Puget Soundkeeper recently resolved two Clean Water Act lawsuits, sending a total of $415,000 to local community-based restoration projects. The settlements include specific steps that each party must take to prevent future waterway contamination. Soundkeeper also structured the settlements to include a degree of restitution important to healing the existing harm and injustice experienced by our communities. 

The federal Clean Water Act provides for large financial penalties to be paid by those who violate. Those fines are important – to penalize poor business decisions, to dissuade future violations, and to allocate funds in a way that benefits the public good, and addresses the harm. Penalties then become a form of reparation.

When Clean Water Act lawsuits are resolved via cooperative court order (instead of a Judge’s ruling at trial), the parties may choose to apply the defendant’s payment in lieu of penalty locally to what U.S. EPA calls “supplemental environmental projects.” Keeping the funds local enables mitigation of harm in the particular waterways that were harmed by the pollution. It enables and supports projects in communities that suffer the disproportionate brunt of the pollution. Nearly every Soundkeeper lawsuit, if successful, results in payments like these.

Environmental racism is real. It is present day. And it demands our attention. Race is the single most significant predictor of living in close proximity to pollution. Throughout history, Black and brown communities have been systematically denied economic opportunities that many white people take for granted. The imbalance is stark, damaging and continuing. A commitment to pursuing equity today and into the future requires one to pay close attention to how resources are allocated, directed and shared.

The payments that result from Soundkeeper’s lawsuits are a powerful resource. And environmental justice demands that the money be prioritized to projects and recipients in communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. That is something Puget Soundkeeper is committed to doing. Our partnership with the Rose Foundation helps execute this mission.

The Rose Foundation is a community grant maker that manages the Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund. This fund is the designated beneficiary of many of Soundkeeper’s legal settlements and is one way we ensure that settlements from our litigation go back to heal the damage done to our waters and our communities. 

The Rose Foundation manages an open application process, and relies upon a local Funding Board to evaluate and recommend projects for funding.  Recent projects funded include a stormwater retention and storage project for the Black Farmers Collective, as well as funding to support cultural events connecting indigenous and frontline communities with scientists, artists and activists working on watershed protection. To apply for a grant, please visit:  https://rosefdn.org/puget-sound-stewardship-mitigation-fund

In his book Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva posits that money can be used as medicine, to help decolonize, to pursue healing. This book inspired us to pose these questions as applied to our own work.

Can money be used to heal environmental racism? Can it be used to heal pollution? We can’t answer these massive complex questions alone. But we think they are worth considering together, as a community. And if such healing is possible, even in part, isn’t it worth pursuing wholeheartedly?