Fight in Olympia over solutions for toxic runoff

SEATTLE — Environmentalists in Washington state are fighting last-minute legislative proposals they say will weaken rules aimed at keeping toxic pollution out of state waters.

One House measure would make it voluntary for dozens of cities and counties in Western Washington to adopt greener strategies to control stormwater runoff, considered the biggest threat to Puget Sound and other state waters. Another idea being floated would delay those rules by three years.

“Some very major bedrock laws are very much in jeopardy,” said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for Washington Environmental Council and Washington Conservation Voters.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, introduced House Bill 2801 last week, one of several fiscal bills called for in the House budget that passed Wednesday. One section of that bill, which deals with local government issues, would make low-impact methods for stormwater run-off voluntary. In the Senate, an amendment being floated to Senate Bill 6406 would delay new stormwater rules by a few years.

Cities are facing significant new costs and responsibilities to comply with stormwater rules at a time when they’re seeing their budgets slashed, said Carl Schroeder, a lobbyist with the Association of Washington Cities. “We don’t know how we’re going to afford these new responsibilities,” he said.

Scott Merriman, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Counties, asked lawmakers at a committee hearing Thursday for help in saving money.

The Department of Ecology is currently working on new rules to control stormwater runoff, which occurs when rain washes grease, metals and other toxic pollutants into rivers, lakes and streams. Increased water volume and pollutants from stormwater have harmed water quality and habitats in virtually every urban stream system in the country, according the National Research Council.

Previous bills to delay stormwater rules didn’t make it out of committee earlier this year, so environmentalists were dismayed to see similar proposals resurface in the final stretch of the 60-day legislative session.

Traisman and others say the legislation will lead to higher clean-up costs down the road and won’t help the state with its budget crunch.

As the House and Senate work out a supplemental operating budget for 2011-13, environmentalists also are hoping to minimize proposed cuts to environmental programs.

“We realize that the state is in a tough budget situation, and we’re going to have to acknowledge that,” said Bill Robinson, a lobbyist with The Nature Conservancy.

But budget reductions proposed this year stack on top of 30 percent cuts over the past three years, he added. “There’s been a steady erosion of state support for environmental programs to the point where they won’t be effective.”

The House budget contains deeper cuts to natural resources than budgets proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire or Senate Democrats.

The House budget, for example, cuts about $1.7 million from Ecology’s management staff and money from other programs, which Robinson says could lower environmental oversight.

There are a few bright spots in all the proposed budgets, said Joe Stohr, deputy director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. All three budgets include between $250,000 to $355,000 in revenue from the sale of endangered species license plates to manage and monitor wolves. There’s also about a half million dollars in both the House and Senate budgets to crack down on people who poach wild geoducks, a highly-prized large clam, from state lands.

Cuts proposed to WDFW are in line with other agency cuts, Stohr said, but the department is feeling the cumulative impacts of cuts over the past several years.

The fight over stormwater rules have gotten more pitched, with environmental groups taking out a half-page ad in the Seattle Times last week opposing the bills.

Ecology deputy program manager Don Seeberger said a provision of the House bill would make low-impact methods voluntary, and that could put it at odds with requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Also, a three year delay in implementing the rules may not be legal, he said.

The Legislature last year approved a one-year delay in implementing stormwater rules.

The state was ordered by the Pollution Control Hearings Board in 2009 to consider low-impact methods — such as rain gardens and porous pavement that allows water to soak in — to control control toxic runoff. The board mandated such methods “where feasible” for dozens of larger cities and counties in Western Washington. Low-impact methods are already being used by both public and private entities in many places, and supporters say they’re cheaper and more effective at controlling runoff.

“In a lot of places, it works well,” Schroeder said. “We don’t think it’s ready to be rolled out across Western Washington.”

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