The Air We Breathe

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Across our state, Washingtonians are all paying the price for pollution - from extreme forest fires and droughts ravaging our farmlands to toxic air and water. These impacts are real for all of us. Every Eastern Washington resident can tell you about the fear of their home being burnt down, and every driver stuck behind a dirty diesel truck can tell you about the toxic fumes. However, some communities shoulder much more of the impact than others.

Immigrants, people of color, and low-income families are especially vulnerable to pollution and environmental degradation, and often have no choice but to live in areas with cheaper rents and lower property values near Big Polluters like coal-fired power plants. Low-income families simply don't have the means or mobility to afford housing in safer and healthier areas.

No one should face a shorter lifespan just because they live in a low-income neighborhood. Yet people of color living in impoverished areas breathe in 40 percent more polluted air than white people, worsening diseases from asthma to heart disease.

Need an example? Look no farther than the Duwamish River Valley, which is located between Beacon Hill and West Seattle. You may have heard about the Duwamish in the news recently after the federal government named it a "Superfund" site because of its extreme pollution. Approximately 20 percent of those living around the Duwamish are Asian-Pacific Islander and 20 percent are Latino. Many of these families are low-income and still fish the Duwamish to help feed their families.

The impact is heartbreaking: nearby families are ingesting dangerous levels of mercury and PCBs and dying early from the pollution. Asthma hospitalization rates for children near the Duwamish are the highest in King County. Research from Puget Sound Sage also found that neighborhoods around the Duwamish had the highest levels of toxic air pollution from diesel exhaust in King County, leading to much higher cancer rates.

That's not the only drastic pollution site impacting communities of color in Washington. In the first half of the 20th century, the government confiscated the Yakima Nation's ancient fishing and hunting grounds along the Columbia River to create a nuclear weapons production site. Now, the Yakima Nation's reservation lies just 20 miles from the radioactive nuclear waste at Hanford. The river corridor near the dump, known as Hanford Reach, contains one of the largest spawning populations of Chinook salmon, which Yakima Nation people rely on for spiritual, cultural, and dietary needs. A leader of the tribe said people were seeing thyroid problems, cancer, and even high rates of anencephaly, a deadly birth defect. The Yakima nation can't afford to test their salmon to see how the nuclear waste is impacting their health, much less help clean up decades of nuclear waste.

These are just two examples of how communities of color have historically - and intentionally - been left behind by our political system. We can and we must do better to build stronger communities and create a better world for all our children.

We believe that we must start by addressing two root problems that have created and perpetuated this unjust system. First, our existing political system primarily elevates white people from healthy, wealthy neighborhoods into positions of power. The need to raise hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to run for office makes it all but impossible for people from marginalized communities to run for office. We need to break the grip of big money on our political system to allow new voices to run for office who can fairly represent their communities.

Second, we must work harder and invest more resources to engage members of these communities in the policy discussions that impact their lives. Too often, big polluters use their deep pockets and insider connections to dominate policy debates and rig the system in their favor. In addition, since marginalized communities have less resources and time, there are often huge barriers to participate. This status quo allows those who are able to participate to hold onto the mic and dismiss the lived experiences of those in the community

Can you imagine the reaction if a local utility decided to build a new coal-fired power plant in a wealthy white neighborhood in Bellevue, Seattle, or Spokane? Outraged local residents would band together and buy yard signs, take out ads in the newspaper, collect petition signatures, organize rallies, and use their connections to lobby their elected officials. Members of marginalized communities do fight back, including the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice's successful campaign to shut down the dangerous Beacon Hill incinerator. Yet they're often fighting with less time, money, or political connections.

We must listen and elevate the voices of those who experience the devastating impacts of pollution above the greedy corporations that sacrifice our environment for short-term profits. Marginalized communities living on the frontlines of pollution experience the devastating impacts everyday and know what solutions will work for their neighborhoods. It's important that the voices of those most impacted are at the table and leading any effort to address the problems they disproportionately face.

Big polluters and wealthy special interests are not going to give up without a fight, but we believe our state and our communities are worth fighting for. The path forward requires us to work together and ensure all voices are included and respected in the conversation. If we don't, we'll continue to let the destructive industries divide us and rig the system to serve their selfish interests.