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Op-ed: Environmental Justice Task Force reveals first draft definition

Hello, There’s More than COVID Going On:

Like so many other notable issues in our state, the COVID head count and phase-in this-and-that have bullied its way to the front row, overshadowing other key actions of  legislative session interim work groups.

Well, wake up Washington and pay attention. A very well organized and very deliberate group of folks has been meeting to address what is termed Environmental Justice and Health Equity, of which they are rightly concerned,  there isn’t much of. I wrote here about the earlier meetings.

The Bottom Line:

Why are so many dangerous and hazardous facilities located in areas with predominately “marginalized communities”? Why are members of these communities inordinately impacted by disease and lack of healthcare facilities and services? They have the proof, it’s an extensive mapping project. The task force feels the answer is partly because, unlike the Federal Government, Washington State does not have a definition of “environmental justice” in its statute. This definition, if codified would drive and be incorporated in everything the state does; budgets, actions, policies and operations. Simply put, this move could mandate inclusion of considerations of “fairness”, “justice” and “equality” throughout state government.  That sounds fair. Right?

One More Example:

The inordinate impact of COVID-19 on members of marginalized communities is just one more beacon of the problem. If older and health-compromised citizens are added, one has a sad picture of who gets hit hardest by the virus. Why?

We know why for seniors. Older human bodies just have weaker immune systems. Underlying health issues also create a handicap as the virus invades the body. But why certain other subsets of our state’s citizens? The data are not in yet and won’t be for awhile, but the natural conclusions are that these populations live in areas of less healthcare services, immigration status creates a reluctance to seek assistance, and someone is doing all the work while the rest of us sit safely at home with long hair and binging on Netflix.

Worth It, But Know The Price:

It is not insensitive to consider the future costs of inclusion of a definition of “environmental justice and health equity” in our state law. Imagine the Senate Ways and Committee including an “environmental justice and health equity impact statement” for it’s appropriations. Is the money going out equally? Extrapolate this to transportation projects, and of course K-12 education, and so on.

It is highly likely with the progress the task force is making that this new definition section will be proposed in the 2021 session of the legislature. So get ready.

Here is the draft proposed definition (and posted below) from the last meeting of the Environmental Justice/Health Equity task force.

It’s just a draft, it carefully and supportively incorporates the federal definition. We saw it for the first time at the May 18th meeting. The draft definition is posted below.

Draft Definition:

“The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies*; with a focus on the equitable distribution of resources, benefits, and burdens in a manner that prioritizes communities that experience the greatest inequities, disproportionate impacts, and have the greatest unmet needs.”

Explanation of Draft Definition:

This definition is meant to guide institutions, including Washington State agencies, with identifying environmental justice issues in addition to the EPA’s definition that has a procedural equity focus. In an effort to avoid contradicting the EPA and to keep important EJ (Environmental Justice (EJ) added for clarity) considerations intact, the full EJ definition from the EPA is embedded within this proposed definition for EJ in Washington. This enhanced definition adds a distributional equity component in the second sentence. This enhanced definition adds a reference to past harms ** (emphasis added) to communities by explicitly naming the distribution of “burdens” ** (emphasis added).This definition does not replace the purposes that an EJ mission statement, EJ goals, or EJ principles serve

Here’s A Couple of Question.

1. *What does “environmental laws” mean? Environmental means, “…of or having to do with an environment…”. And “environment” means, well it means everything, “… the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates…”

So the proposed draft would require fair treatment of all people with respect to development, implementation and enforcement  of all laws, regulations and policies of our state.

2. **In the explanation portion of this draft definition don’t miss the reference to “past harms.” Is this some strategically retroactive, remedial type of legalese? Can you sue for damages of “past harms” that create a “burden(s)”?  As this onion is unpeeled, legislators should carefully consider if the impacts of this definition are only prospective.

This is a very comprehensive action but how can you deny fairness, equity and justice for all?

Jim Boldt is the President of Duckabush Communications/Public Affairs

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