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.

Legislature poised to cut firefighting budget despite drought threat

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.

State lawmakers visiting a toxic cleanup site in 2010.

Washington Senate budget draws on state toxics account to avoid tax increases

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.

Rooftop solar panels.

Solar power expansion legislation caught in political crossfire

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.

Puyallup River

Budget-cutters take aim at key Puget Sound projects

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.

Energy advocates charged up, but legislators divided over efficiency bill

OLYMPIA — Look around an average home and you’ll find 11 battery chargers re-juicing various electrical devices from toothbrushes to lawnmowers, says one study. Cell phones, laptops, power tools – the list of little-noticed power sucks goes on. The Washington Energy Office estimates that Washington residents together own about 30 million battery chargers. Holding these small, numerous and largely overlooked energy users to efficiency standards like those in Oregon and California could eventually save Washington consumers $27 million a year. That’s the argument of environmentalists and other proponents of legislation (HB 1100) that has passed Washington’s Democratic-controlled House but faces an uncertain future in the Republican-ruled Senate.