In Washington, new policies and tools ensure climate action starts where environmental harm is greatest.

Governor Jay Inslee
Washington State Governor's Office
5 min readJun 26, 2024
The Seattle skyline on a cloudy day with highways in the foreground.
The Beacon Hill neighborhood’s Dr. Jose Rizal Park features an eye-catching view of the Seattle skyline, and of the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that pass by the neighborhood every day.

As Washington state implements its nation-leading environmental policies, policymakers are putting environmental justice at the center of decision-making. Environmental justice is a commitment to deliver the benefits of climate action where environmental harm is greatest.

The principle is fundamental to the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) and Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, two of the state’s marquee environmental policies.

The HEAL Act requires certain agencies to direct 40% of all expenditures that create environmental benefits to support vulnerable populations and overburdened communities. The CCA mandates that at least 35% of CCA investments serve overburdened communities, and another 10% serve Tribal Nation-supported projects.

Many state agencies are involved in implementing these programs. Gov. Jay Inslee insists on enhanced coordination so that overburdened communities truly benefit.

On May 24, Inslee issued a directive requiring certain state agencies to develop a uniform approach for prioritizing and tracking the state’s environmental funding in overburdened communities. Today, the Office of the Governor and Office of Financial Management published the new approach. By creating these standards, agencies will work in harmony to prioritize their efforts and measure their impact reducing air pollution or toxics exposure or improving resilience against climate change.

What does it mean to live in an ‘overburdened’ neighborhood?

Car exhaust, wildfire smoke, and industrial fumes have consequences, especially where these pollutants are concentrated. More than 1.2 million Washingtonians live in communities ‘overburdened’ by air pollution. They live sicker and die younger as a result.

A recent state Department of Ecology study found 16 communities across the state most impacted by air pollution. On average, their residents die 2.4 years earlier. Children suffer from asthma and reduced lung function.

Other factors affecting a neighborhood’s risk of environmental harm include proximity to waste facilities, lead content in buildings and homes, or people living in poverty. Due to a long history of racism and redlining, these are often people of color. The Department of Health’s (DOH) environmental health disparities map helps policymakers see where investments could reduce environmental harm to Washingtonians.

Tools like this informed the new Overburdened Communities Map published to OFM’s website. The map also includes data from the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tood and Tribal Land Data. Agencies will refer to this map to plan relevant investments in the current biennium, and they will maintain the map to reflect current data.

Environmental justice creates an opportunity for communities to participate in decision-making. One example is the process used by the Department of Commerce to distribute a new round of Clean Energy Grants. The grant programs were designed for, and created by, frontline communities and Tribes.

Planes, trains, automobiles, factories and wildfires.

A collage of aircraft flying overhead Seattle during a 30-minute period.
A series of low-flying aircraft soaring over Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood over a 30-minute period.

Every 90 to 180 seconds, another aircraft flies over Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood on approach to local airports. That adds up to over 600 aircraft a day, each burning about a gallon of jet fuel every second. The planes are quite low and quite noisy. Things are better now than they used to be; the planes used to fly even lower and more directly overhead of the Beacon Hill and Georgetown neighborhoods.

“It used to be if you were sitting in the backyard having a barbecue or something like that, you’d have to stop all your conversation until they passed overhead because you couldn’t hear each other talk,” said longtime local Rick Schwartz.

I-5 traffic passes by the Beacon Hill neighborhood on a rainy day in May.

To the west, I-5 borders Beacon Hill. Roughly 274,000 vehicles pass by every single day, emitting about 484 tons of carbon dioxide in that four-mile stretch. Research suggests that living in proximity to busy roadways like this contributes to lung and heart disease, premature births, and premature death.

Those studies bear out in Beacon Hill. Major roads, airplanes, and indoor gas heating produce concentrated pollution. Noise from planes and cars disrupts sleep. A lack of neighborhood trees causes significantly elevated summer temperatures.

“When you look at this, it’s really climate injustice because a lot of this is driven with carbon emissions,” said Maria Batayola, chair of the Beacon Hill Council and a member of the state’s Environmental Justice Council. “A cumulative health impact analysis done for 98108 shows that the lifespan is six to eight years less than normal.”

Like other overburdened communities, Beacon Hill has high percentages of residents of color and lower-income residents. While about one-third of Seattle residents are of color, nearly three-quarters of Beacon Hill’s population is of color. Compared to the rest of the city, Beacon Hill has 52% more lower-income residents and 33% more residents living with disabilities.

These demographics mirror other overburdened communities across the state. Generally, the people hurt the most by pollution are people of color, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities.

Smoke hangs over Cle Elum, Wash. from a wildfire in the distance.
Wildfires burn and smoke hangs over Cle Elum in 2013 (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Natural Resources)

East Yakima and East Wenatchee are overburdened communities on the east side of the state. They, too, have high rates of both poverty and pollution. But the primary source of their air quality issues is wildfire smoke. There were 1,880 wildfires statewide in 2023, the second-highest total in state history. Smoke from these fires spread all over, but it hung over Central Washington communities longer than elsewhere.

Wenatchee and Yakima are some of the state’s most-afflicted communities by wildfire smoke, as shown by DOH data. ‘Smoke scores’ are cumulative measurements of airborne fine particulate matter from wildfires between 2016 and 2022. One Census tract in East Yakima registers a smoke score of 4,986, and another in East Wenatchee reached 6,174. The statewide average was 2,289.

HEAL Act and CCA investments are already being put to work in overburdened communities. Ecology has begun to build its new “SensWA” network of air quality monitors, starting with installations in each of the state’s 16 communities overburdened by air pollution. Farmworkers in Toppenish and adult family home residents in Walla Walla are enjoying new heat pumps and lower bills. Community groups are planting shade-giving trees in urban tree deserts.

Back in King County, CCA funding will blunt harmful impacts from the airport. The program will equip 22 schools, rec centers, and apartment buildings with air purifiers to filter out pollutants.

“People forget — this is a health issue. People often think climate action is just about the polar bears,” says Inslee.

--

--

Governor Jay Inslee
Washington State Governor's Office

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