Oregon needs to make next advance for environmental justice to reduce individual harm

The work of the state Environmental Justice Task Force could make important gains for Oregonians under pending legislation.

February 14, 2022 5:30 am

The push for environmental justice to protect vulnerable populations is again before Oregon legislators. (Oregon Department of Agriculture)

Over the last decade, we have witnessed how environmental burdens impact communities with low incomes and communities of color, as well as rural and other vulnerable communities.

In the last two years, Oregonians have faced an ongoing pandemic, devastating wildfires, and an unprecedented heat wave that took the lives of more than 100 people. These events are compounding what we were already dealing with – hazardous air pollution, lead exposure, unsafe working conditions and other detrimental environmental risks.

The truth is, while many of us have been impacted, people with disabilities, many rural communities, low-income communities, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color feel it first and worst.

In 2007, then-Sen. Avel Gordly had the incredible foresight to champion Senate Bill 420, establishing Oregon’s Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF). The task force duties included advising the governor and natural resource agencies on environmental justice concerns and providing guidance for greater public participation and reducing disproportionate environmental harm.

We reflect on this moment as two task force members who have witnessed and are part of a legacy of environmental justice leadership in the state. Ben Duncan is a founding appointee, former chair, and current liaison to the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs. Joel Iboa was the youngest appointee, current chair, and executive director of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance.

We represent two generations indebted to those who paved the way and provided learning and training grounds for future environmental justice leaders.

Our pedigree is the same: graduates from the University of Oregon and both former members of the Coalition Against Environmental Racism, a student group founded by Robin Morris Collin, the founding chair of the Environmental Justice Task Force, and her husband, Robert (current task force vice chair), while they were professors at the University of Oregon.

Three generations of environmental justice leadership sit on the task force today. We are at a moment of remarkable progress as this movement and work has advanced and matured. A culmination of decades of work, capacity building, and continuation of action and imagination from one generation to another.

This year, House Bill 4077, the Environmental Justice for All bill, seeks to build upon the foundation set by that 2007 legislation for every Oregon resident to have a healthy environment. It also builds trust and transparency into agency processes, ensuring that they will consider the environmental impacts of their policies and practices.

HB4077 does two really important things for Oregon. First, it solidifies and provides resources for an Environmental Justice Council – an enhanced version of the task force. Building on the task force’s nationally recognized, collaborative approach with state agencies, this shift will provide sustainability and state investments to meet the moment in time we face and ensure that the voices and experiences of those most negatively impacted by environmental hazards have an increased influence in decisions.

Second, the bill will lead to the development of an environmental mapping tool that would assess environmental, health, and socioeconomic disparities. The mapping tool could layer certain factors like, air emissions, ozone level, linguistic isolation, income levels, cardiovascular disease and others.

The tool would be accessible to lawmakers, community organizations, and the public. It would help state agencies understand the lived environments and potential impacts on those populations that have, for too long, borne the burdens of environmental disparities.

We are excited that Oregon has the opportunity to take a bold step forward in the spirit of social, racial and environmental justice. We owe the next generation a healthier, more sustainable and resilient Oregon.

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Joel Iboa

Joel Iboa is executive director of the Oregon Just Transition Alliance and was a coalition manager for Causa Oregon during the Trump administration. Joel doubled the size of One Oregon, a statewide coalition of over 100 organizations defending against anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies and ballot measures. Joel served as chair of the Eugene Human Rights Commission (2019-2021) and was is the youngest person to be elected chair for the Oregon Governor's Environmental Justice Task Force.

Ben Duncan

Ben Duncan’s work has focused on equity and environmental justice for almost two decades in nonprofit, government and consultancy practice. He was a founding appointee to the Oregon Environmental Justice Task Force and serves on the Oregon Commission for Black Affairs as the liaison to the task force. He lives in southeast Portland.