Down spouts_Flickr_Patrick HoeslyA plan to create a dedicated source of funding to help pay for projects to clean up and control stormwater died in Olympia. The polluted runoff that pours off roads, roofs, and highways is the number one source for the toxic chemicals that foul Puget Sound and is a key pollution source for waterways throughout the Northwest.

The proposed legislation would have slightly increased a state tax that’s already applied to hazardous substances. The so-called Clean Water Act of 2010 would have raised approximately $100 million annually to spend on projects to tame stormwater runoff, including low-impact development (LID) that tries to get rain to soak into the ground where it falls rather than running in torrents into streams, lakes, and other water bodies.

Most cities and counties, environmentalists, government agencies, and some labor organizations were all for the legislation. The bill passed committees in the House and Senate, but never crossed the finish line.

What happened? For the most part, the oil industry did. While the tax hits all dangerous chemicals, petroleum products make up the bulk of the hazardous chemicals consumed in state.

Representatives and lobbyists from BP, Shell, Tesoro, Western States Petroleum Association, Washington Oil Marketers Association, and others came out in strength against the proposed act. Tesoro alone spent more than $13,200 in two months time to have a lobbyist fly in from Alaska. That doesn’t include the costs for the four other Tesoro reps that testified against the bill.

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  • One of the opposition’s strategies to fight the act was to muddy the debate. They claimed that the higher tax— it would have gone up from 0.7 percent to 1.1 percent in the version of the bill that went to the floor of the House—would have both raised the price of gas and led to job cuts. As Sightline’s Eric de Place notes in this blog post, you either do one or the other, not both. (Earlier in the debate, opponents kept regurgitating erroneous numbers that overstated the amount that gas prices would go up.)

    This funding was sorely needed by cities and counties statewide. Bellingham and Whatcom County are struggling to keep Lake Whatcom—the sole source of drinking water for Bellingham—unpolluted and stormwater is the greatest challenge being faced. Toxic runoff hammers Puget Sound and the orcas, salmon, and other species that call the inland sea home. Spokane is trying to stop overflows of raw sewage and stormwater from fouling the city’s namesake river.

    And the state Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency are both in the process of updating and strengthening stormwater regulations that local governments will be on the hook for legally.

    Lawmakers did offer a consolation prize. The budget that was approved last week includes a one-time expenditure of $50 million to do stormwater work. And they passed a ban on copper-containing brake pads, making Washington the first US state to take this step. Curbing copper is important because the metal can harm aquatic life and salmon at extremely low concentrations.

    For additional analysis of what went down with the Clean Water Act, check out this story from Crosscut.

    Downspouts photo courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Hoesly under a Creative Commons license