pollution

Activists, truckers, religious leaders call for Port of Seattle to treat truck drivers better

Singing the African-American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” activists and religious leaders and truck drivers tried Wednesday to breach security at a downtown conference of seaport authorities to appeal to the Port of Seattle to improve working conditions and pay for drivers.

In the same hotel where hundreds of delegates to the World Trade Organization took refuge from tear gas in 1999, the activists sought to highlight their call for drivers to be hired as employees instead of scraping by as independent contractors. The drivers say they are on some days working for less than minimum wage, waiting for up to six hours to get a load that might pay them $40 or $50. Because they are independent contractors, the drivers also are responsible for sometimes-expensive maintenance and repairs.

Several waves of protesters, about 30 in all, were turned back in front of a phalanx of Port of Seattle police officers on the fourth floor of the Westin. “If you are not credentialed, you need to head right down that escalator!” Westin General Manager Elizabeth James instructed the last wave, which broke into song as the protesters moved slowly toward the exit.

The protesters are planning a larger demonstration outside the Westin Thursday at noon.

Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle and a board member of the activist group Puget Sound Sage, said he was trying Wednesday to deliver a letter from several local and national religious leaders calling for better treatment of the drivers. Several workers also bore their own letter, hoping to deliver it to Port of Seattle executives at the conference.

Byline: 

State caught in crossfire with proposed stormwater control rules

How far should Washington go to rein in the largest source of water pollution fouling Puget Sound and many other water bodies in the state?

Friday is the deadline for the public to weigh in on a preliminary proposal by the Washington Ecology Department that is drawing fire from environmentalists as being too lax and from builders as being potentially super-costly. A second, formal public comment period will start this fall.

At issue is stormwater, the pollution-laced runoff that streams off the developed landscape after rainstorms, carrying a foul stew of pesticides, toxic metals, fecal matter and other pollutants. Washington is the first state in the nation where a judicial ruling forced state regulators to require builders to employ a series of green-building techniques known as “low-impact development.”

Now the Ecology Department has set out to determine just how much building methods will have to be adjusted to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which the state administers. The ruling by the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board requiring the changes says they must be employed “where feasible.”

But what does that mean?

 Does it require that almost every bit of rainwater be soaked up by sponge-like “rain gardens,” porous pavement, vegetated roofs and other “green infrastructure” techniques?

 Does it mean builders should just do the best they can, given the local terrain they’re building on?

 Or should developers have to go even further, mostly building up with multi-story construction instead of building out, so that a minimal amount of ground is covered, leaving intact most trees and other plants, along with native soil, to slurp up the stormwater?

Opinions vary. Ecology has advanced a tentative set of ideas based on the notion that the full-bore treatment isn’t likely to work everywhere.

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: 

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: 

Hanford Nuclear Reservation: Big problems at nation's #1 dump, but stimulus funds speed cleanup

Maybe it was the post-Earth Day glow, or perhaps the prospect of a long-delayed vacation. But today when I and colleagues from the Society of Environmental Journalists visited the most contaminated site in North America, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, I was surprised by the amount of progress that has been made on cleanup.

Now, there's no doubt that Hanford is still a mess. The project is starting to look like it will cost roughly twice as much and take roughly twice as long as originally estimated, as Karen Dorn Steele established on our tour. There's been no shortage of screwups and missteps in the cleanup process. Radioactive waste is leaking into the only part of the Columbia River that still flows naturally, onto the spawning grounds for that so-very-rare commodity on the Columbia, a healthy salmon run.

And, of course, there’s the seemingly never-ending quest to build what has begun to sound like a figment of someone’s imagination: A plant that encases the worst of the wastes in a glass-like substance for longterm storage. Now it’s supposed to be done in 2019. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

Help prevent stormwater pollution -- how to capture those April showers with rain gardens, etc.

Former Dateline Earth denizen Lisa Stiffler, now digging up all kinds of interesting material on stormwater and other topics for Sightline.org, came out this week with a helpful hands-on guide to how homeowners can do their part to cut down on stormwater pollution.

The basics: Keep as much rain as you can on your own property. Stiffler outlines how to use a variety of techniques to get the water to soak into the earth right around your castle.

She gives us the rundown on rain gardens (aka bioswales), rain barrels, and even has a link to a Sunset magazine feature on an easy do-it-yourself "green" roof -- meaning vegetated with moss. Like Stiffler, color me skeptical on that one. The example is on a home in the Pacific Northwest, like mine, but one that has a flat, rubberized roof. Mine has asphalt shingles (probably with some zinc washing off -- yech!) and is steeply pitched. So I'm pretty sure that's not going to work at my house.

Anyway, I hope you'll check out Stiffler's post and if that piques your interest, go on to her  report about stormwater, how it's affecting Puget Sound, and what we can do about it. Also, don't miss Stiffler's really interesting look at how a business in south Seatle not only found a way to keep stormwater at bay -- but also saved a bundle of cash.

-- Robert McClure

Environmental regulator tells Congress: U.S. efforts to regulate toxics are a failure

It’s been more than 30 years since Congress passed a law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It hasn’t controlled many toxics, though. And today a high-ranking environmental regulator from the Pacific Northwest told members of Congress that the nation’s efforts to keep people safe from harmful chemicals just aren’t cutting it.

Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, rattled off a list of steps taken to control toxics in his state, including banning the flame retardant decaBDE and work to rein in mercury and lead. In fact, Washington was the first state to come up with multi-year plan to phase out so-called “persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic” chemicals, or PBTs, he told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But Sturdevant’s testimony at the Congressional hearing quickly jumps to this point:

The truth is that our approach to protecting people and our environment from toxic chemicals is a failure. It’s a failure at the state level, and it’s a failure at the national level. We are failing to prevent avoidable harm to our children, we are failing to protect the food chain that sustains us, we are failing to save countless millions of taxpayer dollars that are wasted on health care costs and environmental cleanup, and we are failing to exercise common sense.

Wow. Strong words. He went on to describe what he thinks a common-sense system of regulations would entail:

• Look carefully at a chemical’s potential to harm before it is used in commerce.

• The government should be able to ban a chemical causing an “urgent and unacceptable” risk.