Washington's State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) is approved on May 10, 1971.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/10/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9737
See Additional Media
On May 10, 1971, Washington state’s House of Representatives passes the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Inspired by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 -- which was promoted by Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983) -- the Act would prove successful in serving as a fundamental cornerstone of the state’s environmental law.

Purposeful Proposal

The 42nd legislature session at the state capitol in Olympia saw the House of Representatives passing House Bill 752, which (along with Senate Bill 545) created the new State Environmental Policy Act (codified as RCW ch. 43.21C). As written, the ambitious law’s purposes were:

“(1) To declare a state policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between humankind and the environment; (2) to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere; (3) and [to] stimulate the health and welfare of human beings; and (4) to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the state and nation.”

Environmental Awareness

The late-1960s and early 1970s era was one of unprecedented concern for the natural environment and ecology. It was a time when both establishment politicians and conservation activists made positive contributions to the effort to increase general awareness about the fragility of our ecosystems and the threats of pollution. Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson was an individual who helped to successfully shepherd the enactment of a major federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), in 1969. Then, later that same year, Wisconsin Senator -- and Earth Day founder) Gaylord Nelson (1916-2005) made his move:

“At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air -- and they did so with spectacular exuberance” (Nelson).

That “nationwide grassroots demonstration” materialized on April 22, 1970, as the very first annual Earth Day celebration. Thus, as the nationwide momentum of environmental activism grew exponentially, so too did the Washington State Legislature’s interest in creating a state-level policy increase.

State Environmental Policy Act

With the passage of SEPA in 1971 Washington state finally had a codified way of enabling the government to address environmental issues. The regulatory framework that it imposed included “procedural requirements designed to insure that governmental agencies give proper consideration of environmental matters in making decisions on actions, whether proposed by private parties or the governmental entities themselves, that may impact the environment.”

The SEPA review process itself was designed to reveal whether proposed actions would have  “probable and significant adverse environmental impacts” -- and if so “a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS)” would be required (Municipal Research). The overall goal was to use the EIS information to adjust project plans in order to reduce likely negative impacts on the environment. “Provisions were also included to involve the public, tribes, and interested agencies in most review processes prior to a final decision being made” (Inman and Ritchie).

The SEPA act itself declared that “it is the continuing policy of the state of Washington, in cooperation with federal and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to: (a) Foster and promote the general welfare; (b) create and maintain conditions under which human beings and nature can exist in productive harmony; and (c) fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Washington citizens” (RCW 43.21C.020).

Sources: Richard W. Larsen, “Three Tough Environmental Laws in Mill…," The Seattle Times, December 11, 1970, p. 10; Bill Lee, "Stiffer Laws Against Pollution Will Head Executive Requests," Ibid., December 13, 1970, p. H-6; Susan Schwartz, “Environment Bills Having Tough Time,” Ibid.,, March 8, 1971, p. 6; Richard W. Larsen, “A Session to Remember,” Ibid., May 11, 1971, p. 5; Richard W. Larsen, “Environmentalists Made Quiet Gains in Legislature,” Ibid., May 19, 1971, p. B-4; Gaylord Nelson, “How the First Earth Day Came About,” Envirolink website accessed on February 8, 2011 (http://earthday.envirolink.org/history.html); “Focus Sheet: SEPA,” Washington State Department of Ecology website accessed on January 26, 2011 (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/0206013.html); “State Environmental Policy Act,” Washington State Legislature website accessed on January 28, 2011 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=43.21C); Rebecca Inman and Barbara Ritchie, State Environmental Policy Act Handbook, Washington State Department of Ecology website accessed on January 26, 2011 (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/98114.html); RCW 43.21C.010, “Purposes,” Washington State Legislature website accessed on January 28, 2011 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=43.21C.010); RCW 43.21C.020, “Legislative recognitions -- Declaration -- Responsibility,” Washington State Legislature website accessed on January 28, 2011 (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=43.21C.020); Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, “State Environmental Policy Act,” MRSC website accessed on February 8, 2011 (http://www.mrsc.org/subjects/environment/sepa.aspx).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You