Olympia Environmental News

Washington budget boosts funding for most environmental agencies

Washington environmental agencies are set to receive at least a modest budget boost the next two years despite earlier concerns that court-mandated education spending would require cuts to environmental priorities. Among the major environmental agencies, only the Puget Sound Partnership is set to lose operational dollars, largely due to a federal funding reduction, while several agencies will see substantial increases in operational funding to make up for past years’ cutbacks.

Even Republicans are recommending increases — just smaller increases than Democrats — in the operating budget, which simply keeps the lights on and basic government functions running. For now, decisions about larger ambitions such as reining in Puget Sound’s largest pollution source and funding new transportation projects are taking a back seat. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will pass a capital budget and a transportation budget.

Exact operating budget figures remain a moving target. Republicans in charge of the Senate and House Democrats are trying to reach agreement on an overall budget by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown. Despite the remaining differences, there is enough agreement in the spending plans to begin to rough out a picture of what the state’s operating budget for environmental agencies will look like when the dust settles in Olympia:

Department of Agriculture: This agency, which is responsible for protecting and promoting the state’s agricultural industry, will have an extra $4.8 million to $6.1 million to work with compared to the last two years. The House budget includes $164.9 million for the department, while the Senate’s includes $163.6 million.

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Democrats Resurrect $1.2 Billion Version of Inslee Climate-Pollution Tax

Gov. Jay Inslee heard from energy and utilities executives during a "Climate Tour" in 2014.
Photo: Flickr/Gov. Jay Inslee.

With Supreme Court sanctions and a possible shutdown of state government looming, Democrats in the Legislature have resurrected Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and added a tax rebate to appease critics in their own party and the GOP.

Taxing greenhouse-gas pollution could make a budget deal possible, Democratic leaders argue. But with a special legislative session ending Thursday and another almost certain, Republicans who control the Senate aren’t budging. GOP leaders say they still are figuring out how to reduce emissions of climate-warming pollution with a “carrots not sticks” plan that is more industry-friendly.

Inslee’s plan to cut carbon emissions and tax Washington’s biggest polluters flopped early this session, with insufficient support even from his own party. With the Legislature under orders from the Supreme Court to boost education spending, and a new state budget needed by July 1 to keep the government operating, Democratic leaders in the House are trying again with House Bill 1314.

At issue is a plan to make utilities and others pay for the privilege of emitting carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. Every factory and power plant would pay for tradeable credits to emit a certain amount. Each year, the allowable amount of emissions would be ratcheted down. The idea is that the market would drive those facilities that can most readily reduce pollution to do so and sell their excess pollution credits to facilities that cannot or will not reduce their own pollution.

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Oil train bill could improve safety on rails, not on Puget Sound

Unable to escape visions of derailed oil trains burning ferociously out of control, Washington lawmakers knew it would be difficult for them to return home from Olympia this year without a new law to improve rail safety.

When Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday signed into law the legislation that resulted (HB 1449), it was far from the bill he proposed with the backing of an extraordinarily broad coalition including environmentalists, state and local governments, tribes and even river pilots.

Gone was a proposal to better protect Puget Sound from oil spills, including steps to improve safety on barges that transport oil. Also missing were Inslee’s attempt to tax oil carried in pipelines, just like oil transported over the water, and a doubling of that tax rate to 10 cents per 42-gallon barrel of oil brought into the state. Inslee would have targeted the new taxes to shore up the state’s struggling oil-spill-safety budget.

“While this bill is a solid step forward, much more work needs to be done when it comes to protecting Puget Sound, funding our oil spill program and federal progress on oil-by-rail safety,” Inslee said.

Legislature Poised to Cut Firefighting Budget Despite Drought Threat

Hundreds of square miles in Okanogan County burned in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Rep. Joel Kretz.

As massive flames swirled in the hot, dry winds of July, thousands of people rushed away from their homes in forested areas of Okanogan County in north-central Washington. Escaping through dense smoke, families sought refuge from a firestorm that raged out of control for more than a week, spreading rapidly and eventually consuming more than 400 square miles.

As the danger subsided, people went home — except for some 350 families who had no homes left. But many considered themselves lucky to have survived the worst wildfire in Washington state history — to be known forever as the Carleton Complex fire, a merging of several lightning-sparked blazes near the towns of Carlton, Twisp and Winthrop.

Nearly a year later, state officials are bracing for a fierce new fire season, with hot, dry conditions they fear will bring new threats to Western Washington as well as Eastern Washington. The Department of Natural Resources is asking for extra money to ensure quick attacks against wildfires when they are small and to focus on reducing fire risks in the remaining forests.

But so far, the agency has received a rather cool response from the Legislature.

With more than 70 fires already reported this year, officials say that by high summer conditions could become as severe as last year, when some fuels in Eastern Washington were literally as dry as matchsticks. 

Even on the wet side of the state, weather forecasters predict hot and dry conditions in the Puget Sound region and along the coast. By July, even Western Washington could face the threat of a severe fire.

Gov. Jay Inslee two weeks ago expanded a drought emergency declaration to cover nearly half the state.

Washington Senate Budget Draws on State Toxics Account to Avoid Tax Increases

State lawmakers visiting a toxic cleanup site in 2010. Photo: Flickr/Port of Tacoma

Whether you call it budget trickery or prudent financing, a politically divided Legislature continues to tussle over how to spend more than $300 million collected from a tax on hazardous materials, including gasoline and other petroleum products.

Environmentalists argue that the Republican-controlled Senate has gone haywire, proposing a budget that would overspend anticipated revenues from the tax by $200 million over the next two years. But Senate Republicans say they are using a cash-flow method approved in 2013, and they are confident the money won’t run out.

The tax, called the Hazardous Substance Tax, was imposed in 1988, when voters approved Initiative 97, the Model Toxics Control Act, or MTCA, to clean up hazardous-waste sites.

Since then, the toxics-control money has become a political tool, diverted by Democrats to avoid cutting state programs during the Great Recession and now being used by Republicans hoping to balance a lean budget without raising taxes.

The use of the MTCA toxics-cleanup money stands as an example of how creative budget writing can bail out legislators when money is tight — and how a tax passed for one purpose gets diverted for other uses. This and similar efforts are likely to undergo increased scrutiny as a special legislative session begins Wednesday and lawmakers intensify their efforts to reconcile the two-year spending plan.

Solar Power Expansion Legislation Caught in Political Crossfire

Rooftop solar panels

After nearly two months in legislative limbo, a bill has emerged that would subsidize solar panels for everyone. But it could be dragged down by political struggles, including a failed attempt this week to link it to a bid by utilities to ease their burdens under voter-approved Initiative 937.

I-937 requires utilities to use certain kinds of renewable energy, but has been the target of repeated attempts by utilities to weaken it. They claim that in some cases it’s actually costing them extra money while frustrating the original clean-energy intent of the 2006 initiative.

If passed, the solar bill (HB 1912) would guarantee that purchasers of solar equipment receive a full 10 years of state payments, which could spur new investments in rooftop solar.

Microbeads Ban Goes Down the Drain

Puget Sound. Photo: Flickr/Kris Symer

Legislation aimed at reducing water pollution by phasing out plastic microbeads in products like toothpaste and cosmetics got a unanimous yes vote in the Republican-controlled Washington Senate. But the Democratic-controlled House Environment Committee scrubbed it, leaving it in the growing pile of this session’s dead and discarded bills.

Senate Bill 5609 would have, by 2020, banned the manufacture and sale of products containing synthetic microbeads. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used as abrasives in many health and beauty products. They wash down the drain but are so small that they can escape wastewater treatment filters, ending up in Puget Sound and other waterways and entering the food chain as a pollutant.

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Budget-Cutters Take Aim at Key Puget Sound Projects

Puyallup River. Photo: Flickr/Eldan Goldenberg.

Updated April 13, 2015, 4:20 p.m.

In the little town of Orting, the Puyallup River spilled out of its banks during heavy rainstorms in 2006 and again in 2009, each time forcing hundreds of residents to flee the muddy floodwaters.

Last November, the deluge returned with nearly the same fury. This time, however, after a major construction project to move back the levees around the Puyallup, the river spread out harmlessly across a vast, newly created floodplain. It’s part of a state strategy to restore Puget Sound — giving rivers room to roam helps Puget Sound by restoring habitat for salmon and other creatures far upstream from the Sound.

“The November storm was the fourth-highest flow since 1962, yet the city did not fill one sandbag,” said Ken Wolfe, Orting’s building official, who managed the floodplain restoration. “There was no need.”

A big chunk of the money for moving back Orting’s levees came from a state program known as Floodplains By Design that would be eliminated under a budget proposal unveiled this week by Senate Republicans.  Their budget, which aims to increase spending on education while holding the line on taxes, would completely eliminate some of the most important efforts to restore Puget Sound and slash others to a fraction of their current funding.