Representative Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe from southeast Alaska, has a traditional name passed down to her over ten generations. Its meaning refers to places where baby frogs live in a cool and clean habitat — the type of habitat close to where young salmon are born.
“When this water is polluted, when these resources are gone, my name, my Tlingit name that’s come from generations and generations, will no longer exist,” Lekanoff said during a webinar on environmental justice. “That is a violation. An environmental justice violation.”
Lekanoff, who represents Washington’s 40th District, including parts of Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, spoke during an online briefing about the HEAL Act, which she will introduce to the legislature in the 2021 legislative session with Sen. Rebecca Saldaña.
The bill was co-developed by Front and Centered, a climate justice coalition of 60 organizations representing low-income communities and communities of color. The bill aims to embed principles of environmental justice into the work of state agencies.
The HEAL Act calls for environmental investments toward communities most impacted by climate change and pollution. It would also create an environmental justice council to help incorporate environmental justice into agency work. It would require that environmental bills, rules and budgets be assessed using the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map and call for the development of more tools to “measure the link between environmental quality and human health, disaggregated by race.”
Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, a sponsor of the bill, said it would provide necessary scaffolding for future investments and policies around climate and the environment.
The HEAL Act was introduced to the legislature in 2019, but failed to pass. It came about after the defeat of the unsuccessful Initiative 1631, which would have levied a fee on carbon emissions to pay for air, water and forest quality projects as well as community investments.
Though the bill didn’t succeed the first time, it resulted in an environmental justice task force that released recommendations for incorporating environmental justice into state policies.
The new bill is still in process — its specific recommendations and accurate fiscal information are still being worked out, according to Saldaña. “Fixing mistakes that have been on the books forever isn’t cheap,” she said.
The HEAL Act would work well in conjunction with the proposed Washington STRONG Act that Lekanoff also worked to develop. The STRONG Act would levy a per-ton price on carbon and put the money into bonds. It could allow the state to invest over $16 billion dollars over ten years in green infrastructure and economic recovery. Along with the HEAL Act, more of this funding could go toward addressing disparities in environmental health, Lekanoff said.
While climate change is among the top priorities for Democratic leaders in the 2021 session, COVID-19 relief and economic recovery will likely top the list, said Guillermo Rogel, legislative advocate for Front and Centered, during the webinar.
During the upcoming session, which will be conducted online, legislators are planning to limit the number of bills they introduce. Caucus leaders have reportedly told legislators that about 25-30% fewer bills can be processed, according to the Bellingham Herald.
Members of the Environmental Priorities Coalition — a group of over 20 statewide environmental groups — want to ensure climate and environmental issues are not neglected.
The last time the state faced a recession and funding shortfall, environmental programs and agencies went on the chopping block, said Darcy Nonemacher, Government Affairs Director for the Washington Environmental Council, during a webinar for the Environmental Priorities Coalition.
“A well-constructed budget is really essential to be able to tackle our biggest environmental challenges, such as climate change, salmon recovery and orca recovery, reducing toxic pollution, environmental justice,” Nonemacher said. “Cutting environmental programs will push costs onto people in terms of public health outcomes and exposure to pollution.”
The Coalition wants the state’s operating budget (which pays for implementing state policies) to protect environmental agencies and programs from cuts. Though environmental spending only accounts for 2.2% of the operating budget and about 0.9% of the general fund, it has consistently seen disproportionate cuts.
The coalition also asks that the legislature avoid using dedicated environmental funding sources to fill gaps in the budget. During the last recession and budget shortfall period, $275 million in funding from the Model Toxics Control Act was shifted into the general fund to fill shortfalls. And this year, Gov. Inslee’s proposed budget diverts some MTCA funds to backfill cuts in the operating budget.
The coalition also wants the legislature to pass a Clean Fuel Standard bill. It passed the House in two previous sessions without crossing the finish line. The bill aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — responsible for 45% of the state’s emissions — by forcing fuel producers to be more efficient, blend sustainable biofuels into their fuel or buy credits from clean fuel producers.
The goal is to create incentives to produce more clean fuels locally, creating jobs and contributing to the economy, said Leah Missik, Washington Transportation Policy Manager for Climate Solutions, during the webinar.
Washington’s neighbors — Oregon, California and British Columbia — have a similar standard in place. It would also help curb air pollution from transportation, benefitting public health, said Missik, as air pollution is concentrated in communities of color living near freeways, airports and other highly-developed areas.
The coalition also wants an environmental justice lens applied to the capital budget. They recommend investing in rural communities to increase broadband access and reduce the risk of wildfires through improved forest health. Other priorities they see are weatherizing homes, retrofitting public buildings and clean water and green infrastructure — including improving wastewater treatment systems and keeping salmon and orca recovery in motion.
The coalition is calling for progressive taxes and revenue sources — for example, a price on carbon — to fund more environmental programs.
Transportation is often funded locally through sales taxes, which will likely take a hit due to the pandemic. The coalition hopes transport services will not be cut and wants the state to allow local jurisdictions more freedom to impose progressive taxes.
The Clean and Just Transportation campaign is calling for the legislature to pass a transportation package that de-emphasizes expanding highways in favor of clean transportation, including investing 35% in environmental justice priorities for low-income communities and communities of color. The goal is for transportation investments to help reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution and expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure.
This week, the legislature will start hammering out its own budget proposals in the House and Senate and negotiate a final budget in April.
Read more in the Jan. 13-19, 2021 issue.