Homeowners' Payments at Stake in Olympia Solar Debate

Rooftop solar panels at Naches Heights vineyard in Yakima, Wash. Credit: Flickr/donireewalker.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington solar advocates are pushing to rescue a state program that provides cash payments to homeowners who install solar equipment.

With an end to the program looming, Inslee says action is needed now. But a legislative remedy is languishing in a House committee where the chairman is struggling to gain consensus from a variety of interests — including electric utilities that have been wielding their massive political clout.

At issue is whether – and how much – state taxpayers should continue to subsidize adoption of solar that is currently costing taxpayers $4.2 million a year.

Want more stories like this? We need your help!
Support Olympia Environmental News

Solar industry officials in Washington see this as a moment of opportunity. The cost of solar is lower than ever. They hope business will take off if the state payments are extended. But representatives of out-of-state leasing companies criticize the House bill for failing to ensure that utilities will keep paying market rates for solar power generated by home-based systems.

Lobbyists for electric utilities also see opportunity. And they have considerable lobbying clout. Long leery of solar’s potential impact on their business model, some utilities are seeking changes. They want to levy a new charge on solar customers to offset the cost of maintaining power lines and related equipment used to move power to and from their homes.

Hurry up and wait: Kate Brown's transparency plan

Governor Kate Brown meeting the Oregon press corps in February. Photo: Flickr

By now you’ve heard the news: our newly minted Gov. Kate Brown is cracking down. She’s pro-transparency. And she’s asking the Legislature for an audit of state agencies’ compliance with public records law.


In her rollout of transparency reforms, Brown proposed this and two other bills. One tethers the spouses of the governor to state ethics rules. The other strengthens the powers of the Oregon Ethics Commission by dragging it out from under the governor’s thumb, among other things.

If you’ve followed state politics for the last month or more, then none of this is a surprise. Brown’s plans are a response to issues highlighted by John Kitzhaber’s resignation on the eve of the state’s 156th birthday, problems Brown promised to solve against a backdrop of banners and frosted sheet cake.

In announcing her solutions in a press release March 11, Brown’s own record on transparency in the governor’s office reads like those Krispy Kreme promos that turn PR numerics into news: Brown has closed 12 of the 34 public records requests received so far as governor, and 5 of the 108 still pending from the Kitzhaber administration.


Balancing risks and rewards of a seafood diet


We hear that eating fish is important for a healthy diet. But we also hear that we should be cautious of fish that pick up contaminants from polluted waters.

So should we be eating more seafood? And if the answer is yes, then what should we think about when selecting fish to eat?

These are issues that continue to challenge nutritionists and toxicologists, along with state and federal health officials. It turns out that eating fish is important, but some fish are more nutrient-rich than others.

Related: "Feds watch closely as state updates water-quality standards"

At the same time, if you want to protect yourself against dangerous chemicals, you must examine other lists — ones that indicate mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemicals pose health concerns when eating certain types of fish.

Feds watch closely as state updates water-quality standards


Photo: Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun

For more than 40 years, state regulators have been pondering the raw end of effluent pipes to control water pollution — and they will keep doing so for the foreseeable future.

Under federal guidelines, the state Department of Ecology has been enforcing statewide water quality standards, which were last updated in 1992. These apply to toxic discharges from industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants.

Now, under threat from the Environmental Protection Agency, Ecology is rushing to complete a new set of standards for toxic chemicals before the EPA takes over and imposes its own standards on the state. The situation is expected to come to a head in August.

Related: Balancing risks and rewards of a seafood diet

As one might expect, environmentalists and tribal officials are pushing for stricter water-quality standards to protect people's health, while industrial operators worry about the costs and necessity of a whole new set of regulations.

Meanwhile, all sides find themselves in rare agreement, saying that tightening controls on chemicals discharged from pipes is only part of the solution to pollution — and probably not the most important action when it comes to protecting human health.

Stepping into the fray, Gov. Jay Inslee is trying to soften the regulatory blow for cities, counties and industry while going to war against stormwater pollution — which the Puget Sound Partnership calls the greatest threat facing Puget Sound.

"Forty years ago, we were fighting big pipes spewing toxic contaminants into our water," Inslee said when announcing his new initiative last year. "We've come a long way since then in getting that kind of pollution under control."

"Today," he said, "the majority of toxic pollution comes from chemicals that are used to make so much of what we use today, from the brakes on our cars to the flame retardants in our furniture."

Except for a few rare cases, toxic chemicals pouring into Puget Sound and other waterways via stormwater are not regulated by the state's water-quality standards. Those regulations only address end-of-pipe pollution. In fact, only 96 "priority pollutants" are controlled by state rules, out of several hundred chemicals raising red flags among toxicologists and environmental activists.

Absent from the list of regulated chemicals are toxic flame retardants and pharmaceuticals, along with most chemicals found in household and personal care products. The regulated list includes some, but not all, phthalates — a group of chemicals used to make plastics that are coming under increasing scrutiny for their toxic effects.

Legislation proposed by the governor would empower Ecology and provide funding to study, track down and eliminate the worst toxic chemicals, provided that reasonable alternatives can be identified. Up to four chemicals or groups of chemicals would be studied every two years.

What Homelessness Looks Like Here in Four Charts

In 2002, when the Bush administration started pushing cities to adopt 10-year plans to reduce homelessness, Seattle/King County was already on board.

The feds suggested targeting chronic homelessness – typically the most visibly homeless people. But Seattle was ambitious and promised to end all homelessness by 2015.  

It’s been 10 years since the Seattle plan was launched, and the number of homeless people here has surged. This isn’t a national trend – across the county, homelessness has dropped by nearly a quarter.

The numbers aren’t relenting, either. A count of the homeless in January revealed that the number of people living outside rose 22 percent over last year in the city of Seattle. 

Where Do Seattle's Unsheltered Homeless Spend The Night?


Competing Plans

Cities had an incentive to draft 10-year plans: government money.

Here’s how it works: Communities compete with each other for federal dollars to fight homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, let them know that those with 10-year plans would have a leg up.

How Do We Compare Nationally?


Even With Plans In Place, Homelessness Grows

How do you wrap your mind around 18,839 homeless people in Washington state? 

Washington’s homeless rate has actually been going down since 2006. But King County’s rate has been going up, and it’s outpacing the general population growth.

After 10-Year Plan, Why Does Seattle Have More Homeless Than Ever?

Jonathan Murrell says he hasn't had housing in years, after being hurt in a car accident.
Credit: John Ryan/KUOW

Ten years ago this month, King County made a bold promise: to end homelessness in 10 years. The ranks of the homeless have declined in Washington state and nationally during that time. But in the Seattle area, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters has only gone up.

According to the latest count in January, at least 3,772 people spend their nights outside in King County. An even greater number have some temporary roof over their heads, in homeless shelters or transitional housing.

Homelessness is growing much faster in King County than the county’s overall population.

You can find evidence of the rising tide of homelessness in lots of places. One of them is SoDo. On weekdays, commuters park along the curbs of this mostly industrial area south of downtown Seattle. And 24/7, so do the tents, recreational vehicles, and cardboard structures of the homeless.

Angi Davis, head of the SODO Business Improvement Association, took me on a tour of the neighborhood.

“There’s somebody living underneath that box truck right there in the back – a sleeping bag and a bunch of stuff pushed underneath, so he got a little bit of shelter from the weather,” she said. We drive by one stretch of sidewalk where a tent and a cardboard home, both covered in blue tarps, squat between a razor-wire fence and a Mercedes Benz. Down the block, more cardboard homes next to a Cadillac Escalade.


We're crowdfunding to fill the environmental reporting gap in Olympia


InvestigateWest is partnering with the crowdfunding-for-journalism site Beacon Reader to announce Olympia Environmental News — a brand new series on the most critical environmental issues facing the Washington Legislature.

Unlike Congress, our state legislature is debating environmental policies that may actually become law. Carbon cap and trade. Toxics. Puget Sound. Water rights. Oil trains. Initiative 937. But there are fewer reporters than ever covering these issues in Olympia. And without reporters, how will voters know what lawmakers are doing?

That’s why InvestigateWest joined with veteran environmental journalist Chris Dunagan. Each week or so, Chris will have a new story that you can read right here on our site and on Beacon Reader.

Help fund Olympia Environmental News!

We’ll have some great partners on the series, too. Chris’s longtime home, The Kitsap Sun, is one, and we'll be adding more.

For Olympia Environmental News, InvestigateWest needs to raise $2,500 in just 15 days to help cover the costs of reporting and keep Chris on the job. It's a big goal and we need your help.

Head over to our Olympia Environmental News page to back the project, and please tell your friends, share on Facebook, tweet it around and help us get the word out. We're counting on you!


Sidebar: Fundamental, or on the chopping block?


Our state's Public Records Act, long a point of pride for Washingtonians, opens with a flourish: "The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them."

This month in SIDEBAR, an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members, Kim Drury calls up the folks in charge of that Act.

For decades, the Public Records Act has protected Washingtonians’ right to know and the Public Disclosure Commission has been there to ensure that the law’s provisions are met.

Now cuts threaten the Commission’s work. Three of 18 positions may be eliminated, and there is no money budgeted to keep up with new technology...

To read the rest...

Join Today