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State promotes environmental justice


Rowena Pineda serves on state Environmental Justice Council.


A member of the team staffing the Washington State Environmental Justice Council since November 2021, Rowena Pineda helps implement the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act.

Goals of the act include incorporating concern about environmental injustice into the decision-making processes of state agencies, improving government accountability to communities and creating consistent and accessible paths for meaningful community involvement in government decisions.

The HEAL Act created the Environmental Justice Council (EJC), an advisory board whose members are appointed by the Governor. The EJC is a conduit between communities and state government.

Its 16 members include representatives of tribes, communities, youth, business, labor, environmental justice practitioners and an at-large member.

"The HEAL Act recognizes the disproportionate impact of environmental injustices on communities of color," said Rowena.

The environmental justice movement was sparked in 1982 in North Carolina when the NAACP and a predominantly African-American community staged a major protest against the state's plan to site a hazardous waste landfill that would accept PCB-contaminated soil in their community.

The siting occurred, but the protest started a national movement that challenges locating waste sites and polluting industries near communities of color.

Rowena's work as program manager for the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) since 2020 and as co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) of Spokane brings together issues of health and justice for communities of color.

In 2019, Rowena was appointed to the state Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF) which connects health and environmental justice.

The task force's 2020 report "served as the blueprint for the HEAL Act," she said.

It defines "environmental justice" as "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, rules and policies."

Rowena explained that environmental justice includes addressing the disproportionate environmental health impacts of laws, rules and policies on vulnerable populations, and advocating for equitable distribution of resources and benefits to eliminate harm.

Common environmental justice issues in the Pacific Northwest include pollution and air quality from vehicle emissions, industry emissions, wildfire smoke and lead poisoning, she said.

In Central and Eastern Washington, environmental justice issues, such as Spokane River pollution and the impact of Columbia River dams on salmon runs, disproportionately affect the health and livelihoods of area tribes, Rowena said.

Heat from rising temperatures and climate change particularly affect people of color, poor people and migrant workers, she added.

"The cumulative health impacts lead to chronic diseases as houseless and vulnerable people experience extreme weather, wildfire smoke and food insecurity," she pointed out.

"Furthermore, we need to continue to talk about racism, white supremacy and colonialism, which continue as root causes at city, county, state, national and global levels, because people continue to feel their effects," she said.

As environmental justice advisor, Rowena works with the state agencies implementing the HEAL Act, which are Agriculture, Health, Transportation, Ecology, Commerce, Natural Resources, Puget Sound Partnership and the Attorney General's office.

The HEAL Act requires agencies to adopt community engagement plans, incorporate environmental justice in their strategic plans, conduct environmental justice assessments on significant agency actions and ensure that environmental justice is embedded in agency budget and funding decisions.

Rowena, who came to the Pacific Northwest in 2005, was previously involved in social and environmental justice work in the Philippines, the San Francisco Bay area and the Pacific Northwest.

Born in the Philippines and growing up Catholic, her introduction to community organizing began in 1989 during the summer before her senior year of college.

Rowena interned with two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on housing and economic development in a rural area of the Philippines. The internship was through the Overseas Development Network (ODN). One of the two NGOs she was placed with had ties to the Catholic Church. 

"The Catholic church and clergy played an important role in overthrowing the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and started and ran NGOs. That influenced me, even though I don't currently practice Catholicism," she said.

Rowena received her bachelor's degree in Latin American history in 1990 from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and her master's degree in education in 1993 from Holy Names University in Oakland.

Upon graduation from Brandeis, Rowena worked as a community organizer with the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland. Her first organizing campaign addressed lead poisoning among children of color.

"Car exhaust settled on the soil of homes next to the freeway. In addition, the housing stock was old, and many had lead-based paint, which contributed to elevated blood-lead levels in children," she said.

The campaign challenged Alameda County's health department to require blood lead screenings in pediatric visits to detect elevated blood lead levels and provide necessary treatment. However, many children still returned to homes with lead-based paint.

Exploring what else could be done to reduce lead levels, the campaign pressured the county to create a fund that provided loans to homeowners to bring down use of lead-based paint in homes.

She also organized with Parent Voices in San Francisco and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (now People's Action) in Seattle.

From 2007 to 2010, Rowena was executive director of the Idaho Community Action Network (ICAN), working with communities to increase access to health care and to address food insecurity.

Rowena seeks to connect with people and groups in the Spokane area to share the ways state government is working for environmental justice.

"The state needs to hear from communities in Central and Eastern Washington about their needs and environmental justice issues," she added.

EJC online meetings are public and offer opportunities for the public to comment in writing or by testimony.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2023