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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State legislators’ HEAL Act targets environment, inequality

Sen. Andy Billig, shown here Aug. 3, 2018, sponsored the Senate bill that would permit Native students to wear tribal regalia for graduation. He said a member of the Spokane Tribe brought him concerns that some students in the state were not allowed to do so. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Ryan Blake The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Lawmakers concerned about how environmental problems adversely affect lower-income communities have put forth what they call the HEAL Act, which stands for healthy environment for all.

The bill, which passed the Senate, would create a task force to advise certain state agencies on policy in an attempt to create environmental equity.

Environmental justice is a real issue, not the product of “wild-eyed lefties,” said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill.

“There’s a real concept that our environment and the way that our economy operates has disproportionate impacts on poor people, which are generally high concentrations of communities of color,” he said.

Agencies would have to incorporate data compiled in an interactive map by the Department of Health, which compares demographics with environmental influences, such as water or air quality. The map shows parts of Spokane as having the most severe environmental health disparities in the state.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, cited a Spokane Regional Health District report which showed certain neighborhoods in Spokane have drastically different life expectancies.

“From people that live two miles apart, from the Upper South Hill to West Central, there’s a 20-year life span disparity. That’s dramatic,” said Billig, a cosponsor of the HEAL Act. “Certainly, environmental factors are a contributor to that inequality.”

Along with the HEAL bill, lawmakers have focused this session on energy efficiency in an effort to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and ease the state’s contribution to climate change.

One bill could phase out the use of natural gas and coal by electric utilities in Washington in an attempt to reach 100 percent “clean” energy – or not produced by fossil fuels – by 2045.

The bill, part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s clean-energy package, could lower greenhouse gas emissions. It includes fines for utilities that fail to comply.

Avista announced last week the utility would comply with the proposed regulations and would try to provide a carbon-neutral electric supply by 2027.

It’s notable that state utilities are attempting to comply even before the bill becomes law, Billig said.

“All of this significant environmental leadership and legislation that’s happening around the state is really to the benefit of our citizens because it means cleaner air and cleaner water,” he said.

The Senate, which previously passed the bill 28-19, must now consider whether to accept amendments made in the House which outline more stringent requirements for utilities.

Commercial buildings larger than 50,000 square feet would be subject to new energy standards to be determined by the Department of Commerce, under one bill that passed the Legislature last week. It would also require the State Building Code Council to develop rules regarding electric vehicle charge stations at all new buildings.

Household appliances that use water or electricity, such as toilets, computers, and water heaters, would have to meet new state efficiency standards under a different bill. The new regulations would apply to products manufactured on or after Jan. 1, 2021.

Supporters say it could save customers money on energy, but opponents cited it as an example of overregulation.

“We would still like to keep government out of our bathrooms,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley.

But the Legislature looks unlikely to pass a clean-fuel proposal. One bill that emphasized alternatives to gasoline and diesel stalled in a Senate committee. A transportation package, which includes a carbon fee and gas tax increase to pay for various projects in the state, may not be considered this session.

Lawmakers also want to better manage waste in an effort to reduce pollution.

One bill, which passed the Senate but could face challenge in the House, would ban stores from providing single-use plastic bags and instead offer paper bags for an 8-cent fee. The ban would replace 27 local bag ordinances with one statewide rule.

The fee is meant to offset the cost to stores which pay more for paper bags than they do for plastic.

The ban would be an attempt to reduce litter caused by plastic bags, which are difficult to recycle in Spokane. Waste Management does not accept plastic bags because they clog the machinery. All bags they collect are sent to the city’s incinerator. Private recycling companies in Spokane, like Earthworks Recycling and Action Recycling Inc., also won’t accept plastic bags.

This issue could be addressed by plans for a Recycling Development Center that passed the Legislature last week. The center would analyze recycling policy and create a statewide outreach program to residents. Local governments would also be required to develop a recycling plan under the bill.

A ban on plastic straws passed the Senate, but not the House, and is likely dead for the 2019 session.

Protecting Washington’s southern resident orca pod has been another priority in the Legislature.

That concern is behind a bill the Legislature passed to invest in oil-spill prevention and require tug escorts for certain oil tankers. Another bill under consideration would regulate products with harmful chemicals to keep them out of the environment.

A bill that would create a minimum distance boats must stay from orcas looks likely to pass, but another bill that would have imposed a three-year moratorium on whale-watching died in committee.

Lawmakers still don’t agree on how to get more salmon to orcas. With budget negotiators working on a compromise on the 2019-21 operating budget, the House operating budget contains money to study the effect of removing dams along the Snake River, but the Senate’s budget does not.

It’s just one of many differences in the two budget proposals that will have to be negotiated before lawmakers leave Olympia.