The state’s first environmental justice task force is gearing up to identify and address environmental justice violations and health disparities in Washington.

Environmental justice is the fair treatment of all people when it comes to environmental policies, laws and regulations, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency. A budget proviso this year set aside money to create the Environmental Justice Task Force, under the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities, which will be responsible for making recommendations to the Legislature and governor by the end of October 2020.

On Wednesday, about two dozen Yakima residents and grassroots groups contributed to an initial conversation, sharing their concerns with task force members at an all-day workshop at the Henry Beauchamp Community Center.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted the event. Yakima County NAACP’s James Parks said he hoped the meeting would be a chance to bring community members together to tell their stories and to plant a seed for future engagement.

“This is about getting people on the very lowest rungs to have the chance to say how environmental justice is impacting them,” Parks said. “It has to start on this level. I’m hoping we will meet many more times and keep our pulse going, all the way to the polls.”

Environmental justice

David Mendoza, the legislative and government affairs director for Front and Centered, a coalition that works to promote environmental and economic change, defined environmental justice broadly as the belief that people’s locations, race, language abilities and incomes should not determine how healthy or safe they are.

Mendoza noted that low-income and communities of color historically have been hit hardest by high levels of pollution, exposure to toxic wastes, or other environmental justice violations. He also highlighted that communities of color historically have been at the forefront of fighting for better living conditions, and getting them.

Oregon and California are leading the nation in the movement, with legislation that directly requires states to address environmental justice inequities in low-income and communities of color. But Washington’s new environmental justice task force is a step in the right direction for keeping agencies accountable, Mendoza said.

“What we’ve seen in the (Environmental Protection Agency) and in other states is they have goals they never seem to accomplish, and how do we hold them accountable?” he said.

The morning’s events featured a panel consisting of Mendoza, Parks, Lee Murdock of the Homeless Network of Yakima County, and Jean Mendoza of Friends of Toppenish Creek.

Murdock voiced concerns about Yakima’s lack of affordable housing options and shared that about a third of Yakima County residents are housing burdened, with more than 30% of their income going to housing costs. She also noted many of the county’s lowest-income communities inhabit old residences, which can increase their exposure to lead and the problems associated with it.

Jean Mendoza pointed to the Yakima Valley’s history of environmental justice concerns by citing a federal lawsuit settled in 2015 in which three Lower Valley dairies agreed to change their manure management practices given adverse effects on public health.

She and several community members also shared concerns about pesticide use in hop production and the chemicals’ impacts on farm workers, as well as the handling of the disposal and composting of cows killed in a February storm this year.

Disparities

The state environmental justice legislation followed the launch of the Washington Environmental Health Disparities map, an interactive tool that shows health disparities and environmental concerns at a community level based on 19 factors, including pollution levels, proximity to hazardous waste sites, poverty and affordable housing. The map is available at https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/wtn/WTNIBL/.

ZIP codes in Yakima earned numbers on the unhealthy end of the spectrum, with the map showing higher numbers for ozone concentration, exposure to toxic releases from hazardous waste and wastewater discharge, and lead risks from housing.

During small group sessions on Wednesday afternoon, David Mendoza said people shared concerns that the government prioritized the agricultural industry’s needs over those of private citizens. But what stood out most was concern about the lack of accessibility and engagement the government had with the community, he said.

“They told us to get materials in Spanish, because people feel like they are not being given basic information,” he said. “They also shared that they didn’t know who to contact about instances or how to file complaints about an incident with Labor & Industries.”

He encouraged community members to come to the next meeting in Yakima, scheduled Nov. 21.

“What the task force will be doing next week will be very similar, but people will be able to speak directly to people from the agencies,” he said. “We want to hear and understand the problems communities are facing from the communities and come up with solutions together.”

Editorial Note: This article has been updated to reflect that a budget proviso this year set aside money to create the Washington Environmental Justice Task Force. 

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.