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Ecology to address air quality ‘equity’ for at-risk communities in Washington

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(The Center Square) – Among the provisions of Washington’s new Climate Commitment Act is an effort to identify specific areas and communities deemed at higher risk of air pollution due to their location and demographics.

Currently, 16 communities representing more than 1.2 million people – about 15.5% of Washington’s overall population – are considered “historically overburdened with health, social, and environmental inequities” resulting from air pollution, according to the state Department of Ecology.

A component of the CCA is aimed at funding “environmental justice” for such communities. “We’re committed to making decisions that do not place disproportionate environmental burdens on these communities,” the agency says.

In the process, Ecology is also working with tribal nations and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Ultimately, the agency says its Office of Equity & Environmental Justice will develop strategic plans and new grant and loan programs intended to benefit affected communities with reevaluations every six years.

Toward that end, Ecology will begin a series of open houses at three designated communities in eastern Washington to share information, seek public input, and explain an air quality monitoring network that will be expanded.

Among them is Spokane – Washington’s second-largest city – and neighboring Spokane Valley, a region covering 43 square miles with more than 150,000 residents.

“Several economic factors indicated that the community may be more vulnerable to air pollution impacts, including high rates of poverty, unaffordable housing, and unemployment. The community on average also experiences higher rates of asthma and lower life expectancy compare to the rest of Washington state,” according to Ecology.

The Spokane area, which sits in a valley that can hold stagnant air, meets national ambient air quality standards, but it has relatively high levels of particulate matter pollution. Sources include wildfire, residential wood burning, dust from construction and agriculture, and high volumes of vehicle and rail traffic along the Interstate 90 corridor and downtown Spokane.

Along the corridor are neighborhoods, schools, childcare facilities, a prison and jail, and multiple hospitals where persons may be affected. Ecology has two air quality monitoring sites within the city and three more in the greater Spokane area.

This week, Ecology and the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency will hold two in-person open houses, both from 3-7 p.m. – Wednesday, Nov. 8, at the Central Spokane Public Library, 906 W. Main Ave., and Thursday, Nov. 9, at The Hive/Spokane Public Library, 2904 E. Sprague Ave.

Anyone concerned about outdoor air where they live, work, or play is invited to attend. Ecology staff will provide information and community members can participate in an anonymous air quality survey.

While Spokane is one of the largest designated at-risk areas in Washington, two of the smallest – George and Mattawa – are in the center of the state in Grant County.

Ecology has scheduled open houses next week from 3-7 p.m. in both communities: on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the George Community Hall, 403 W. Montmorency Blvd., and on Thursday, Nov. 16, in Mattawa at Wahluke High Schoo, 505 N. Boundary Rd.

The two agricultural communities share similar demographics: predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking residents and migrant labor who may experience high poverty rates, limited healthcare access, and air quality degradation from field tilling, orchard and livestock operations, outdoor burning, and wind-blown dust.

Recently, Ecology installed a particulate matter monitor in Mattawa due to air pollution concerns expressed by the community. George may also have elevated levels, but the nearest monitor is located 10 miles away in Quincy. Ecology is considering adding the community to the agency’s monitoring network to provide better pollution data. The state’s air quality index also tracks carbon monoxide, nitrogen and sulfur dioxides, and ozone.

“The success of this work involves many steps and depends on ongoing relationships with local communities,” said Abigail Ruskey, environmental justice planner in Ecology’s Air Quality Program. “These upcoming events are an opportunity for informal conversations to help us make sure we’re putting effort and resources where they will do the most good.”

Other designated at-risk regions around the state include Tri-Cities to Wallula, East Yakima, Lower Yakima Valley, Moxee Valley, Ellensburg, Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, Everett, North Seattle and Shoreline, South Seattle, South King County, Northeast Puyallup, South and East Tacoma, and Vancouver.

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