New UW Center for Environmental Health Equity to launch with a $12 million grant from the US EPA

Oil Refinery in Anacortes WA with Mt Baker in the background.

The new center will empower Northwest and Alaska Native tribes and community-based organizations to access federal grants addressing environmental justice issues

Media contact: ehcomms@uw.edu

Research contact: Edmund Seto, Associate Professor and Center Director, University of Washington Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences: eseto@uw.edu

 

Headshot of Edmund Seto
DEOHS Associate Professor Edmund Seto will lead the new UW Center for Environmental Health Equity.

SEATTLE (April 17, 2023) — The University of Washington will lead a new center to help address longstanding environmental and energy justice issues—from legacy pollution to energy security—in Pacific Northwest and Alaska Native communities with funding announced today by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The $12 million, five-year EPA cooperative agreement will create the new UW Center for Environmental Health Equity, housed in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) in the School of Public Health.

The UW Information School will be a key partner with DEOHS in the center, adding expertise in Indigenous water justice, data sovereignty and Indigenous research methodologies.

The center, launching this summer, will serve as a hub for technical assistance for tribes and community-based organizations working on environmental justice concerns in four Northwest states—Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho.

The EPA announced the new UW center as one of 17 new Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers around the US. Together, the centers will receive a total of more than $177 million to help underserved and overburdened communities across the country access federal funds dedicated to advancing environmental justice. 

"We're excited to be part of the EPA's new Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers Program,” said Edmund Seto, DEOHS associate professor and the new center director.

“This new program will allow us to better serve the needs of tribes and community partners in the Pacific Northwest to advance their work toward environmental and energy justice," Seto said.

The new center builds on a significant body of environmental justice research led by DEOHS. It will involve faculty from many existing UW centers and programs that serve Northwest communities, building on their connections, research and expertise to broaden outreach, engagement and services for program participants.

"I am honored to be a part of this commitment to environmental and energy justice," said Clarita Lefthand-Begay (Navajo), assistant professor in the Information School who will serve as deputy director and lead the center’s tribal initiatives. Her research focuses on Indigenous knowledge systems, water security and health equity for Native peoples.

"Through our center, we will strive to empower these communities affected by environmental hazards, promote health equity and foster resilience for future generations,” she said.

The Information School has a strong national and global reputation for its expertise in Indigenous systems of knowledge and is currently home to three Native faculty members and eight Indigenous PhD students.

Lefthand-Begay said former Chief Mike Williams (Yup'ik) of the Akiak Native Community and other prominent tribal leaders will be pivotal partners in the Center's success. Through their leadership, the center will be able to affirm its commitment to uphold tribal sovereignty and foster self-determination.

“Across our region, communities overburdened by pollution or other environmental challenges have for years been left behind because they lacked access or faced barriers to the federal resources and funding to help put community-led solutions into action,” said EPA Region 10 Regional Administrator Casey Sixkiller. The new technical assistance centers will help communities "access the benefits from the President’s historic investments in clean air, safe water and our green energy future.”

Other UW faculty members who will help lead the new center include:

  • Esther Min, DEOHS clinical assistant professor, who will be the new center’s associate director and lead engagement with grassroots organizations and frontline communities.
  • Elena Austin, DEOHS assistant professor and director of environmental equity data.
  • Nicole Errett, DEOHS assistant professor and director for outreach and engagement with public health practitioners.
  • Stephanie Farquhar, UW professor of health systems and population health, who will be the lead evaluator for the center.

“Our goal for the center is to listen and respond to the needs of the frontline communities in our region through technical assistance,” Min said. “We're looking forward to strengthening and building strong relationships with our community and tribal partners to support environmental and energy justice.”

Across the Northwest and beyond, some communities bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health risks and have historically been left out of opportunities to access funding and other resources to address them.

The center will help strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of community and tribal partners in applying for and successfully managing federal environmental and energy justice grants and programs.

These resources can help address community concerns such as aging infrastructure, environmental pollution, climate change impacts and access to clean energy sources.

The center will be guided by input from two advisory boards representing tribal communities and community-based organizations.

A key objective is to help develop community leaders who can make a lasting impact through their community-level work, Seto said. Many are already leading powerful local initiatives to drive changes in programs and policies to improve environmental justice. The new center will be able to respond to the priorities that each community identifies for itself, he said.

“The idea is to really get these leaders to the table so they can meaningfully engage and to provide the resources to allow them to focus on community needs that they define,” Seto said.

The new Center for Environmental Health Equity will collaborate with other existing centers at DEOHS, including:

  • The UW Center for Exposures, Diseases, Genomics and Environment.
  • The Northwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety.
  • The Northwest Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.
  • The Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

The center will also involve UW students, who will work with center faculty and staff to provide technical assistance to program partners.

    Other UW collaborators include: the Department of American Indian Studies, the Center for American Indian & Indigenous Studies, the Clean Energy Institute and the Industrial Assessment Center.

    Tribal and community-based organizations and academic centers provided letters of support for the new center, including:

    • The Akiak Native Community.
    • The Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fish Commission.
    • Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Education Department.
    • Northwest Indian College Native Environmental Science Department.
    • El Centro de la Raza and Beacon Hill Council.
    • El Proyecto Bienestar.
    • Front and Centered.
    • Sound Defense Alliance.