The phrase “environmental justice” sounds nice—everyone likes both of those things!—so why has it been such a struggle to make it a matter of policy in Washington state? It turns out that the “environment” folks and the “justice” folks haven’t always been working together like they should. But with this week’s introduction of the HEAL Act, SB 5141, they might finally be on the same page and we could see Washington take a revolutionary step of turning “environmental justice” from a nice idea into actual law.
Maybe. Hopefully. If everything works out. Fingers crossed.
The HEAL Act’s foundation dates back to ancient times, which is to say the year 2016, when environmental groups tried and failed to pass a carbon tax initiative. Remember good old I-732, which would have taxed polluters? (No, of course not, you are not a legislative computer.) Despite having bipartisan support, it attracted some unexpected opposition, including from The Sierra Club, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington Environmental Council, and a local hipster zine.
Wait, why? Why would enviro groups be opposed to a tax on dirty industries?
The tax, it turned out, would not have been spent in a particularly just manner; revenue was earmarked for reducing other taxes statewide, rather than assisting communities hit the hardest by pollution. Groups like Front and Centered pointed out that dirty industries like oil would likely challenge the law and that defending a carbon tax sure would be easier if there was a broad coalition on board. You know, the kind of broad coalition you get by re-working a bill so that it specifically benefits communities in need.
So after I-732 failed in 2016, many of those groups started talking to each other about how they might be able to come up with something better if they worked together. The result was I-1631, which taxed polluters and earmarked revenue for clean-energy projects, with a particular focus on communities that have been hardest-hit by pollution. Okay, great! That sounds even better!
But then that one failed, too. This time, there was record spending by the oil industry that poisoned voters against the proposal. (To be fair, though it was a big improvement over its predecessor, it also had some legitimate issues, like some loopholes and exemptions.)
Okay, fine. After that effort went south, advocates started working on legislation that would ensure the state was re-investing revenue from sources like a carbon tax—if one ever passes—into marginalized communities. That resulted in the HEAL Act … which failed to pass in 2019.
But now! Things are different! In the intervening two years, the legislature convened a task force on environmental justice; they overhauled the old version of the HEAL Act; they brought in representatives from impacted agencies; they issued a loooooong report; and now, finally, we have a version that stands a good chance of passing. FINALLY.
So what does this thing do? It’s not a massive tax change, like earlier attempts to impose a carbon tax or fee. But it’s still pretty revolutionary: It would codify the term "Environmental Justice" into law, defining it and requiring that the state apply a racial justice lens when implementing new policies. It would direct future funding to communities impacted most by pollution. It would protect Tribal Communities. It would ensure that the state’s Growth Management Act plan includes provisions for environmental justice—that one’s huge, since it will significantly alter development projects for years to come.
SB 5141 was introduced this past Tuesday with fanfare and a ticker-tape parade (figuratively speaking, of course; the Olympia equivalent of that is an email blast about the week’s HOT NEW LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES). It’s scheduled for its first hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy, and Technology on Wednesday, January 20 at 8 am, an unpleasant reminder that mornings go that early.
We’ll know more about the bill’s likely trajectory once that hearing happens and legislators are expected to vote. Environmental interests are finally aligned with social justice interests; now they just need to align with the most unpredictable interest of all: political convenience.