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Red tape concerns as “environmental justice” bill advances from House committee

Red tape concerns as “environmental justice” bill advances from House committee

A bill that would create an environmental justice council and require that state agencies include “environmental justice” in their planning cleared the House Energy and Environment Committee on March 25. Although the scope of the proposed council’s authority was severely curtailed prior to the measure’s passage in the Senate, opponents in the House argued that 2SSB 5141 would merely create an additional layer of government rather than hold state agencies accountable.

As proof, they point to the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), created by the state legislature in 2007 with the goal of cleaning up Puget Sound by 2020. Yet in January, the Puget Sound Institute at the University of Washington described this as “still a distant goal,” noting that only four of 31 health criteria established by the PSP have met the 2020 targets.

Rep. Mark Klicker (R-16) said that all “they’ve put together are glossy reports, while nothing has been done to help our Puget Sound. Let’s not put another layer of government on top of that.” Instead, he said the state should “work with what we have…make the bureaucracy more accountable.”

Much of the committee debate revolved around a striking amendment introduced by Rep. Mary Dye (R-9), which would have eliminated most of the bill language; it would have still created the environment justice council and transferred control of the PSP away from its current leadership to the new council.

“We need to prioritize and focus,” said Rep. Keith Goehner (R-12). “We need to hold our agencies accountable.”

He added that funding is often inadequate for environmental programs, including the 20-year Forest Health Plan. Meanwhile, failures within the King County wastewater system have repeatedly led to millions of gallons of raw sewage being dumped into Puget Sound

“We have to recognize a real solution requires accountability,” Goehner said. “(We must) ensure our current agencies are doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Opposed to the amendment was Chair Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34), who told colleagues “I agree that we should be constantly asking as legislators and partners with state agencies how to improve….I don’t see the striking amendment as an answer to those problems. I don’t see how changing the organization overseeing the work of a nonregulatory agency is going to change the trajectory of the health of Puget Sound.”

Also opposed to Dye’s amendment was Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-37). “We’ll need a community entity to steward these conversations. This is not adding anything new to the mix. There are already folks doing this work.”

Senate opponents warned that the proposed new state agency planning could cause delay in project permit approval. Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20) told colleagues at the March 25 meeting that a striking amendment introduced by Fitzgibbon and added to the bill delays the “environmental justice” assessment of agency planning until 2023. He warned that this means the public won’t know the full effects of the legislation for at least two years.

2SSB 5141 has not yet been assigned to its next 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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