Meet our director
In 2020, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Laura Watson to serve as the 13th Director of the Department of Ecology.
Watson came to the position well-prepared for the challenges that come with protecting Washington’s air, land, water, and climate. For 22 years, she worked on environmental issues with the Washington Attorney General’s Office, including five years as Ecology’s chief legal counsel and the head of the 38-member environmental division.
Implementing new climate policies
Under Watson’s leadership, Ecology has begun implementing Washington’s major new climate policies, including the Climate Commitment Act, the Clean Fuel Standard, and Zero Emission Vehicle Standards. The agency is also helping Washington prepare for a changing climate by investing in water supplies, improving flood management and resiliency, and tracking ocean acidification and rising sea levels. And Ecology is working with partners to improve water quality in Puget Sound, to clean up the Hanford Site, and to reduce toxic chemicals in our homes and communities.
Launched Office of Equity and Environmental Justice
In 2021, Watson launched Ecology’s new Office of Equity and Environmental Justice, the first office at any state agency dedicated to ensuring that Washington’s environmental laws protect every resident of our state equally, and that the health and economic impacts of past pollution and toxic contamination are identified and addressed.
More about Laura
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., Watson earned a bachelor’s of philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. She went on to earn her law degree from the University of Washington School of Law, and she and her family have called Olympia home for more than 25 years.
Outside of work, Watson has volunteered for organizations working to expand access to housing, and groups providing legal services to people with low incomes.
To learn more about Laura’s work at Ecology, follow her on Twitter @EcyLauraWatson.
Q and A with Laura Watson
Did you ever see yourself one day leading a state environmental agency?
Ever since I was young, I knew I wanted to work in an area where I could help people, and where my efforts could make a difference. That’s what I have strived to do my entire career. The Washington Department of Ecology absolutely delivers on both of those goals — our work is critical in protecting people’s health from toxic chemicals, and in restoring the environment we all depend on. We all need — and deserve — clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.
I’m tremendously proud of the progress we’ve made here in Washington, and the trust the people of Washington have given to Ecology to protect our state’s natural resources and to restore the areas where there has been harm done in the past.
So many problems we face today, like climate change, are huge, global issues. What difference can a state agency like Ecology make?
These are complex global problems, but that does not mean that our work and our ideas are not making a difference nationally and globally.
People sometimes think of an issue like climate change as one giant knot that we can never untangle. They think it’s too big and overwhelming, and we’re too small to make any meaningful difference. But climate change is actually a series of interlocking problems — it’s reducing emissions from transportation and energy, it’s finding technologies to support clean industry, and improving our agricultural and forest management to take carbon pollution out of the air.
We can and are making meaningful change on these pieces of the puzzle, and, as we find solutions, we are leading the way for others.
Let me give you an example aside from climate change to show what’s possible. Washington for decades has been leading the way on getting toxic chemicals out of ordinary products — things like children’s toys, furniture and electronics.
Over and over again, our state has passed policies pushing manufacturers to use safer chemicals in their products. These policies have led to national and international agreements to stop using these toxic chemicals and to switch to better choices.
Most people aren’t even aware of the progress we’re making on these issues — but it shows the difference one state can make when it is willing to be a leader.
What’s the single biggest environmental challenge facing Washington today?
First, climate change, obviously, is a serious threat. In Washington, we depend on winter snowpack for our summer water supplies, and climate change is reducing that snowpack every year. Wildfires threaten our forests and smoke from those fires threatens the health of our communities. Rising sea levels and ocean acidification threaten our coastal communities, major industries like shellfish farming, and entire ways of life for many Northwest Tribal communities.
We’ve implemented tools to cut carbon pollution here in Washington — the Climate Commitment Act, the Clean Fuel Standard, the Clean Energy Transformation Act, and other policies. And as we cut those carbon emissions, we’ll also be protecting air quality in our state, and helping Washington businesses lead the way in the new clean economy that’s developing.
Second, I would say protecting and restoring Puget Sound. The Sound is one of the largest and most important estuaries in the entire country — important not just for salmon and orcas and other wildlife, but for our state’s economy. Puget Sound is at a tipping point — you can see that in the threatened salmon runs and the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
But you can also see hope, in that we are finding new tools and new technologies to protect water quality in the Sound, and to protect the fish and animals that depend on its waters. The Puget Sound No Discharge Zone is a good example — it doesn’t make a lot of sense to allow raw sewage to be discharged into our state’s greatest marine resource. Another example is our work — with a lot of partners — beginning to tackle a chemical called 6-PPDQ. That’s a mouthful, but it’s a chemical used in tires that has been linked to salmon mortality. And we’re working to do something about it.
There are a bunch of very tough issues I could list for my third priority, but I’m going to go with the Hanford cleanup in Central Washington. For decades going back to the second World War, our nation depended on the Hanford Site for its nuclear weapons program. That work left an amazingly complex, challenging environmental legacy.
It will be the work of generations to fully clean up the Hanford Site. But, working with the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we are making real progress. We’re showing that even in one of the most difficult toxic and radioactive cleanup sites in the world, you really can chip away at the problem and, over years and sometimes decades, you can find solutions and restore the damage that was done.
We’ve talked about the challenges you’re facing today, but what are the challenges Ecology will face in the future?
We’ve touched on the toxic chemicals that we’re only just beginning to learn about, like 6-PPDQ or PFAS, which are common chemicals found in all sorts of ordinary products that are contaminating soils and water.
However, I think a broader societal challenge that we face is addressing environmental justice by seeking to reverse a history of decision-making that has led to poorer health and environmental outcomes in certain communities throughout the state. When we’re looking at our state, and looking where pollution is, where contamination is, where air and water quality are threatened, and who is dealing with health issues as a result, we see common threads. Lower-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous people are consistently the ones that bear the brunt of these environmental burdens.
Simply put, that’s an environmental injustice. It’s not fair and it’s not right. We would be doing a poor job as an environmental agency if we didn’t recognize these patterns and make every effort in our power to do something about it.
We didn’t suddenly wake up last year and realize this was a thing. We have been working to address environmental justice for many years. It has, however, taken on a significantly greater importance in all facets of our work. Our recognition and understanding of the challenges and disparities has never been greater. Our passion and desire to do something about it also has never been greater. We know that protecting the environment means protecting the environment for everyone.
Healthy Environment for All Act
We are working to bring more focus and greater resources to fixing these problems. A new law passed in 2021, the Healthy Environment for All Act, that requires state agencies to consider environmental justice in their decision making. A new independent Environmental Justice Council is working with the state to evaluate and improve our practices. And laws like the Climate Commitment Act are devoting resources — both regulatory resources and funding — to improving conditions in the communities that have disproportionately borne the cost of pollution in the past.
That’s a big change, and it’s important progress for the people of Washington.