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Finally a definition of environmental justice with reparations?

One More Time, A Failed Bill, A Far Reaching Budget Proviso:

A proviso in the 2019-2021 biennial operating budget (section 221, subsection 48 ESHB 1109) directs the Governor’s Inter-agency Council on Health Disparities to convene and staff an Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF). The proviso outlines the Task Force’s membership, tasks and reporting requirements to the Legislature.

Senate Bill 5489 died in the House in 2019. So as often the case, the essence of the bill was revived in a budget proviso.

Two Interims, One Prepared Definition:

Through two interims and one more legislative session, the EJTF has been meeting, and talking and meeting. A diverse group of folks were tasked with, and have finally voted unanimously for a definition of environmental justice (EJ) with hopes that it will be codified during 2021 legislative session. Yes, put it in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). No, we don’t have a state definition today, nothing to refer to for this sensitive consideration.

It is alleged by the group and verified by the research that many aspects of state government go forward with little or no consideration for the situations, needs and orientation of marginalized communities. These communities are limited with language and cultural barriers, and discrimination by private and public actions.

Zoning laws are adopted with no consideration for the impact of harmful facilities like hazardous waste dumps. Locations for grocery stores, schools, health clinics, and hospitals often skirt marginalized communities making it difficult to acquire fresh food, attend neighborhood schools or receive needed government or healthcare services. Even the consideration of a freeway off ramp can miss whole communities or worse, physically split them in half separating and wreaking a sense of community.

Finally A Definition:

After almost two years of refinement, with the existing federal definition as a bench mark, the EJTF arrived at a definition for Environment Justice that they feel should be codified in our laws. This overriding definition will direct all state governmental action going forward.

Their final report to the legislature on October 31, 2020 will include this unanimously adopted definition:

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 makes sense for our state to have a directing definition for fair and equitable actions regarding its citizens. Some state agencies already have directors or officers who have both titles and responsibility for environmental justice in the actions and decisions of the agencies. Usually they use the federal definition in their work. e.g.  Dr. Piazze, DOE’s Environmental Justice & Title VI Senior Advisor, a Task Force member. (DOE uses advisor instead of adviser in their titles).

A Suggested Definition and Retroactive Payments or Reparations for “Past Harms”?

Somewhere along the way, some members of the task force have suggested the state study, look back, and identify past harms, and retroactively provide payment or otherwise help those who have been wronged. In the suggestion (in quotes below) these reparations for past/historical harms will go all the way back to “slavery and colonization.”

As one strategy for achieving environmental justice, Washington State government should study reparations as a mechanism to address health disparities and historical harms affecting overburdened communities. The State should focus on the unpaid debts from slavery and colonization (emphasis added), the legacy of redlining, treaty violations, forced exclusion, and neighborhood segregation in WA, as well as the impact that systemic racism has had on Black, Native, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian communities and others.”

Is a Reparations Consideration a Stretch? Unpaid Debts from Slavery and Colonization a Task Force Assignment?

Although the original statutory assignment of the task force was to…“recommend strategies for incorporating environmental justice principles into how state agencies discharge their responsibilities,”…it may seem a stretch to some to look back, particularly if we incorporate the concept of “historical harms.”

Task Force Co-Chair David Mendoza pointed out in an email that, the “…budget (proviso) stated that the EJTF could recommend ‘model policies for prioritizing highly impacted communities and vulnerable populations for the purpose of reducing environmental health disparities and advancing a healthy environment for all residents’.” Reparations could be a model policy.

Who Suggested Reparations?

So where did the reparations suggested report language originate?  The discussion or suggestion for reparations for past or historical harms has been in and out of the minutes of the Task Force for sometime.

June 22, 2020 Task Force minutes, Item 13,

CONTINUING DISCUSSIONS ON DRAFT RECOMMENDATIONS – POSSIBLE ACTION”

Create a statewide Reparations Task Force…Member Furze stated that his initial reaction was that this feels outside the realm of the EJ Task Force (emphasis added). He stated he would need to understand the potential impacts on the seven items outlined in order to make a decision.”

Then a month later, the July 16, 2020 minutes of the “listening session” report that:

 Michael Furze, member, asked staff and Co-Chairs to speak more about the connection between reparations and environmental justice in the context of this Task Force.”

Vanishing Comments In the 9/25 Minutes Quickly Revised:

Most recently in the first set of minutes of the September 25th meeting of the Task Force, Dr. Piazze, DOE’s Environmental Justice & Title VI Senior Advisor, a Task Force member, was attributed as putting forth the suggestion that the state study reparations as a mechanism to address historical harms and racism. 

Here are the original minutes:

Staff, Elise Rasmussen went back to address outstanding items that members brought to the discussion:  Ms. Rasmussen needed clarity on the draft reparations recommendation language (on file) because we can’t make changes outside of this meeting. Members discussed how to ensure that the recommendation reflects that reparations are not only to redress health disparities, it is about working to correct past harms. With this said, the TF also discussed how this recommendation fits within the TF’s scope of work. Member Piazza suggested this edit for consideration based on TF’s discussion for the draft reparations recommendation:”

When asked in an email what she meant by the suggestion, Piazza quickly responded:

It’s unfortunate that the Sept. 25, 2020 minutes that you site, misrepresents the context. To share more, I was summarizing and restating proposed edits after another lengthy conversation during that meeting.

This morning I reached out to the EJ Task Force manager, Elise Rasmussen, about this misstatement in the Sept. 25, 2020 EJ Task Force minutes, and I believe the minutes will be updated to accurately reflect the context.

To close, my participation with the EJ Task Force is as an employee of the Department of Ecology.

Sincerely, Millie Piazza”

After revising the minutes, the Task Force staff responded with an email which in part read,

“Mr. Boldt,…Apologies for the confusion. Yes, the 9/25 minutes have been updated to reflect more of the context of the discussion. I want to clarify with you that Member Piazza was not introducing that recommendation (reparations–parenthetical clarification added), but was attempting to summarize the proposed edits discussed by TF members during the meeting. This quote was included in the minutes to have a record of the agreed upon updated draft language. The actual recommendation is not a proposal of Member Piazza’s or the agency she represents.”

The Task Force staff went on to mention David Mendoza’s contribution about the reparations suggestion…

Co-Chair Mendoza originally presented this recommendation to the TF on behalf of the communities served by the organization he represents on the Task Force. The reparations recommendation was first introduced to the EJTF during the 6/22 meeting. I am working with staff to get you the audio recording for that meeting, hopefully by tomorrow.”

However, in an October 23,  2020 email exchange with Mendoza he wrote,

Regarding the quote, (to study reparations) that is not a quote from me but is actually the draft language for recommendation for further study for reparations. It was probably attributed to me in the minutes because I read it out loud during the meeting.”

He further added, when asked about the source of considerations for reparations, a reference to this memo.

The September 2020 memo is entitled Environmental Justice and Reparations from Systemic Racism, A memo for the Washington State Environmental Justice Task Force, written by task force members representing community organizations: Emily Pinckney, Tacoma League of Young Professionals Rowena Pineda, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Judy Twedt, UAW Local 4121.

So Where are We on the Work of the Environmental Justice Task Force?

1. A Definition

According to staff, minutes and actions of the EJTF, before or on October 31, 2020, as required by statute (budget), the EJTF will report a suggested definition of “environmental justice” for the legislature to consider codifying.

This definition, if adopted, will direct our state’s actions and require:

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.”

2. More Study Of Reparations For Historical Harms And Unpaid Debts From Slavery and Colonization

It is also highly likely that the Task Force will suggest that:

“Washington State government should study reparations as a mechanism to address health disparities and historical harms affecting overburdened communities. The State should focus on the unpaid debts from slavery and colonization (emphasis added), the legacy of redlining, treaty violations, forced exclusion, and neighborhood segregation in WA, as well as the impact that systemic racism has had on Black, Native, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian communities and others.” 

Note from Boldt:

I have been monitoring the progress of the EJTF since the first meeting in 2019. I have posted stories about it here. The EJTF should be recognized for a methodical, information rich, research based quest to provide a needed definition to our state law. There is a preponderance of evidence that inadvertently or otherwise, marginalized communities have been impacted negatively by government and private sector decisions regarding the location of facilities and the provision of services.

It’s time.


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