Enviros urge last-minute calls to legislators to pass stormwater-cleanup bill; oil, agriculture interests opposed, with lawsuit threatened

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Some interesting twists are developing in environmentalists’ campaign to convince the Washington Legislature to pass a tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products to clean up the No. 1 pollution source of Puget Sound, stormwater. Enviros say they need a flood of last-minute calls from constituents to prod legislators into action before they adjourn their annual session in Olympia Thursday night.

While Puget Sound is the focus of the debate, stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution for many waterbodies nationwide, if the truth be told. That's one reason the machinations in Olympia are interesting – they may presage similar fights elsewhere in the future.

On one side are the enviros, city and county governments, labor, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. Sounds formidable, eh? On the other side are the oil industry, farm groups, and possibly other opponents I haven’t learned about yet.

Not long ago I brought up how this bill to boost the tax on petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides and other hazardous substances was a bit of a pig in a poke. Collecting $225 million a year in the name of cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies, the legislation (HB 3181 and SB 6851) would have funneled more than two-thirds of the revenue straight to the state’s general fund in the first year.

That’s right, it would go for schools and roads and that kind of thing, not for clean water. The legislature and governor had been playing those kinds of games with water-cleanup money in the past, as well, I pointed out in my recent post. The bill had the percentage of the tax revenues routed into the general fund decreasing each year for several years until eventually 100 percent would go to stormwater cleanup.

But of course, there was nothing to keep future Legislatures from pulling additional shenanigans by again diverting the cleanup money elsewhere.

Well. Sick of that criticism, the greens and their legislative allies have launched a new proposal. This one would raise only $100 million a year. But it would all go to stormwater cleanup and closely allied purposes – and it would go there right away.

Under the revised concept, most of the money would go to state and local governments in a competitive process that requires local governments to match the state money. The rest of the money would be used to help fund the Puget Sound Partnership, oil spill prevention, creating a new stormwater science center and Department of Transportation stormwater cleanup.

I caught up today with Brendon Cochovic, program director for Washington Conservation Voters, who is one of the green campaigners on the issue. Why the switch to a tax going straight to stormwater cleanup? Here’s what he had to say:

"We’ve come full circle, in a way. We didn’t start with the general-fund piece in our bill, but we found out early in the session that we were not going to be able to pass a bill that didn’t have some money going to the general fund because of the very hard times we’re having economically...

"Amazingly, we’re back to just clean-water funding, which is where we wanted to be the whole time."

Labor interests support the legislation because stormwater cleanup means jobs. Local governments are in favor because they can see big costs coming down the pike for stormwater cleanup, and they want help.

Oil industry officials, noting that a key Department of Ecology report on Puget Sound stormwater pollution turned out to be flawed, overestimating the scope of the problem, are calling it premature to boost taxes on their products from 0.7 percent to 1.5 percent. (However, Eric de Place at Sightline outlines significant shortcomings in the Washington Policy Center document outlining  the supposed problems in the Ecology report.)

Frank Holmes of the Western States Petroleum Association told me:

"Let’s finish the science before we move into this, and then let’s look into what makes sense instead of loading it up all on one industry."

The oil industry is pulling out the big guns – certainly in the lobbying circles in Olympia, as you'd expect, but also in the person of one Phil Talmadge. The former legislator, gubernatorial hopeful and Washington Supreme Court justice issued an opinion for Holmes’ oil-lobbying group challenging the constitutionality of the taxes already imposed on oil and hazardous chemicals.

Talmadge is reaching back to when gas taxes were imposed in the Northwest in the 1940s, and looking across the borders to precedents in Idaho and Oregon, so who knows if his legal argument would prevail in court. But his arguments are a clear threat to the Legislature and enviros: You pass this increase in the tax, and we’ll go to court and get the whole thing thrown out.

That’s serious business, because the tax, imposed under the Model Toxics Control Act, is the workhorse state program for cleaning up toxic waste sites.

Erik Smith of Washington State Wire has the blow-by-blow on Talmadge’s threat to sue, including the fact that the Attorney General’s Office disagrees with his legal reasoning but acknowledged “it is difficult to predict what conclusion a court would reach.”

I also spoke with Bill Kidd, director of external affairs for BP America Inc., who said he was trying to stamp out reports that the oil industry had softened its opposition. Those tales came about after the proposed tax was altered by supporters so that petroleum products refined in Washington, but shipped out of state, would not be subject to the tax. Kidd told me:

"We are in complete and total opposition. … It’s still a tax. A tax is a tax and if you grant the export credit, it becomes more clearly like a gas tax, and so you’re going to punish the consumers in the state of Washington and let the surrounding states off the hook.”

Opponents have launched a website www.stopwahiddengastaxes.com.

-- Robert McClure