Environmental Justice Day highlights human cost of pollution and climate change

A graphic illustration showing environmental justice data in Washington state

Hazy air, contaminated water, and hazardous waste hurt families and turn communities into unlivable spaces.

They’re not hard to find: America is dotted with communities burdened by the runoff of our unsustainable, climate-changing approach to industrial waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, there are communities here in Washington state also shouldering the brunt of these human-made harms. Overwhelmingly, these communities are low-income or have a high proportion of people of color or Indigenous descent.

The connection between climate change and pollution to harm in the environment is sometimes easier to see than what’s happening to people’s health. That daily exposure can cause chronic issues with breathing, headaches or nausea, as well as cancer, kidney failure, reproductive issues and birth defects.

That’s an injustice, and it’s why Gov. Jay Inslee signed a proclamation recognizing Environmental Justice Day. States like Washington have stepped up more in recent years to advance environmental justice, and much work remains here and at the national level. Governments need to include environmental justice principles in strategic planning; empower overburdened and vulnerable communities, as well as Tribes, in decision-making; and establish effective ways to track and improve environmental justice.

Washington state makes progress as new HEAL Act and equity efforts take shape

A chance encounter early in Inslee’s time in office has influenced his thinking on the importance of environmental justice ever since.

While meeting residents of South Park in King County to hear about the impacts of pollution on their small town’s health, he spoke with Jazmyne Carlin — then a middle school student — who told him something he’d never forget: Jazmyne had asthma. Her peers had asthma. Before she met anyone from outside her community, she said she just assumed all children had asthma like her.

“We are going to try to do something about it,” Inslee said at the time.

Young people display a poster featuring data on the impact of pollution on their community.
Members of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, including Jazmyne Carlin (left), show a report they put together to demonstrate their South Park community’s pollution-related concerns when Gov. Jay Inslee paid them a visit in 2014.

It was 26 years ago that Sen. Rosa Franklin from Tacoma commissioned the state’s first study on environmental justice. Progress thereafter was slow, but recent legislative sessions have seen major victories for environmental justice in Washington state.

The Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2021, marked a historic step toward eliminating environmental and health disparities in communities throughout Washington state.

The law creates an Environmental Justice Council with people who represent communities of color, low-income communities, environmental justice advocates and practitioners, unions and Tribes. The law also requires the state departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Ecology, Natural Resources, and Transportation to prioritize environmental justice in their strategic plans. Agencies are developing community engagement plans and tribal consultation frameworks, in coordination with the Environmental Justice Council, to co-create policies and programs that address environmental harms and ensure that state policy does not unduly impact overburdened communities and vulnerable populations.

Adults gather around a table indoors to sign environmental justice legislation into law.
Gov. Jay Inslee gives Sen. Rebecca Saldaña the pen he used to sign the HEAL Act into law at the Duwamish Longhouse in Seattle on May 17, 2021.

“Eliminating environmental and health disparities for communities of color and low-income households is key to creating an equitable state for us all,” said Lauren Jenks, assistant secretary of the state Department of Health’s Environmental Public Health Division. “The Environmental Justice Council, formed by the passage of the HEAL Act, aims to elevate the voices of those disproportionately impacted by hazards in our environment to help guide the state’s environmental justice efforts moving forward.”

The law also requires the state Department of Health to maintain a map of environmental health disparities throughout Washington state to help track, measure and report on our progress toward environmental justice.

Separately, the state’s Climate Commitment Act — which created the state’s “cap and invest” program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — also requires the Department of Ecology to monitor air quality and related health impacts in overburdened communities. The department would use that information to identify the biggest contributions to pollution locally and begin to reduce and mitigate those emissions.

Importantly, the Climate Commitment Act will raise billions of dollars to further reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It requires at least 35 percent of funds generated through the cap and invest program be invested in projects that benefit overburdened communities. A minimum of 10 percent would go to projects with Tribal support.

Broadly, these policies are just some of the work that reflect Washington’s efforts to create a more equitable state government. State agencies and the state Office of Equity are currently implementing a Pro-Equity Anti-Racism (PEAR) plan for state agencies required under an executive order from the governor.

The order requires agencies set metrics for measuring progress, conduct equity impact reviews, develop PEAR Strategic Action Plans, and ensure transparency through regular reporting mechanisms. The Office of Equity will create an online dashboard to publish statewide and agency-specific plans, performance measures and outcomes and submit an annual report to the governor and Legislature due later this year.

More work ahead

A screenshot of a digital map of Washington state displaying health disparities by community
The Washington State Department of Health’s Environmental Health Disparities Map is an interactive mapping tool launched in 2019. Users can compare rates of poverty, exposure to harmful pollution, and more.

As the urgency of climate action becomes clear in communities all across the country, Washington state now has a partner in the White House that is getting on board with environmental justice.

Building from many of the policies Inslee has advocated for nationally, President Biden created the Justice40 initiative and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to address environmental and economic injustices in disadvantaged communities. But there has been little progress in advancing Justice40, with federal agencies only recently even identifying which programs Justice40 applies to.

And while Congress passed historic investments in the clean energy economy and other investments that will drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions earlier this month, its provisions to allow siting reform and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska further exacerbate environmental harms. The federal government must do more to address the harmful impacts of pollution and climate change on the communities bearing the brunt of the impact from polluting, carbon-intensive infrastructure.

For more on how state agencies are partnering with communities to advance environmental justice in Washington, visit the state Environmental Justice Council website.

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Governor Jay Inslee

Governor Jay Inslee

Governor of Washington state. Writing about innovation, jobs, education, clean energy & my grandkids. Building a WA that works for everyone.