When she was a girl, Rosalinda Guillen could reach into the Swinomish Channel and bring up a net full of smelt. These days, the fish trickle by in small schools. Guillen, nearing 70, watches increasingly dry summers in the Skagit Valley. When rain comes, it's often a deluge: Farmworkers slip on their way to pick berries, rushing before they're ruined in the downpour.
Guillen has been a farmworker since her family moved to La Conner from Coahuila, Mexico in the ’60s. Over the decades, she’s seen workers fall ill from handling pesticides; she’s watched a steady stream of migrants journey north from California—it’s too hot to work there now, they say. As a rural justice leader, she sees businesses with the means and manpower to lobby government, while agricultural workers struggle to traverse the distance to Olympia. “It’s like a David and Goliath type of thing,” she says.
In this state, David will now stand a little taller. Last month, Washington policymakers passed the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, a landmark bill that would require six state agencies to embed environmental justice into their strategic plans. In principle, environmental justice aims to ensure all people receive equal protection from environmental harm and an equal voice in laws that govern where they work and live. In action, policies seeking environmental justice combat existing inequalities. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color already experience higher rates of chemical and sound pollution (think: highways, power plants, toxic waste disposal), both in Washington and at the national level. The HEAL Act will combat this by asking communities directly: How can our actions support you? How can we minimize adverse effects?
Priorities for these “vulnerable” or “highly impacted” communities found their way into several more policies this year, from the economy-wide Climate Commitment Act to an urban forestry bill. This trend reflects a fundamental shift. Black and tribal nation leaders spoke up, while some legislators listened intently and the historically white-led environmental movement supported. Sakara Remmu, lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, emphasized the solidarity on display. “It’s not just the bills that passed,” she says. “It’s the how that has been historic.”
The HEAL Act seeks to engrain this cultural change by requiring covered agencies (Agriculture, Ecology, Health, Natural Resources, Commerce, Transportation, and the restoration-focused Puget Sound Partnership) to develop community engagement plans and review projects in the $15 to $20 million range for their community impact. A new environmental justice council, representing the generational, regional sprawl of the state, will determine whether these plans effectively support those at risk.
“That's how you can truly claim your bill is rooted in environmental justice and equity,” says David Mendoza, director of advocacy at the Nature Conservancy and co-chair of the 2019-2020 environmental justice task force: “Make sure you understand what a problem is by talking to those communities and then develop that solution with [them].” The challenge of community engagement, he observes, is that many of these groups don’t have time to be engaged when they’re working long hours or with few people on staff. The coalition Front and Centered, which contributed to research for the HEAL Act, hosts regular community listening sessions and pays participants for their time. Ideally, under the HEAL Act, the money to support this work will make its way into state budgets long-term.
That’s the dream ahead. It’ll be another two years to pin down the details, with much bureaucracy to come. In the meantime, more agencies will begin to use the environmental disparities map run by the Department of Health to prioritize at-risk groups. The urban forestry bill dedicates 50 percent of its resources to neighborhoods within a quarter-mile of high-risk counties, including the Yakima Valley and dense clusters from South Seattle through Tacoma. Out east, House Bill 1168 will send $125 million every two years to improve wildfire response and restoration, directing new investments and jobs to underrepresented communities. Even the new clean fuel standard will earmark 30 percent of its revenue to regions with low air quality.
For Mendoza and other long-term advocates, this session felt remarkable for progressive legislators’ intent to focus on equity. He points to a confluence of factors: more diverse legislators, major nonprofits embracing an equity lens, and a greater ecosystem of small, community-led organizations, all of which accrued over years. But the pandemic and last year’s protests for racial justice accelerated the demand to serve those who need it most. “There’s just little bits and pieces that haven’t been there before,” Mendoza says. “Now we feel like we have to start delivering on it.”
The Climate Commitment Act, one of the most scrutinized pieces of legislation passed in Olympia this year, will be the first major battleground for environmental equity in the state. Based on a similar program in California, the law aims to cap 75 percent of carbon emissions in the state. As the limit on total emissions contracts each year, polluters must reduce emissions, buy allowances from others, or purchase offsets, like financing forest restoration, which would reduce or remove equivalent amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
The cap-and-trade bill brought controversy: For one, offsets themselves are dubiously calculated. Some are redundant, like financing renewable energy; others are known to “leak,” like financing restoration in a forest that will soon be logged. Meanwhile, studies of California’s program, which rolled out in 2012, show that greenhouse gas emissions near facilities have actually grown. Because polluters are concentrated near low-income communities of color, air pollution rises in these neighborhoods, while offsets are purchased elsewhere, sometimes even overseas. Environmental justice advocates like farmworker Rosalinda Guillen call foul: A bill that’s supported by oil giants BP and Shell does not address the root problem of a market-based economy that gives more political power to those with cash.
As the bill passed through the legislature, some sought to address environmental justice concerns. The council appointed by the HEAL Act will now preside over company allowances and offsets, double-checking their climate mitigation effect. A more robust air pollution monitoring network will roll out in at-risk counties across Washington, with regular reviews to assess local emissions. Of the revenue generated, no less than 35 percent needs to reduce environmental injustice in marginalized communities—10 percent of this revenue goes straight to tribes, who may also pause or veto projects that jeopardize cultural and sacred sites.
The consensus among those in favor of the bill? You have to start somewhere. No, cap-and-trade isn’t perfect, but Washington can learn from California’s gaps and these environmental justice measures—that’s the real standout. Fawn Sharp, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation and president of the National Congress for American Indians, wrote via email: Of the climate policies considered, the Climate Commitment Act was the only bill with “the right combination of political support, legislative sponsorship, and effective, equitable policies.”
Guillen and many others remain skeptical. She’s wary of tokenism, in which community engagement groups listen, but then fail to act. She recalls a Cesar Chavez quote about farmworkers being society’s canaries in the coal mine. “And we’ve been singing for a long time on environmental justice.”