Clean Water Act

Court backs strong Washington rules to rein in polluted rainwater runoff

In a ruling with statewide implications that hands a victory to environmentalists, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board rejected a system to control polluted rainwater runoff in Clark County that partially shifted the financial burden from developers to the public.

The board’s multi-pronged 2-1 decision shot down a special deal cut by the Department of Ecology for Clark County, saying Ecology punted on its responsibilities to rein in the fast-growing pollution source, instead allowing the county so much leeway that it amounts to “an impermissible self-regulatory program” when Ecology is supposed to be in charge. The board’s ruling holds that the resulting system violates the federal Clean Water Act and state law.

It’s unclear for now whether the state, Clark County or developers will appeal. The case is focused on rainwater runoff, known as “stormwater,” which is Puget Sound’s largest source of toxic pollutants and is a major factor in the decline of waterways statewide.

The pollution starts when raindrops hit hard surfaces – parking lots, roofs, streets, and so forth. That water coalesces into rivulets that run downhill toward the nearest river, lake, stream or bay, picking up pollution that transforms the water into a bouillabaisse of tainted substances including oil, gas, animal excrement, fertilizers and pesticides.

The board had previously ruled that southwestern Washington's Clark County and a handful of other large cities and counties must begin to require a set of building techniques known as “low impact development” to control the polluted rainwater runoff.

Byline: 

Help! I've been poisoned by stormwater!

For years talented fellow journalists -- and before them my best professors -- have emphasized the value of using all five of a journalist's senses to experience a story and enlighten readers, listeners and viewers. Great idea -- but tonight it went a little far for me. After more than a decade of writing about the perils of stormwater, tonight I actually tasted some.

It was far, far from on purpose. I decided to dash down to Pike Place Market to buy some fish, a rare thing nowadays since I don't work particularly near there.  

It was pouring as I drove back to my office. The windows fogged. I rolled them down while sitting at a stoplight. Then-- whoosh! -- passing cars sent walls of water cascading into the car. Unfortunately, when this started I had my mouth slightly open. (Maybe I was singing? Drooling? Mouth-breathing? I dunno....)

Yes, that foul mixture that I've described in seemingly innumerable articles is something I've looked at and smelled and heard and -- reluctantly -- touched in the past. I had no intention of going to this extent to understand this story.

Of course I spit and swished and spit and swished some more, using up a bit of mouthwash.

Now, here's the weird thing: I've written more than once about how bad it is to have copper in the waterways that are supposed to nourish young salmon, even at minuscule levels. And I've outlined how every one of us, every time we touch our brakes, unleashes a teensy-tiny amount of copper.

Byline: 

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

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.

To sue or not to sue? Cleaning up Puget Sound's copper problem

Three Sheets Northwest is an online boating magazine that has explored the delicate -- and often perturbed -- balance between environmental and economic interests during the all-hands-on-deck cleanup of Puget Sound.

Reporter Deborah Bach has been delving into the conflict between the bottom line and the health of the Sound by chronicling conflicts between the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and five boatyards that the environmental watchdog group has threatened to sue for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, which is accusing the boatyards of failing to prevent copper (which, in strong concentrations, can kill fish) from leaching into Puget Sound, says it is stepping up to enforce pollution provisions that the state Department of Ecology improperly waived.

The boatyards say that the legal threats are devastating their financial health at a time when they can least afford it.  And they’re angry that the suits ruptured a fragile and voluntary coalition between businesses, regulatory agencies and environmentalists.

Sailors and reporters Marty McOmber and Deborah Bach, formerly of The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, launched Three Sheets Northwest to focus their reporting chops on boating in the Puget Sound region.

Taxing pollutants to pay for water pollution cleanup -- too simple to pass Washington Legislature?

It's a little tough to tell, but it sounds like the idea of raising taxes on petroleum products and other toxic materials to pay for cleaning up stormwater runoff could have trouble getting through the recession-battered Washington Legislature this year. Taxing pollutants to pay for pollution cleanup may be too simple an idea, I suppose.

Today enviros are calling for green-minded citizens to e-mail their representatives in Olympia in support of what they’re calling the Clean Water Act of 2008 (HB 3181/SB 6851). It would raise taxes on petroleum and other toxic products that represent the biggest single environmental threat to Puget Sound (not to mention putting a whole bunch of other Washington waterways into violation of the federal Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972. The one that was supposed to control water pollution by 1985.

Right now the Leg is barreling toward a supposed conclusion – but with nothing even close to agreement on how to balance the budget. The Senate raised its hand for an increase in the sales tax. But Gov. Christine Gregoire and House leaders appear to not like that idea, although they’re careful politicians all and haven’t ruled it out, either.

Now, I’ve been writing about the need to clean up stormwater – in particular to rescue Puget Sound, but also as a nationwide program – for going on a decade now. Never before has the Legislature gotten this close to putting into effect such a large, ongoing and broadly based revenue source for stormwater cleanup.

Sightline highlights need for continued cleanup of US's No. 1 water-pollution problem, stormwater

rm iwest mugIt was good to see former Dateline Earth denizen Lisa Stiffler out today with a new report  (PDF) on the country's No. 1 water pollution problem:  Stormwater.

As longtime Dateline Earth readers will know, Lisa and I worked together on a bunch of stories over the past decade highlighting the need to protect Puget Sound.

Should we be using composting toilets? Should NYT's "Toxic Waters" series on sewers, stormwater raise that question?

The latest installment of The New York Times' excellent "Toxic Waters" series has pushed me over the edge: I'm now firmly of the opinion these guys should win a Pulitzer.  

I've sung the praises of Charles Duhigg's reporting before, but he really got to the heart of the matter with this latest piece on sewage and stormwater.

It's been a while since I visited this topic, and in the meantime it seems the holy grail of related medical research has been found: research connecting the sloppy way our aging sewers are handling waste with actual human sickness. According to Duhigg:

A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.

I've written extensively about these problems in the Puget Sound region. Duhigg and the Times are taking it to the national level. And yet, Duhigg doesn't forget to detail how the guys at the local sewer plant in Brooklyn get antsy when it starts raining much, generating stormwater that overpowers sewers in the Big Apple:

They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr.

EPA to unleash $10 million in funding for Puget Sound

The plight of Puget Sound continues its climb to national prominence a la the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. Today the U.S. Environmental Protection announced it's giving out $10 million in funding for projects to help rescue the Sound.

That $10 million isn't huge compared to the multi-billion-dollar pricetag a full rescue of the Sound probably will cost, or even in comparison to the amounts already spent by the state of Washington and local governments.

But it represents a decent chunk of change, and appears to cement an ongoing spot in the federal budget for restoration of Washington's beautiful but ailing inland sea. Here's what EPA's press release had to say about that:

Additional solicitations for Puget Sound federal funding are expected in the near future.

That's bureaucratese for "there's more where that came from."

Michelle Pirzadeh, acting administrator of EPA's Seattle-based Region 10, noted that the $10 million comes at a particularly handy time, budgetwise: 

This funding will go directly to our local and tribal partners who are on the front lines of protecting and restoring Puget Sound. These dollars come at critical time when budgets are stretched thin and help is needed to recover the Sound by 2020.

The money is to be used to improve shellfish-growing areas, many of which have been polluted by stormwater runoff; clean up contaminated sand and mud in bay bottoms; stanch the flow of pollution into the Sound and its tributaries; and restore and protect saltwater marshes and other so-called "estuarine wetlands" that occur where salt and fresh waters meet.

Local governments, Indian tribes and special taxing districts set up to help the Sound -- such as one envisioned for all the counties that surround the Sound -- are eligible for the EPA grants.