Story update: Inslee gets involved in water-quality rule changes

Gov. Jay Inslee is wading into the controversy on state water-pollution regulations that InvestigateWest first reported earlier this spring.

In a letter to the state Ecology Department (embedded below), Inslee announced his intention to organize an informal group of advisers from local governments, Indian tribes and businesses. Environmental groups, notably, are not mentioned. The process is to kick off this month, and Inslee told Ecology Director Maia Bellon that by late this year he will “provide you with guidance” that will allow new rules to be proposed in early 2014.

At issue are the state’s decades-old and critics say badly flawed assumptions about how much fish Washingtonians are eating. The way the state’s pollution rules are written, the more fish people are assumed to eat, the cleaner local waterways must be kept, and the harder it is for businesses to comply with the law.

Ecology set out to update the rules under Inslee’s predecessor, Gov. Christine Gregoire, but ultimately postponed the changes last June after Gregoire met with a key Boeing executive and a few days later with then-Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant.

Inslee’s letter to Bellon, released late on Friday, calls for the agency to help educate Inslee’s advisory group, “including real-world scenarios illustrating how new criteria would be applied and how new implementation and compliance tools would work in the permitting context.” Ecology officials have previously said the “implementation and compliance tools” could include giving businesses up to 40 years to cut pollution levels to the amount that presumably would be required once accurate fish-consumption rates are in place.

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As Factory Farms Spread, Government Efforts to Curb Threat From Livestock Waste Bog Down

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Cows at a large Wisconsin dairy farm.
Credit: Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

As factory farms take over more and more of the nation’s livestock production, a major environmental threat has emerged: pollution from the waste produced by the immense crush of animals.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that America’s livestock create three times as much excreta as the human population.  By the agency’s reckoning, a dairy farm with 2,500 cows — which is large, but not exceptional — can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami.

Yet unlike human waste, which often receives sophisticated treatment, animal waste commonly goes untreated. It is typically held in underground pits or vast manure lagoons, and then spread on cropland as fertilizer. It’s been this way for decades, but worries have grown along with the number and size of factory farms. When storms strike, the overflows can be huge, like the 1995 North Carolina swine manure spill that sent 25 million gallons of waste into a river. Just last month, a Minnesota dairy farm spilled up to 1 million gallons of manure, fouling two nearby trout streams. More routinely, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said, large farms generate more manure than they can handle, so they spread too much on nearby fields. From there, the material — which the EPA says often contains hormones, pathogens and toxic metals — can run off and contaminate streams, rivers and wells.

Under the Clean Water Act, industrial operations like factories and sewage treatment plants that discharge through pipes are considered “point sources” of pollution. They are required to get a permit that sets limits on pollution and, in many cases, imposes a water testing regime.

For massive livestock farms — what the government calls concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — it’s a different story. Although they also are defined under the law as point sources, federal court rulings have frustrated the EPA’s efforts to regulate them. Only 45 percent of the nation’s CAFOs have discharge permits, even though the EPA estimates 75 percent are actually polluting. And even when CAFOs get permits, critics say, their performance in controlling pollution is hard to track and their permit restrictions are tough to enforce.

EPA officials, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have worried for many years about pollution problems from CAFOs and say they have stepped up enforcement in recent years. But the agency’s plans to regulate more large livestock farms were shot down twice by federal courts in the last decade. Then last July, amid continuing industry opposition and while regulation was a sensitive topic in the presidential campaign, the agency quietly withdrew a proposal to collect information from large livestock farms. The result is that the EPA remains largely in the dark about such basic facts as which operations are potentially the biggest polluters and where they are located.

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InvestigateWest and The News Tribune win SPJ New America Award

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Contact:
Robert McClure, Executive Director, 206-441-4288, rmcclure@invw.org

The Society of Professional Journalists announced on Wednesday that Carol Smith and Lewis Kamb are recipients of the 2013 New America Award, which recognizes reporting on issues of importance to immigrant or ethnic communities in the U.S.

The News Tribune’s Kamb and InvestigateWest's Smith won for “Center of Detention,” an investigation into Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center. Both are co-founders of InvestigateWest.

“We’re extremely pleased to see The News Tribune and InvestigateWest share honors on this important project,” said Robert McClure, executive director of InvestigateWest. The collaboration was the first ever by The News Tribune with a nonprofit news organization. “As Congress debates how to step forward on immigration reform, we’re gratified that SPJ recognized this extraordinary effort,” McClure said.

From the SPJ announcement:

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With focus on toxics, Duwamish cleanup could leave other health problems unsolved

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t going to ensure Seattle’s Duwamish River is clean enough for needy residents to fish there for their dinner, the agency needs to ensure those people get fish some other way – even if that means supplying seafood through food banks. Or building clean urban fishing ponds. Or giving people shares in a seafood cooperative akin to a community-supported-agriculture operation.

That’s one thrust of a new report by health advocates commenting on the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan for the heavily polluted Duwamish, the first such “health impact assessment” on any Superfund site. The study also warns against potential gentrification of the riverside South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods; authors say a cleanup could hasten the already obvious demographic shift in the South Seattle neighborhoods, with wealthier and whiter residents edging out lower-income people unable to weather rising housing costs.

In all, the study touches on a broad array of the cleanup plan’s potential impacts, including effects on tribal identity, the labor market and family downtime.

These seemingly disparate observations and recommendations are embodied in a report released this week that challenges EPA’s traditional definition of health in past Superfund cleanups, one that focuses strongly on cancer-causing pollutants. This new study advocates adding social, cultural and even spiritual aspects of health into the mix.

The report zeros in on the four most affected populations – local residents, Indian tribes, non-tribal fishermen and local workers – to examine the potential unintended consequences of the agency’s plan on the very people it’s designed to help.

Residents are “worried that after they’ve worked so hard to clean up the river, they won’t be able to stay and enjoy the benefits,” study co-author Bill Daniell told the Seattle City Council during a presentation Monday.

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How Boeing, allies torpedoed state’s rules on toxic fish

Gov. Chris Gregoire signs a 737 used to test new technologies at Boeing's
Renton, Wash., facility during "Aerospace Day," June 20, 2012.  Later that day she met with
a Boeing executive who had complained about the state's proposed rules.
Credit: Gov. Chris Gregoire/Flickr

Entering her final year in office, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire found herself in a difficult spot: Indian tribes, powerful supporters of the governor, wanted stricter water pollution rules. Why? Because 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, successfully outmaneuvering Republican legislators, 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 who tried unsuccessfully to shepherd through the changes, told InvestigateWest.

He was wrong.

Timeline: Fish Consumption Rate

For more than 10 months, bureaucrats and business, politicians and tribes influenced the Department of Ecology's ultimate decision to slam the brakes on fish consumption. Full emails and reports can be seen here.

Read the Reporting Behind this Timeline

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Fish Consumption Records from the Governor's Office

The documents in this collection include communications to and from the Washington State governor's office obtained by InvestigateWest through a public records request.

 
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'Prescription for Abuse' Honored at Best of the West

Last February, Carol Smith's report, “The Prescription Epidemic” revealed how aggressive marketing and sales of pharmaceuticals drove a culture of overprescription in Washington and created the spectacular run-up in the number of deaths from prescription overdoses.

Today that story—and the documentary of the same name that we co-produced with KCTS—was recognized by Best of the West, a journalism contest for news outlets from Alaska to Texas. Here's what the judge had to say:

InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith and Stephanie Schendel and KCTS’ Ethan Morris take second for their collaboration in print and video of the prescription-drug epidemic in Washington. The investigation comes after the state’s enactment of a law that limits the doses doctors and others prescribers can give out. It is considered one of the strongest prescription drug laws in the United States.

“InvestigateWest’s report on the prescription drug epidemic in Washington tackles a controversial topic – the unintended consequences of making pain medication available to those in need. Carol Smith and her colleagues revealed not just the personal cost of overdoses but also the hidden influence of drug companies on the guidelines for the use of painkillers. The research, the writing and the multimedia presentation offer readers creative, compelling and unforgettable work,” the judge wrote.

Congratulations also to the staff of The Oregonian, who won top honors in the category for their reporting on the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.

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