environment

WA Legislature: Let's become first state to ban toxic asphalt sealants

The Washington House of Representatives this week passed and sent to Gov. Christine Gregoire legislation to make Washington the first state in the nation to ban toxic asphalt sealants that are ending up in people’s homes as well as polluting stormwater runoff and waterways.

Meanwhile, a federal scientist on Thursday briefed Congressional aides and others about threats to the environment and public health from sealing of driveways, parking lots and playgrounds with coaltar, a byproduct of steelmaking. The briefing was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who is seeking a nationwide ban on the toxic sealants.

The Washington State legislation and Doggett’s drive for a nationwide ban flowed from studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, which showed that constituents of the toxic sealants are increasing in many waterways, while levels of most pollutants are declining.

A 2009 Geological Survey study identified chemicals associated with the coaltar sealants in house dust at levels that worried researchers because they could contribute to longterm cancer risks, especially in young children who crawl around in – and accidentally ingest – the toxic dust.

InvestigateWest and msnbc.com partnered last year to publish the first major national story examining the toxic sealants.

Byline: 

InvestigateWest co-hosts stormwater forum that shows civic discourse is still possible

InvestigateWest reached a milestone this week when we co-hosted a large public-policy forum on the State Capitol grounds in Olympia.

The subject was stormwater, the polluted rainwater runoff I’ve been writing about for perhaps a decade now, with particular emphasis on its effects on Puget Sound, where it is the largest source of toxics.  For two years running environmentalists have unsuccessfully advanced plans in Olympia to raise money to deal with the problem. More bills are pending in the current legislative session, so it seemed like a logical time to raise the issue’s profile and encourage a frank discussion.

That we got. And while we never expected to resolve the entire issue at a lunchtime forum, it did feel like progress to hear all the panelists acknowledge that stormwater is a difficult problem that somehow we are going to have to deal with collectively.

Seven legislators and several legislative aides joined environmentalists, business lobbyists and at least three journalists in the audience of 70. Overall it had the tone of a civil discussion with respect for all points of view – the kind of civic discourse often lacking in this age so seemingly dominated by vitriol. Once upon a time, news organizations did more of this kind of thing. The presidential debates of 1956 and 1960 may be the best-known examples. Journalists do still occasionally organize these events, but it seems to me that more of this sort of discussion could be helpful to citizens and policy-makers on all sides of many issues.

Co-hosting were Sightline Institute and Washington Policy Center, the two think tanks that have most carefully followed the stormwater story in Washington. I was fortunate to work with Brandon Houskeeper, a policy analyst at WPC, and Lisa Stiffler, journalism fellow at Sightline.

Byline: 

InvestigateWest co-sponsors forum on stormwater issues

Please join InvestigateWest, the  Washington Policy Center and Sightline Institute for an informative conversation about stormwater, the biggest threat to clean water in the Pacific Northwest. It's next Wednesday, March 23, from Noon to 1:15 p.m., Conference room B/C, John Cherberg Building, Capitol Campus, Olympia.

According to state officials, stormwater pollution is the top threat to the health of Puget Sound. Over the last several years Washington lawmakers have considered various measures to protect Puget Sound, including proposals to increase taxes or put fees on chemicals, such as oil and grease, to pay for projects to clean up stormwater. But with local and state budgets stretched to the breaking point, what actions can be taken to deal with this problem? What can be done about polluted runoff that will help the environment, but won't hamper the economy
 

Now is the time to have this discussion. The Department of Ecology is drafting regulations to require a more widespread use of "green" stormwater solutions and the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) is receiving public comments on its draft Strategic Science Plan, which will be used by the future Legislatures.

Format:

Panel discussion/Q-and-A followed by moderator-led interaction with audience members.

Bring your questions and suggestions!

Featuring:

- William Ruckelshaus, former two-time administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and founding chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council

- Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director, Washington Department of Ecology

- Grant Nelson, Association of Washington Business, Government Relations

Panel of questioners:

- Brandon Houskeeper, Policy Analyst, Center for the Environment, Washington Policy Center, www.washingtonpolicy.org

Byline: 

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.

Byline: 

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: 

Super-toxic rat poisons mysteriously seep into our world

Part 1 of 2

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – With the spooky glow of his headlamp illuminating an antenna in his hand, Paul Levesque stalks one of Canada’s last remaining barn owls.

“Are you getting anything?” research team leader Sofi Hindmarch asks over a walkie-talkie.

“I got it!” Levesque responds. Then a few seconds later, dejected, he radios back: “No. I lost the signal.”

Working in darkness, with the quarter-moon obscured by clouds, these two scientists are trying to figure out what an elusive, radio-collared owl is eating along this country road just beyond the suburbs that ring Vancouver. Their mission is to determine whether the decline of Canada’s barn owl is tied, in part, to super-toxic rat poisons.

Scientists know that at least some owls are dying under gruesome circumstances, bleeding to death from stomach hemorrhages in an agonizing and days-long decline. The culprit: An extra-potent class of rat poisons that has flooded the market in recent decades, designed to more effectively kill rats, a food source for the owls.

Scientist Paul Levesque tries to locate a radio-collared barn owl.
Photo by Paul Joseph Brown, www.ecosystemphoto.com

Six of 164 dead barn owls, barred owls and great horned owls in a 2009 western Canada study had rodenticide levels high enough to kill them outright, causing the fatal stomach hemorrhages. Pesticide readings in 15 percent to 30 percent of the others appeared toxic and seem likely to handicap owls in a variety of ways, scientists say.

Byline: 

2011: It's not environment vs. jobs, but rather environment = jobs, says activist/politician

 EASTSOUND, ORCAS ISLAND – Everyone knows Washington’s budget crunch is going to be really severe come next spring. But it wasn’t until I heard state Sen. Kevin Ranker’s take on the situation the other day – complete with new numbers – that I realized how impossible it will be to realistically expect money for enhanced environmental protections in 2011.

Addressing members of the volunteer but quasi-governmental Marine Resource Committees of north Puget Sound counties, the San Juan County Democrat laid out in stark terms why it will be so hard to cut $5 billion from a $31 billion state budget. That alone would represent a 16 percent reduction from an already-decimated budget. But it’s actually worse than it sounds. Much, much worse.

Here’s why: Of that $31 billion, some $23 billion comes from categories that can’t really be reduced, Ranker said: debt service, Medicaid, prisons, pensions, transportation, the capital budget and the constitutionally protected state contribution to public education. (Now, the Sunday Seattle Times seemed to anticipate efforts to make some fairly substantial cuts there anyway. Ranker seemed to have access to newer and scarier numbers, though.)

What does that leave? Three areas get the remaining $8 billion of the state budget: Higher education, government services and natural resources (a.k.a. environment). “Government services” sounds like a likely place to cut until you understand that it includes money for senior citizens, health care, the needy and so forth.

 So $5 billion – and it could grow to $5.2 billion, Ranker says – is supposed to be cut out of $8 billion for those three areas. Ugly, ugly, ugly.

Said Ranker:

A lesson on how to live a life: John Arum, 1961-2010

Nationally and internationally, John Arum was best known as the lawyer who won the Makah Indian Tribe the right to resume whaling, a case that brought him widespread obloquy from those who called themselves lovers of animals and the Earth. But as friends and acquaintances of the brilliant attorney gathered to celebrate his cut-short life over the weekend, it was impossible not to understand that John Arum was completely and utterly dedicated to caring for this planet and the creatures put here by our Creator.

I had the good fortune to meet John on a few of his later cases. I was awed by his ability to completely immerse himself in a case, mastering the obscure details of timber harvesting and stream flow and biology and geology and all the other ologies. I could tell he was a genius. I always figured I’d get to know him better as the years went on. Instead, that knowledge came second-hand from Arum’s friends and family at a celebration of his life Saturday at the Daybreak Star Center in Seattle’s Discovery Park.

The ceremony gave the several hundred present a look at an individual so much more remarkable than I had suspected – sure, a great lawyer. But also a consummate outdoorsman, a loving husband, a true friend, a devoted uncle. I wasn’t the only one learning. Even his widow, Susan Hormannn, said this of the outpouring in the weeks since her husband died in a mountain-climbing accident, “I have gotten a much broader perspective of him.”

Wife. Law partner. Brother. Sister. Father-in-law. Clients. Friends. Climbing partners. Together they sketched a portrait of an incredibly skilled litigator, negotiator and mediator driven to preserve an environment worth handing down to future generations who was at once a master climber, hiker, biker, kayaker and birder – and who still found time to stay in touch with his family and friends here in Cascadia and across the continent in his native New York.