Oily puddle_weegeebored_Flickr‘Tis the season for making a list and checking it twice, and no, it’s not Santa who’s coming to town but state lawmakers. And Northwest enviros have made their wish lists in preparation for the 2011 legislative sessions.

Despite losing green-leaning leaders during November’s elections, progressives are still pursuing ambitious environmental agendas, which can be perused right now for Washington, Idaho, and Montana; Oregon doesn’t get rolling until February and hasn’t shared it’s official priorities.

For the third year running, the Washington environmental community will be pushing to establish a new funding source for stormwater projects. The issue remains high on their list because of the hugely damaging role polluted runoff plays in the state. It’s the top threat to the health of Puget Sound and other waterways, including contaminating Lake Whatcom, the source of drinking water for Bellingham, and for continuing to dump raw sewage into Port Angeles’s harbor.

Washington legislators have failed for two consecutive years to approve a new funding source to pay for stormwater cleanup, primarily through investments in low-impact development. But the effort hasn’t been a total loss; the legislation neared the finish line in 2010 and Oregon greens were envious of the $50 million “consolation prize” that lawmakers approved for funding stormwater projects.

And Washington greens have had unqualified wins in stormwater, namely by becoming the first state to essentially ban the use of copper in vehicle brake pads, which contributes significantly to water pollution. California adopted a ban a few months later Oregon environmentalists say they’re thinking of pushing for a ban there as well during the upcoming session.

Let’s take a quick look at these wins and losses in a little more detail.

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  • Copper brake pad bans

    In March 2010, Washington lawmakers voted with a huge bipartisan majority to approve SB 6557, dramatically reducing the amount of copper, other toxic metals, and asbestos allowed in vehicle brake pads. California’s legislature followed suit soon after with SB 346.

    The ban was an important win for stormwater cleanup because the copper contamination threatens the survival of salmon, bull trout, and other fish even at extremely low concentrations. A study by the Brake Pad Partnership, a coalition of Californian government agencies, environmentalists, and manufacturers, concluded that brake pads were the second biggest source of copper in the San Francisco Bay watershed.

    Washington officials estimate that between 70,000 and 320,000 pounds of copper are being washed into Puget Sound each year. That’s the weight equivalent of as much as 57.6 million pennies.

    The new rules in Washington and California will:

    • Ban, beginning in 2014, the sale of brake pads containing more than trace amounts of lead, mercury, asbestos, cadmium, and chromium.
    • Ban, beginning in 2021, the sale of brake pads containing more than 5 percent copper.
    • Ban, beginning in 2025, the sale of brake pads containing more than 0.5 percent copper, provided a safe, acceptable substitute is found.

    Funding stormwater solutions with the “polluter pays” principle

    During the 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions, Washington’s environmental community, together with local governments, sought new funding sources to pay for projects to control stormwater.

    In each year the legislation was based on the “polluter pays” principle, seeking to levy fees or taxes on the producers of the dangerous or unhealthy chemicals that foul stormwater. Polluted runoff flushes at least 14 million pounds of potentially hazardous chemicals into Puget Sound, 58 percent which is petroleum pollution.

    The 2009 legislation (HB 1614/ SB 5518) would have assessed a fee on petroleum products that contribute to stormwater pollution. Legislation proposed in 2010 (HB 3181/SB 6851) sought to increase a tax that is already added to thousands of toxic chemicals, including petroleum, pesticides, and other products. Both measures failed against intensive, well-funded lobbying from the petroleum and chemical industries.

    The 2009 legislation would have:

    • Put a $1.50 fee on each barrel of petroleum product, including gasoline, diesel, lubricants, industrial fuels, asphalt feedstock, and road oils.
    • Excluded products such as home heating oil, agricultural diesel, and aviation fuels.
    • Imposed the fee at the refinery or point of entry into Washington, not the gas pump.
    • Distributed fees through a competitive grant process to local governments statewide to pay for stormwater improvements and water-quality programs.

    The 2010 legislation would have:

    • Increased the existing 0.7 percent tax on hazardous chemicals to 1.1 percent. (An earlier version of the bill proposed an increase to 2 percent.) The tax would be levied under the state’s Model Toxics Control Act, a program that pays for the cleanup of contaminated sites.
    • Covered gasoline, motor oil, and other petroleum products, as well as pesticides, solvents and other hazardous products.
    • Imposed the tax on the first in-state possessor of hazardous substances.
    • For the first five years, a portion of the tax increase was earmarked to plug holes in the state’s general fund, but by 2015, the entire increase was designated for stormwater and water-quality programs.

    The environmental coalition hasn’t said which strategy it will pursue this year, or if they’ll go in another direction. Regardless, it’ll be a monumental task due to the new requirement for a two-thirds super majority to get approval for new taxes (and a majority requirement for new fees). But who knows. Maybe the lawmakers will go Grinch, or maybe they’ll see that getting polluters to pay for their damage
    will benefit the environment, jobs, and communities. What a happy ending that would be!


    Oily puddle photo from Flickr user weegeebored used under the Creative Commons license.