A bill to strengthen environmental justice considerations in public policies across Oregon cleared a legislative hurdle this weekend and is looking likely to pass. HB 4077 would rename and boost resources for an existing environmental justice task force convened by the governor and also direct the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority to develop an online mapping tool to evaluate how communities are being affected by health disparities and environmental hazards like air pollution. Joining us is Joel Iboa, the chair of the Environmental Justice Task Force and the executive director of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance, an environmental justice advocacy coalition.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Six years ago, Joel Iboa was appointed to Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force. He was the group’s youngest ever appointee. He became the chair of the task force a year later, a role he still holds. Now, a bill in the Oregon Legislature would rename and boost resources for the task force. It passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Saturday. Joel Iboa joins us now to talk about this bill and his broader work on environmental justice. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Joel Iboa: I appreciate it. Thanks so much.
Miller: I want to start with the biggest picture and then we can drill in here and there. What’s your definition of environmental justice?
Iboa: Sure thing, I appreciate it. So at the end of the day, environmental justice means that, regardless of where you are, who you are, what you look like, you have access to what a lot of us enjoy, which is a healthy and clean environment to pray, to work, to just live your life.
Miller: Where do you see the most environmental injustice right now?
Iboa: You mean here in Oregon?
Miller: Let’s stick with Oregon for now.
Iboa: Sure. That’s a really great question. At the end of the day, what’s going on is that Oregonians in different parts of the state have been impacted by environmental burdens. So there’s ongoing air pollution, depending on where you live. In major cities like Portland Metro, a big concern is air quality. If you live in other communities, it may be point source pollution, so pollution from factories. But we also have a really new burden in the last two years, that I would say counts as an environmental justice issue, and that includes COVID-19, it’s a respiratory issue. But if you have communities that have already existing burdens, whether it be from air pollution, lead exposure, unsafe working conditions, other detrimental environmental risks, your susceptibility to the pandemic is that much greater. Layer on top of that the wildfires we’ve had, the heat wave we just had, and then last year’s power outages, it’s a pretty scary picture.
Miller: I was struck by the definition in a bill in the legislature right now, that we can talk more about as we go, of the “environmental justice community”. It includes communities of color, lower income people, communities experiencing health inequities, Tribal, rural, coastal, and remote communities, communities with limited infrastructure, and other people who have been left out of decision making or adversely harmed by environmental and health hazards, including seniors, youth, and people with disabilities. What’s so striking about this list is how few Oregonians are not, in one way or another, included in it, and also how when you put all those groups together, how it does not map easily onto the old, and maybe tired, binary of red Oregon and blue Oregon. How do you think about coalition building, given that broad array of people that I just mentioned?
Iboa: That’s the key, that’s the work every day. You mentioned my role in the task force, but I’ve been doing environmental justice work for many, many years, ever since I was in college, when I was in the Coalition Against Environmental Racism at the University of Oregon, which a lot of other EJ champions were a part of or helped create.
But one of the things that we have to remember, at the end of the day, is that the people who are impacted by environmental justice concerns are the ones who should be able to define what environmental justice looks like, which is why I really appreciate you asking me that question of, what does justice mean to you? But whether it be the high level state policies, or hyper-local neighborhood campaigns, at the end of the day, environment justice principles mandate that leadership and power must come from from the grassroots, and most come from the people who are most impacted, and are experts in their own experience, which is why I’m really excited for this bill, both as a member of the task force, but also the Executive Director of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance. Our whole mission has been to activate our communities, by organizing them, creating ownership, and deeply investing in solutions that they’re presenting. And that’s where you begin to draw the lines between these different communities, from the rural folks, remote folks on the coast, all the way to the folks in Northeast Portland, there’s something that ties them together.
Miller: I noted that when you put all these groups together, or maybe map them out, it does not map neatly in terms of classic political divisions in this state. But, in terms of the votes that we’ve seen when there are bills related to questions about environmental justice, including the recent vote just out of the ways and means committee, that was on a party line vote, with Democrats saying yes, Republicans saying no. So even if the various communities aren’t so clearly red and blue, the votes often are. How do you explain that?
Iboa: I would say this is a really contentious time. It’s no secret that party line votes happen often. I think what we’re seeing here is party line votes, that don’t necessarily reflect on the Environmental Justice task force bill, but I think just reflect upon the larger frustration, and an unwillingness to come together and agree on stuff. I think what we saw from that vote is not necessarily a reflection on the bill, it’s a reflection on some larger things that are above my pay grade.
Miller: Well, let’s talk a little about this bill. So 15 years ago, Oregon lawmakers created the Environmental Justice Task Force, which you’re the chair of. This bill put forward by the governor this session, House Bill 4077, would change the name to the Environmental Justice Council. It would also provide more funding. What would those two things mean in terms of what this group of people is actually doing?
Iboa: Yeah, I appreciate the question. As you mentioned, the task force has been around for quite some time, since 2007. 2007 and 2022 are two very different years. But at the end of the day, our hope for this bill is that it will strengthen and modernize the task force, which will now be called EJ Council. And the idea is that we can use this data, we can use this investment, this consistent funding and infrastructure and support for the task force, to prepare for what’s ahead, and to make strategic decisions in our community. Our focus in this bill is to build community resilience, both for climate disasters and to promote a healthier environment. HB 4077 provides the task force with new tools to help identify patterns of pollution, climate burdens, identify disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, and also to assess environmental vulnerabilities. And those things are important because those things are changing, but so is the face of Oregon. This last census that just came out shows that Oregon is becoming a darker state, in terms of people who live here.
Miller: One of the things that this new bill would do, which you’re getting at, is require various state agencies to work on an environmental justice mapping tool. What exactly would be mapped?
Iboa: The task force has been nationally recognized particularly because of our collaborative approach with Oregon’s state agencies. And so the shift in funds provides sustainability, and also some investments to meet the moment in time that we’re in. Our hope is that will ensure that the voices and experiences of those who are most negatively impacted by environmental hazards have increased influence in decisions. And the way you do that is by data. And so this mapping tool would assess environmental health and socioeconomic disparities. So here are some examples of what you can map: things like emissions, ozone level, levels of linguistic isolation, people’s incomes, cardiovascular disease. Another really specific Oregon thing that other states and the national EJ screen tool doesn’t look at, things like water. There’s a lot of different markers in our state that may be different for other states.
At the end of the day, this data exists. The problem has been how do you make the data talk to each other, so we can make sense of what’s happening.
Miller: We started with a big picture. I wonder if we could end with the most personal one. Could you share with us how issues of environmental justice have impacted your own family?
Iboa: Definitely. I was born and raised here in Eugene Oregon, the proud son of immigrants from Mexico. At the end of the day, a lot of immigrant communities, a lot of communities of color, suffer most from what I’m talking about: hazardous air pollution, lead exposure, unsafe working conditions, other detrimental environmental risks. They feel it first and worst. My family’s no different. A lot of my family lives in West Eugene, which is right next to a number of polluters, of which, there’s a current Title VI lawsuit against the EPA for disproportionally exposing communities of color and other marginalized communities. I have cousins who live out there, they have kids.
But I’ll end with one story in particular I really want to share with the audience, which is the story of my uncle, my dad’s cousin. He was a farm worker in southern Oregon who lived in Phoenix. He was one of the many people who lost his home due to the 2020 wildfires. And the reason why I mentioned him in particular is because he was a farm worker for many, many decades. He came to the US in the 60s, and worked as a farm worker in the pear industry. Lost his trailer. He had to work during the wildfires. Already having asthma because of his proximity to the highway the trailer park he lived on, compounded with his exposure to the wildfires while working, and then having to live in close proximity with this extended family, were the perfect recipe for him to contract COVID. He had a long three month fight, but ultimately lost and passed away late last year.
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