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Senate passes “environmental justice” bill

Senate passes “environmental justice” bill

The Senate has passed 2SSB 5141 by a 28-21 vote, which would create an environmental justice council and also mandate that state agencies must include “environmental justice” as part of their planning. The bill, passed March 1, differs significantly from its original versions primarily regarding the authority and role of the environmental justice council. Lawmakers opposed to the legislation voiced concerns that the measure would add additional hurdles for economic development and residential home construction projects.

The bill directs state agencies including the departments of Ecology, Health, Natural Resources, Commerce, and Transportation to add “environmental justice plan implementation” into their planning.  The “environmental justice” definition includes “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, rules, and policies.”

The bill also would create a 12-member Environmental Justice Council, with members representing youth and tribes among other organizations. Members are appointed by the governor but require Senate confirmation. 

Bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-37) described the legislation to colleagues as a way to put negative environmental effects “upfront and upstream” in state agency planning.

However, lawmakers such as Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) argued that the measure could potentially undermine important economic projects that in recent years have failed due to a prolonged permitting process review. Fortunato unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have prohibited the environmental justice assessments from being the reason for denying a project permit.

“Causing delays to projects is the big deal,” he said.

Saldaña opposed the amendment, saying “in terms of it (the bill) actually impacting a particular project or delay is really not the issue.”

Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) agreed, arguing the bill “is not intended to serve as a new incremental barrier to permitting.”

First-term Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-19) proposed an unsuccessful amendment that would have added job creation within “overburdened communities” as part of the bill’s definition of “environmental benefits.”

“An economy should be part of our environment,” he said. “We’re ready, willing, able to work. Rather than in any way bury other language in a bill, this is incredibly specific to that four-letter word called ‘jobs.’”

Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) proposed a similar, and also unsuccessful, amendment that would include job loss or loss of purchasing power due to government regulation among the definitions of “environmental harm.”

Among the bill revisions as it moved through committees was the transition of the Environmental Justice Council into a purely advisory role. An amendment proposed by Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5) and added on the Senate floor makes it explicitly clear the council’s decisions are not legally binding on any state agency.

Another amendment sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44) added bill language to specify that any spending by state transportation agencies as a result of their environmental justice plans has to be consistent with transportation budget appropriations and only applies to discretionary spending.

Hobbs told colleagues this ensures “what we pass is what we expect to get in the budget process. The budget process…is very well negotiated on all sides.”

Yet lawmakers such as Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R-20) said that while “I agree very much with the goal, at least what I perceive to be the goal, it provides another incremental disqualifier or disincentive to folks who want to build projects in our state. We already have an enormous challenge recruiting projects to our state that would bring good, well-paying, blue collar jobs.”

The bill has not yet been referred to a House committee.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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