By Robert McClure and Olivia Henry InvestigateWest
Entering her final year in office, former Gov. Chris Gregoire found herself in a difficult spot: Indian tribes, powerful supporters of the governor, wanted stricter water pollution rules. The current regulations mean tribal members, along with sport fishermen and some other Washington residents, regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.
But Gregoire’s supporters in the aerospace industry — spearheaded by The Boeing Co. — were dead set against tightening the rules.
The Washington state Department of Ecology pushed mightily to strengthen the pollution limits before Gregoire left office only to see the plans dashed one day after a high-level meeting between the former governor and former Boeing Executive Vice President Jim Albaugh, according to newly released government records.
“It was my expectation that this was not going to be a top-tier political issue,” Ted Sturdevant, the former Ecology director, told InvestigateWest.
He was wrong.
Documents obtained this month by InvestigateWest under the Washington Public Records Act reveal a controversy that continues to simmer. This week, Indian tribes will go over the state’s head to bring their protests to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The heart of the tribes’ complaint is how the state sets water-pollution standards. A key part of that process is estimating how much fish people eat; the less fish consumed by residents, the more pollution can be dumped into waterways. But Washington’s estimate is decades out of date, as the EPA has repeatedly warned Ecology. More recent surveys show some residents eat a lot more than the official numbers estimate.
“This is a public health issue and our current rate on fish consumption is just unacceptable,” said Shawn Yanity, chairman of the Stillaguamish Tribe and co-leader of a state-tribal environmental committee.
Boeing asked to delay the process last year and allow more discussion because the company believed it would result in pollution limits that were “not economically viable, not technically feasible and there’s questionable environmental benefit as well.
“We were looking for a much more balanced approach in rulemaking. This was moving along extremely fast and it’s very complex,” said Terry Mutter, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy. “We want to make sure that not only the environment is protected, but also that the economy is viable for aerospace.”
Some 128,000 Washington jobs are tied to aerospace with Boeing the 85,000-worker behemoth at the top. Boeing’s suppliers employ thousands more.
In the run-up to the decision to delay updating the fish consumption number, a Boeing executive said the change would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and severely hamper its ability to increase production in Renton and make future expansion elsewhere in the state cost prohibitive,” according to an email from the governor’s office.
Oregon updated its fish consumption estimate in 2011 as recommended by EPA to account for the fact that Americans are eating more fish. In contrast, the current Washington numbers are based on Americans who filled out three-day food diaries in 1973 and 1974. Oregon figures people eat 27 times more fish than Washington’s official estimate — the one used in setting water-pollution limits.
How Boeing and its allies beat back Ecology’s attempt to change a fish consumption rate provides a fascinating look at how the levers of power are pulled in Olympia. One key lesson: Don’t underestimate the impact of a coalition between titans of industry like Boeing, lobbyists for other businesses and local governments.
From the beginning, it was clear that Ecology’s Sturdevant understood the state was going to face opposition.
In September 2011, huddling with tribal leaders, Sturdevant’s position was captured in meeting notes: “The state knows that industry will push back but we should not worry about the political winds because it’s the right thing to do.”
Gregoire didn’t get the memo. Once the 2012 legislative session started, she was surprised to hear complaints from Republican legislative leaders. She dashed off a two-sentence email on Jan. 18, 2012, to Sturdevant under the heading “fish consumption”:
“Republicans are very concerned about this issue and brought it up at a leadership meeting. What is it?”
Lobbyists and lawmakers continued to bring up the issue and two weeks later Sturdevant sent what he characterized as a “calm-down” letter, saying that the rulemaking to adjust the fish consumption numbers would be slowed down. It didn’t work. Three days later, he confided to Gregoire adviser Keith Phillips: “In pursuit of finding that line between bold and stupid, I’m wondering if I misjudged.”
Shortly thereafter, another Gregoire aide met with House Republican leader Richard DeBolt and reported: “(h)e doesn’t want Ted to slow down. He wants him to stop.”
Soon a provision found its way into the Senate’s version of the state’s annual budget. The provision would have thrown up roadblocks to Ecology moving forward, likely making it impossible to adopt the rule before Gregoire left office.
It’s unclear who drafted the provision; tribal attorneys blamed the pulp and paper industry, their internal correspondence shows, while Sturdevant said in a Feb. 27, 2012, memo to the governor that it originated with the Association of Washington Business.
In any case, the tribes launched their own lobbying campaign, focusing on the Democratic leaders in the House and Governor’s Office. Within a week they’d beaten back the draft provision and it was removed from the Senate’s budget proposal.
But Boeing kept a close eye on the issue and a Boeing representative complained about a week later in a note to a Gregoire aide that the fish consumption rule changes were “still on a fast track.” The Association of Washington Business followed with a formal letter of complaint to Gregoire, and a day later, on April 20, 2012, Boeing representative Susan Champlain asked to meet with Sturdevant and Gregoire’s chief of staff.
By then, the legislative session was over and Sturdevant thought he still had time to get the changes adopted before Gregoire’s exit from office.
The issue was far from dead, though. When a Renton city official asked Gregoire aerospace adviser Alex Pietsch in early June if the issue was still on his radar, Pietsch replied, “Oh, yeah.”
He added: “I’m eating less fish now that I know about this issue.”
In June, a flurry of emails between Gregoire aides and others shows Ecology still was poised to go forward with the rule changes by the end of the year.
After a long-planned meeting that month with Albaugh, though, the governor thought differently, records indicate.
The most telling sentence in the post-meeting emails is from Gregoire environmental adviser Phillips to Pietsch, her aerospace aide, using government jargon that means the process will be delayed: “The Gov wants the ‘process now/102 later’ option included in the mix of options. Ted is rallying his folks to develop the options, and he’s assuming the Gov will want to pivot to some amended direction on this.”
The “102” shorthand refers to CR 102, the point in rulemaking at which an agency formally proposes the rule and solicits public comments. The “pivot” is what happened. The change to the pollution rules that Ecology had been working on for at least nine months was stopped, delayed to at least 2014.
Sturdevant said that he wasn’t at the meeting between Gregoire and Boeing’s Albaugh, but that he was hearing from opponents other than Boeing at the time. They included the Association of Washington Business, the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association and the Association of Washington Cities, the latter because most towns operated sewage-treatment plants subject to water-pollution rules.
Gregoire aides had described Sturdevant in internal emails as being surrounded by thin ice because of his advocacy for updating the fish consumption number.
But Sturdevant said the decision to slow down adoption was his.
He said he was afraid that if controversy continued, it could torpedo the updating of the fish consumption numbers as well as an update to toxic cleanup rules, and a rule to give industry and local governments assurances that the new rules would not prove overly burdensome. Another blowup could delay a decision into the term of the next governor — and maybe that governor would just walk away from all three rules, he said.
Sturdevant said that he tried repeatedly to assure Boeing and others that the state would come up with “implementation tools” that would ensure the new fish-eating rate didn’t cripple their businesses.
“Here’s why I can still look at myself in the mirror: I believed then and I believe now that had we proceeded and said we’re going to answer the question on the (fish consumption) number before we have answers to (industry and local government) questions, I didn’t think that was true to the public process.”
He added: “Politically, it would have been unsustainable.”
Businesses, including Boeing, argue they don’t have the technology that would be required to meet what they expect to be the new limits, and so they were not assured by regulations promised in the future to help them comply.
Significantly, Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, will attend Thursday’s meeting with the tribes. She and new Gov. Jay Inslee both issued non-committal statements in response to comment for this article.
Yanity, of the Stillaguamish Tribe, previewed the tribal leaders’ message: “Seafood is a staple of a lot of people, as well as freshwater fish here in the Pacific Northwest. And it’s supposed to be a healthy alternative to other food sources. But how healthy is it when you’re only allowed to consume so much before you start taking on a risk of cancer and other sicknesses?”
For its part, Boeing has resisted state suggestions to meet with the tribes to discuss the issue. Boeing’s Mutter said the company stands ready to join a broader process, though.
“We’re ready to engage and work with them,” he said. Asked why Boeing hasn’t met with tribes on the issue, Mutter said, “We really think that’s the government’s role to convene the stakeholders.
“That’s not our role.”
Attempts to reach Gregoire, Albaugh and Gregoire chief of staff Marty Loesch for comment were unsuccessful.
Jason Alcorn contributed to this report. InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit investigative journalism center. Find out more at www.invw.org.