OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats are advancing a bill directing state agencies to base their rules, enforcement actions and funding decisions on “environmental justice.”
Several farm groups are on record as opposing the measure, introduced by Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle. Known as the Healthy Environment for All Act, the law would ensure people most threatened by environmental damage are heard, she said.
“The HEAL Act is not designed to impact the agricultural industry,” Saldana said in an email Wednesday.”
Many of the most impacted communities in our state are in rural agricultural communities and thus the HEAL Act could help target more public priorities and investments and better outreach of those rural communities.”
Senate Bill 5489 passed the Democratic-controlled environmental and budget committees and was placed Tuesday on a list of bills in position to be voted by the full Senate.
The bill enjoys broad support from environmental groups and some state agencies, including Ecology and the Department of Natural Resources.
“Supporting environmental justice, equity and inclusion are high priorities for Commissioner (Hilary) Franz and the department,” DNR Senior Strategic Adviser Tom Bugert said. “We want to do what we can to help the bill’s passage.”
The bill declares that it’s the state’s policy “to stimulate the health and welfare of human beings” and for all Washington residents to have “aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings.”
The bill would create a task force co-chaired by the chairman the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities and someone “well-informed on the principles of environmental justice.”
The bill defines “environmental justice” as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
The task force would conduct a “cumulative impact analysis” to identify “highly impacted communities and vulnerable populations.”
State agencies must use the cumulative impact analysis and adopt a “precautionary approach” to regulations, according to the bill.
The precautionary approach means, according to the bill, that a “lack of full scientific certainty” could not be a reason “for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
“The language in the bill is so broad and encompassing it can go anywhere,” Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said. “I can’t believe they aren’t going to go after pesticide use and farm practices.”
In her email, Saldana said the bill was “about bringing agencies together that have jurisdiction in environment and health along with impacted community stakeholders ... to determine how best (to) apply the new cumulative impacts data tool to result in more efficient and coordinated outreach, policy implementation, and investments.”
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Whatcom County, said the bill “tracks very closely the new green manifesto out of Washington, D.C.”
“This is quite a draconian piece of legislation,” he said. “You’re allowing unelected officials appointed by the governor to set fundamental policy.”
Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights lobbyist Cindy Alia said the bill would sidestep the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, which provides for public participation in agency decisions. The bill would create special consideration for a certain class of citizens, as yet unidentified, she said.
“We are certainly for the environment and health, but are against this approach,” she said.