacks, side by side, each representing a different industry. The chimney stacks emit different levels of smoke which we will call “pollution” or “emissions.”
  2. Above the chimney stacks is a horizontal line that is the “cap” of how much they can pollute collectively. The goal is for the smoke “pollution” to not surpass the cap line. 
  3. The chimney stacks whose smoke is less than anticipated may be gifted or buy “allowances” or offsets for avoiding polluting up to the line. For the purpose of my visual, I like to consider these “allowances” as gold stars.

Now, let’s visualize cap and trade in action — with special attention to the aspect of “trade”:

Illustration depicting three different chimneys with text explaining how cap and trade policy works.
“How Cap and Trade Works.“ Illustration by Melina Rivera.

Let’s say that each chimney pollutes at different levels. So that the smoke from the first two are under the cap line and the smoke of the third chimney goes well above the cap. That means that the third chimney is in trouble for going above the cap, right? Not exactly. With cap and trade, larger polluters are able to trade, offset, or generally buy their way out of accountability. You see, the first two chimney stacks that didn’t pollute as much may have excess allowances (gold stars). While still polluting, they can save or eventually trade those for staying under the cap. However, the bigger polluters (remember that third chimney stack?) are able to buy these pollution allowances from the State or other polluters (the gold stars earned by other industries), therefore letting them continue to pollute just as much. These major polluters are also able to buy offsets from industries that don’t have anything to do with this pollution. What is the incentive for larger polluters to cut back on their pollution when they are able to buy their way out of it? Too often, these biggest polluters are found in BIPOC communities like mine. 

I cannot support cap and trade. According to the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map created by the University of Washington and Front and Centered with data that tracks environmental exposures (e.g., diesel emissions), environmental effects (e.g., proximity to hazardous waste sites), and socioeconomic factors (e.g., race and income), people in my zip code, on average, have a lifespan 10 years shorter than people living in wealthier neighborhoods located only 9 miles away. We live in the same city, but a decade of life divides us. Why should anyone experience a shorter life because of where they live? Can you imagine what you could do with an additional 10 years of life? I think about my changing community and the young generations that are growing up here. Folks have asked me, why can’t I “just move” and live somewhere else? I pose that same question to them — do they have the financial means to move? And, why should I move when there are other families living here, too? We live, work, and play here — we are a growing and thriving community.

We can’t run away from the problem or try to mask it. Why is the cap-and-trade bill being considered in Washington State when California communities who have experienced cap and trade haven’t seen any improvements? We need real solutions not a bill that is masked as “climate policy” but continues to protect the profits and power of the industries that created the climate crisis, the same industries that I smell every morning with my cup of coffee. 

What I know for sure is that pollution doesn’t stay in one place, cap and trade impacts us all. Regardless of where you live, I urge you to contact your senator and say NO to cap and trade. Senate Bill 5126 states the cap will decrease over time to meet state emission goals, but the cap doesn’t matter if major polluters are able to trade and buy their way out of it. The cap is a ghost baseline, a mirage. All that glitters isn’t gold, so let’s call SB 5126 what it is: Pollute and Trade.

Melina Rivera is a resident of the Duwamish Valley in Seattle, WA, traditional territory of Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish Tribe (Dkhw’Duw’Absh). She supports WA Strong (SB 5373) as it’s a cleaner and stronger solution in mitigating major pollution and getting Washington State to a greener economy.

Featured image is attributed to Finn Terman Frederiksen under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

For further information on cap-and-trade policy in Washington State, check out the Emerald‘s “Environmental Justice Activists Push Back on Inslee Cap-And-Trade Proposal.

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