OLYMPIA — Democrats on the House Environment Committee endorsed a bill March 25 creating an environmental justice council to advise at least seven state agencies, rejecting a bid by Republicans to limit the council's oversight to the Puget Sound Partnership.

Democrats praised the bill as a historic step toward a healthier environment, particularly in communities with a high percentage of minorities. Republicans predicted a new layer of overbearing bureaucracy.

"The scope of this bill is breathtaking," said Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, who proposed narrowing the council's duties to overseeing the clean up of Puget Sound.

Democrats nixed the idea and approved Senate Bill 5141, the Healthy Environment for All Act, on a party-line vote. The bill has been changed since passing the Senate. If passed by the full House, the chambers will have to reconcile the differences.

The bill originally proposed that a council appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee control spending and policy decisions by the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Ecology, Health, Natural Resources and Transportation, as well as the Puget Sound Partnership.

As the bill has moved through the Legislature, the council has become "purely advisory." The bill still calls for the seven state agencies to conduct environmental justice assessments on major decisions.

On a bipartisan vote, the House Environment Committee amended the bill, more narrowly defining actions that will require assessments. State timber sales would be exempt, a change sought by rural counties. 

Committee Chairman Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said the assessments will force agencies to ask how their actions are affecting the environment and people.

"That's the single thing this bill is intended to do," he said.

The bill calls for implementing the recommendations of a task force that issued a report in October. The task force said the state should focus on correcting the legacy of historic racism.

Dye proposed that the environmental council merge with the Puget Sound Partnership leadership council, a seven-member panel appointed by the governor.

The Legislature created the partnership in 2007 to coordinate efforts to clean up Puget Sound by 2020.

Republicans said the partnership spent $120 million and failed to meet any of its goals. "So much spent, so little accomplished," Dye said.

Considering the partnership's failure, lawmakers may have misgivings about delegating responsibility to another council appointed by the governor, Republicans said.

Efforts to obtain comment from the Puget Sound Partnership were unsuccessful.

Under SB 5141, other state agencies besides the seven named in the bill could volunteer to follow the measure.

Agencies would be required to have an environmental justice implementation plan and set goals and "deliverables."

Agency heads could exempt some actions from environmental assessments on a case-by-case basis.

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