Hannah Aoyagi

Streaming Media

Interviewee Affiliation

State of Washington Department of Ecology


Kristina Farrens

Date of Interview


Document Type



This interviewee states that environmental justice is a combination of social, political, and economic inequities that are linked to environmental hazards. She contends that these patterns are visible through demographic studies, yet she also stresses the need to engage directly with affected communities to better understand and witness the underlying reasons. The interviewee emphasizes cultural context by showing how toxins in fish and shellfish affect Native Americans who still rely on traditional fishing practices for their livelihood. She states that “healthy housing” is a major concern for low income neighborhoods that are at a disproportionate risk of being exposed to pollution and its attendant health problems. The interviewee takes an anthropocentric approach to the topic, focusing chiefly on how environmental degradation affects people, and what steps should be taken to remedy social inequities.


Kristina Farrens: Please state your name and organization affiliation.

Hannah Aoyagi: My name is Hannah Aoyagi. I work for the Washington State Department of Ecology, which is our state’s environmental protection agency. However, in this video, I’m representing my own views and academic background. I have taught courses in environmental justice at University of Puget Sound and University of Washington Tacoma, and I continue to be interested in advancing the study of environmental equity both in government and the classroom. I wanted to start by defining what environmental justice means to me…

KF: What is environmental justice?

HA: I view environmental justice as ensuring equal access to a clean and healthy environment. Everyone has a right to a clean and healthy environment, regardless race, income, age, or any other characteristic. Right here in our own city, we have environmental problems, some more visible than others. Our air quality does not meet federal standards; the tide flats are full of contaminated industrial sites; our waters are unsafe to fish in.

We also have many inequities. We don’t all have the same access to environmental quality--clean air, clean water, mold-free and lead-free homes, health care, education, and opportunity. At its root, EJ is about fixing the social, economic, and political structures that lead to inequality.

KF: What does environmental justice look like?

HA: On a macro level, inequity shows up in regional patterns. This is a map of Los Angeles, CA. The highest risks from air pollution are in Southeast Los Angeles and in the Port of LA/ Long Beach. These are predominately minority and lower-income populations. In some cases, entire communities are affected, like in Point Richmond, California, which is home to several major refineries and a large non-white and immigrant community. Not only does daily pollution pose a risk, but these refineries have had many major fires and accidental chemical releases. We must also think of EJ in terms of age—children are an especially vulnerable population because their bodies are more sensitive to toxins and because they don’t make the decisions about what they are exposed to. Bringing the issue back home, this is the Duwamish River in Seattle, contaminated by over 100 years of industrial pollution. Many people depend on fish and shellfish from the river as a key source of food, including tribal members, and some immigrant and ethnic groups. We can use environmental data and demographic information to show that environmental inequity exists (as in my map of LA), but it’s the personal experiences that have been the foundation for the EJ movement. To really understand EJ in Tacoma, we need to go out and see what’s happening in our communities…

KF: What parts of environmental justice are important you?

HA: One of the keys to promoting EJ is the fair and meaningful involvement of the entire community. Where we are now serves as a good case study for public involvement . . .

This is the Thea Foss Waterway, which runs the length of downtown Tacoma and is the start to the Tacoma tide flats. Past industry and urban runoff has contaminated the Thea Foss with dangerous toxins. These toxins make their way up the food chain, posing a risk to people eating fish and shellfish from the waterway. Over the past few decades, the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department of Ecology, and City of Tacoma have been working together to clean up the Thea Foss and prevent it from being re-contaminated. Many different stakeholders had input into the cleanup process, like environmental organizations, businesses, recreational users, and a local development authority. However, this process may have missed some of the most important stakeholders . . . What about the people who eat fish from the waterway, which has not been cleaned up to protect the most exposed populations? Yes, we have a sign in multiple languages, warning people not to eat the fish. What does that mean for someone who fishes to feed their family? What does that mean for traditional fishing people, who may not be able to access cleaner fishing areas?

I think it’s important to ask the tough questions. Is an action or decision just if it excludes some stakeholders? What if the decision puts some people at risk? Sometimes public policy leaves unresolved equity issues, but sometimes public policy can create amazing transformations, as with the Salishan Neighborhood, where we’re headed next…

KF: How does environmental justice work in our community and what needs to change?

HA: Environmental justice isn’t a term I hear much in Tacoma, but just because people don’t say it, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening. I think we should expand our definition of the term “environment” to include indoor environments, where many people spend at least 90% if their time. Healthy housing is one of the top EJ issues that people don’t often think about. The Salishan neighborhood in east Tacoma, where we are standing right now, is a wonderful example of public investment that vastly improves both the indoor and outdoor environment for low-income housing residents. These photos show Salishan when it was built in the 1940s as temporary wartime housing. It was never meant to be permanent, and as you can see, it deteriorated over time.

In 2001, I worked here, running outreach programs for the Girl Scouts. Most of my troops lived in houses with leaking roofs, mold, poor insulation, and many other problems. Gang activity made it too dangerous for the girls to walk even a few blocks to the Boys & Girls Club where we met, so I had to pick them up in a van, driving through pothole-ridden streets. In the mid-2000s, with a massive federal housing grant, Tacoma Housing Authority was able to begin rebuilding the community. Today’s houses are healthier for families and even their design promotes better neighborhood cohesion and reduced crime. For example, having front porches gives people a “defensible space” from which they can survey the neighborhood and feel safe. Salishan also promotes environmental quality. For example, these planted swales catch rainwater, which normally carry toxins into storm drains and nearby waterways.

And this gets at the question…

KF: How does concern for the environment fit with other environmental justice concerns?

HA: The term “environment” can be broadly defined to encompass a wide range of issues that affect one’s health and well-being, and ability to succeed in life. Think about the environment you grew up in—your home, your family, your neighborhood, plus all the support structures like school, work, church, organizations, government. The girls I worked with were at a huge disadvantage in life because of the environment they lived in.

These things are all interconnected and improving environmental quality – water, air, and land—is just a part of the larger movement towards social equity. Let’s head to Wapato Lake in south Tacoma for one more story about environmental justice in action…

KF: How is environmental justice useful in addressing the issues in your community?

HA: Again, I don’t think environmental justice is a term people always use to guide environmental projects in Tacoma, but people are applying principles of EJ every day.

The environmental justice principles I’m referring to are what we talked about earlier:

  • An equal right to a clean and healthy environment;
  • Fair and meaningful involvement; and
  • Recognizing the interconnectedness of environmental and social issues.

Here at Wapato Lake along South 72nd street in Tacoma, local agencies and organizations have formed a unique partnership aimed at improving environmental quality and health for the neighborhood. The back story is that for years, neighbors had complained about contamination in Wapato Lake and other environmental quality issues at Wapato Park. There were other issues, too. For example, the neighborhood has air quality problems in the winter, when smoke from wood-burning stoves hangs in the air close to the ground.

The Wapato area is 47% non-white and has a per person income of $22,000 a year. Compare 47% to 35% non-white for Tacoma, and $22,000 a year to $26,000 per person for all of Tacoma. This community is already at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the city. In 2009, Metro Parks, Tacoma Public Utilities, City of Tacoma, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, and a number of other agencies formed the Wapato Sustainability Project. The Wapato Healthy Home, Healthy Neighborhoods initiative now provides door-to-door outreach about a wide variety of environmental issues. The focus is empowering residents to improve environmental quality in their own neighborhood and reduce their water and energy use. Not only will this improve the health of the neighborhood, it will also save residents money through lower utility bills and other savings. Is this environmental justice? Yes, I would argue that it is. Local governments are investing in improving the environment for an area of the city that is lower income and higher minority. And this program also helps residents economically and it actively engages them in the solutions to their own local issues.

Now that we’ve seen environmental justice at work, you’re probably wondering how you can become a part of this movement…

KF: How can you help?

HA: As you may have noticed, environmental justice is not a well-known term in Tacoma. So, the first step is raising awareness of the concept that not all people have equal access to a clean and healthy environment, however you choose to define the term “environment.” Once we can recognize that inequity exists, I think we need more study within Pierce County. Even though environmental justice is fundamentally about the personal stories, we also need data to illustrate whether there is inequity. We need to ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. What are the main environmental problems in Pierce County and how do they impact the health and well-being of its residents?
  1. Does everyone live in a healthy home, in a healthy neighborhood? Does everyone have access to the same services and opportunities?
  1. If not, are certain groups or populations more negatively impacted?

I hope this mini-tour has given you a new perspective on environmental justice in Tacoma, and expanded your understanding of the topic. I also hope that you continue to ask these tough questions of your government, community leaders, and yourselves.

Additional Files

Aoyagi_Transcript[1].docx (25 kB)