Is the Clean Water Act really keeping Northwest waterways clean? We’d like to hear from you.

It’s remarkable to go back and take a look at what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act, the subject of the just-launched collaboration between InvestigateWest, EarthFix and Ecotrope on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the bedrock environmental statute. We’ll just quote:

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985…

“It is the national goal that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited…

“It is the national policy that programs for the control of non-point sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner..."

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it turns out, lawmakers really wanted to end water pollution over the course of the next 13 years. It sounds particularly ambitious from the perspective of 40 years later, given that we know that what really got set up was a system to permit pollution. How could that happen? Well, theoretically all polluters would be issued permits – a set of rules under which to operate – that would progressively reduce the amount of gunk going into the waterways they dumped waste into. 

It didn’t always work out that way, though. But there’s no arguing that the Clean Water Act in some ways did a great job of reducing water pollution. Nationally, the classic before-and-after story is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which had so many flammable wastes in it in the late 1960s that it famously caught on fire (more than once, actually. And it was far from the only industrial river to do so.) Today it’s a prized urban amenity, with restaurants along its banks and kayakers breezing along on their way to Lake Erie.

Similar comeback stories can be told in our region about Oregon’s Willamette, Idaho’s Boise and the Spokane and Duwamish rivers of Washington, among others. Once they were essentially open-air industrial sewers. For example, a tributary of the Boise where a meat-packing plant was located once ran red with bloody wastes and “health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks,” as Aaron Kunz reported last year for EarthFix, based on a government report from the time.

Carol Smith's picture

Interview: Dr. Michael Copass

Dr. Michael Copass, medical director of Medic One
(InvestigateWest/Medic One Foundation)

Dr. Michael Copass, whose famously crusty persona and exacting standards in the emergency room inspired equal parts dread and admiration among generations of medical students, residents, nurses and paramedics-in-training, sat down with InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith to talk about Medic One – the emergency response system he helped pioneer, and how it is responding to the epidemic of overdose deaths in King County.  Over the nearly four decades he was director of Emergency Services for Harborview Medical Center, the region’s Level 1 trauma service, Copass acquired a legendary status for his fierce devotion to patients and his high bar for those under his command. Paul Ramsey, dean of the University of Washington School of Medicine, once referred to him as a “cross between General Patton and Albert Schweitzer.” The Medic One model of emergency response, which began in the late 1960s, is now emulated around the world. Copass, who retired from Harborview in 2008, remains medical director of Medic One.

Smith: I think the lay public confuses Medic One vehicles with ambulances, and we use the terms interchangeably. What kind of equipment is different on a Medic One versus a private ambulance?

Copass: Private ambulances carry comfort equipment – oxygen, suction gear. A Medic One unit basically is an under-stocked ER. (It has) two defibrillators -- one on active duty, one on reserve.  It has individuals trained at the 2,800-hour level of education versus individuals who are trained at 120 hours.

Carol Smith's picture

Riding with the Opiate Epidemic's First Responders

I’ve been in the back of ambulances before, but never for work. So my recent ride-along in the front seat of one of Medic One’s fleet of response vehicles was a first for me. It was an unusual opportunity. Medics are understandably hesitant to import bystanders to a scene. The last time they did it, I was told, was when CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer reported on Medic One in 1974, noting for posterity that Seattle was the “best place in the country if you’re having a heart attack.”

So I was grateful that the Seattle Fire Department granted my request to accompany their medics into the field to see the opioid drug epidemic from their perspective. I’d asked after learning, during the course of reporting about Washington’s prescription epidemic, that medics respond to up to 50 overdose calls a month in King County and about half of those calls involve prescription painkillers.

My ride-along took months to arrange. The result is this piece for KUOW, about efforts underway to supply more bystanders with Narcan – an antidote that can wake someone up from an overdose and save his life. Medics carry Narcan, and citizens, by law, are allowed to. But the drug is not widely available. If more people did carry it, public health experts say there would likely be fewer calls to Medic One about overdoses.

Lt. Craig Aman, a 22-year-veteran paramedic, met me at the Battalion 3 headquarters, a warren of small offices across the street from Harborview Medical Center’s emergency room. 


U.S. Senate to Investigate Financial Ties of Pain Experts

The Senate Finance Committee has launched an inquiry into financial ties between producers of prescription painkillers and the doctors and patient advocacy groups that help to set guidelines for drug use, the New York Times reported on Tuesday.

The manufacturers of OxyContin, Percocet, and Duragesic are among the targets of the inquiry, which is led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). The Pain and Policy Studies Group at the University of Wisconsin and the American Pain Foundation, which closed last week, according to its website, also received letters asking for information about ties to drug makers.

The investigation comes amidst the increasing number of prescription drug overdoses that InvestigateWest reported on in January.

ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, which makes information about drug company payments to doctors publicly accessible, has led to a flurry of stories in the media, and the Seattle Times recently won a Pulitzer for its investigation into methadone and pain control.

More coverage of the Senate inquiry: Reuters, Pharmalot, ProPublica.


Investigators to take new look at health effects of Duwamish cleanup

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submits its proposed cleanup plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site later this year, community health researchers are conducting a “health impact assessment” to figure out ways the cleanup could affect surrounding communities.

During the upcoming spring and summer months, researchers from University of Washington, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action will determine how people along the river are likely to be most affected by EPA’s cleanup. An environmental cleanup of the magnitude to be conducted on the Duwamish will undoubtedly make the river cleaner and healthier for humans and wildlife, but researchers want to learn more about the potential impact on communities, both positive and negative.

“We want to minimize the adverse effects and optimize the benefits for these communities,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager of the Cleanup Coalition.


Emmy Nomination for Katie Campbell, "Where there's smoke"

Congratulations to KCTS 9's Katie Campbell, who on Friday got an Emmy nomination in the video journalist category from the Northwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Science.

Katie was nominated for her work on "Where There's Smoke," a seven-minute Earthfix documentary produced in partnership with InvestigateWest on the health risks associated with wood-burning stoves. In Tacoma and many towns across the Northwest in the winter, wood smoke leads to sooty, toxic air pollution that leaves some residents – particularly asthmatics, kids and the elderly – gasping for breath.

Along with fireplaces and other wood-burning heaters, old wood stoves produce about half the microscopic particles of soot that typically hang in the air in the Tacoma area when winter air stagnates. By comparison, industry, already heavily regulated, emits just one-tenth of the Tacoma-area soot pollution.

In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from all sources contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.

Watch Katie's video after the jump.


King County unveils West Seattle rain garden plans

West Seattle Rain Garden

Britt Stromberg and neighbor Bob Wohl stand next to the
pollution-fighting rain garden that fills half of Stromberg's yard.
Raymond Flores/InvestigateWest

Rain gardens got a bad rap last year in Ballard when a portion of the neighborhood's gardens failed to drain, upsetting some residents. But for a neighborhood in Everett, the shallow, plant-filled depressions are a source of pride and offer welcome relief from some nasty flooding.

Laura White had raw sewage spewing into her Everett home after a record storm last year.

“Sewage was coming through the showers, drains, toilets, everything,” White said. “It just blasted through all the backflow valves.”

But now that the city has installed a rain garden in front of her property, as well as made sewer improvements, White is optimistic the problem is solved.

Rain gardens are a tool used for reducing the amount of polluted stormwater flowing into sewer systems and Puget Sound. The gardens collect stormwater, which infiltrates permeable soils and is used to water the garden.

White said her rain garden is kind of an eyesore right now, but hopes it will be more attractive when the native plants mature.

“There is a big drain and ugly pipe sticking up,” White said. “But I really like the eucharis and columbines, and watching the animals.”

She said people walking by seem to like it and always comment on it. She said her family attributes a relatively dry basement this past winter to the rain garden, since most of the excess water from her back and front yards is diverted to the garden.

“It makes me very happy there’s no water coming through the cracks in the floor,” White said.

Elsewhere in the region, King County planners are hoping experiences such as White’s will encourage more people to embrace rain gardens, which have been controversial since well-publicized problems surfaced in Ballard last year.

King County this month entered the final planning stages for its newest rain garden project, to be located in two West Seattle neighborhoods.  The planners say they are being careful not to make the same mistakes as the City of Seattle did with some of its Ballard rain gardens.

But some West Seattle residents are still opposed.

Robert McClure's picture

State may delay cleanup of stormwater, WA's No. 1 water pollution source

High Point Pond, West Seattle

The stormwater detention pond in West Seattle, via Flickr/kuow949.

With the Washington Legislature hurtling toward a scheduled adjournment on Thursday, developers and local governments are pushing to save money for cash-strapped cities by delaying court-ordered efforts to control the state’s biggest source of water pollution.

The clean-water rollbacks, as they are being characterized by environmentalists, passed the Senate Monday in a piece of legislation promoted as a way to streamline several environmental-protection programs. The bill would grant a one-year reprieve on a state deadline for 81 cities and five counties in western Washington to take steps to control polluted rainwater runoff.  Eighteen eastern Washington cities and six counties would get a two-year extension of the deadline.

Environmentalists are alarmed because they see the delays coming after years of earlier extensions. But they’re even more concerned because the bill (SB 6406) calls for the 2013 Legislature to review and possibly change pollution-control rules developed by the Department of Ecology over many years under orders from the state’s pollution-control court, the Pollution Control Hearings Board. The environmentalists are also mindful that Republican Rob McKenna could be in the governor’s mansion by next spring, and that the composition of the Legislature will change, too.

The Senate legislation “represents a big step backward for clean water in Puget Sound, the Columbia River and other waters of Washington state,” said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for the environmental group People for Puget Sound. “It’s a very specific invitation to the Legislature to monkey with this.”