It wasn’t so long ago that summer wildfires enveloped Spokane. Breathing smoke has become an all-too-familiar summer pastime in our region, leaving me to wonder why my two daughters, 7 and 9, now struggle with chronic congestion.
Believe me: As a firefighter serving for the last decade, my colleagues and I know that being “socked-in” on the front lines of these fires gets more and more suffocating every year. And with another hot, dry summer predicted and more hired to contain wildfires across the state, I surmise it’s only going to get worse.
The health impacts aren’t just palpable during wildfire season. They are being felt in Spokane right here, right now. The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map shows us that Spokane has one of the worst environmental health disparity and vulnerability to environmental hazards in our state. It ranks us a 9 or 10 in most Spokane census tracts – 10 being worst – based on factors such as high rates of death from cardiovascular disease, lead exposure risk and wastewater discharge. Areas with the highest concentrations of people of color and those living in poverty are also stationed near more hazardous waste sites. And diesel emissions from Highway 2 around downtown Spokane are still a big contributor to the disparity.
This isn’t right. Everyone deserves to live in a safe and healthy environment. Yet your race and income and where you live can put you in harm’s way, where you’re more vulnerable to the health risks of environmental hazards and climate change.
Right now, our state lawmakers can do something to change that.
The Healthy Environments for All (HEAL) Act (Senate Bill 5489) is being considered for passage in the Washington State House of Representatives. If SB 5489 passes House chambers and Gov. Inslee signs it into law, the HEAL Act would ensure state agencies work with Spokane’s communities on the front lines of pollution to improve environmental health conditions. Agencies would use disparity data from the mapping tool to focus environmental policies and programs toward the greatest amount of positive impact in our state, making targeted decisions and investments to decrease environmental health disparity.
By targeting areas where communities are experiencing pollution the worst, we can make a higher impact in Washington more efficiently. These focused investments can lead to saving millions of dollars in health costs by improving individual health in our state.
Consider the state agency work already underway: the Washington State Department of Ecology is using Volkswagen dieselgate funds to electrify transit buses and build electric vehicle-charging infrastructure. While Ecology is already targeting funds for these projects in areas with high diesel emissions, the HEAL Act would leverage existing data for agencies to prioritize areas where communities are most vulnerable to pollution’s health impacts based on factors such as socioeconomic status, access to safe housing and death rates from cardiovascular disease.
Similarly, the Washington State Department of Transportation awards funds for alternative transportation projects such as transit, rail, bike paths and walkways. By adding a lens of health and environmental justice to how these projects get funded, the department would be able to provide equitable benefits of alternative transportation while reducing harmful vehicle pollution for all.
And our communities surely need investment to realize a better future. By targeting efforts where we are, the HEAL Act recognizes the unfair and disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on communities of color and households with low income – a result of longstanding inequity, redlining and other poor policy decisions that place us at the bottom.
By committing state agencies to a mission of environmental justice, we can begin to right the wrongs, directing resources right into our communities to offset injustice.
I envision a brighter future for my kids, neighbors and my brothers fighting fires with me on the frontlines. It’s a future they all deserve: one with clean air, clean water to drink, cook and fish in, and healthy soil to grow food and play in.
A healthy environment like this one shouldn’t be a luxury, but a right.
That’s why I am urging Washington state’s House of Representatives to vote “yes” to environmental justice and pass SB 5489, the HEAL Act, in order to ensure healthy environments for ALL.
Kurtis S. Robinson is the current Spokane NAACP president, Smart Justice Spokane Executive Committee member, and was a wildland firefighter for 10 years. He has worked for the Department of Natural Resources and for Spokane County Fire District 10.
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