OLYMPIA Senate Bill 5141, also known as the HEAL Act and introduced by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle) this week, would reduce environmental health disparities in Washington state and improve the health of all Washington state residents using principles of environmental justice.

Studies have found that people of color and low-income people are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards in communities across Washington state. As a result, there is a higher risk of adverse health outcomes for those communities, and this risk is amplified for communities with pre-existing economic barriers and environmental risks.

The HEAL Act would implement recommendations from the Environmental Justice Task Force – established by the Legislature last year – on how state agencies should incorporate environmental justice principles to reduce environmental health disparities in implementing policies and programs. Environmental justice means 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. Accordingly, the bill would require agencies to use an intersectional lens to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts in all laws, regulations and policies with environmental impacts. This can be achieved by prioritizing vulnerable populations and overburdened communities, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm.

“We must recognize the disproportionate health impacts our current and past policies have had on communities of color and low-income communities. We need state agencies to involve community stakeholders to address these impacts and prevent future harm,” said Saldaña. “The HEAL Act is fundamental to ensuring policies are implemented with principles of equity and community health in mind. Any success we have in passing environmental policies will not be effective unless environmental justice principles are used to implement them.”

“As we lead the recovery effort in the wake of the pandemic, we must also prioritize the health of our natural environment and address the disparate impacts that climate change has had on low-income people and communities of color,” said the HEAL Act’s cosponsor, Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes). “We know that the climate crisis impacts every single Washingtonian, but by looking at solutions and investments through the lens of those most affected, we can develop strong policy that will guide the actions of our state agencies, undo historic and systemic harm, and benefit all of our state’s residents and environment for generations to come.”

A community briefing and press conference about the HEAL Act was held last week, and the recording can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZQF_tbg8co

The bill is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology on Jan. 20 at 8:00 a.m.