Trashed drain_Flickr_Chloe DietzNew rules approved by Washington’s lawmakers will cut the amount of salmon-harming copper,   toxic coal pollutants, and algae-stoking fertilizers that foul local waterways. Oregon legislators are halfway to approving a ban on copper brake pads—a ban that Washington approved last year.

It’s exciting news for Puget Sound, the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and countless other waterways threatened by the region’s fire hose of stormwater filth. But in truth, the stormwater cup is only half full as the Washington legislative session nears its close for the year. City and county organizations, green groups, and labor interests have again lost their fight to create a fee to pay for projects to reduce the stormwater runoff that imperils human health; salmon, orcas, and insects; and our buildings and roadways.

But let’s review the stormwater wins in more detail first.

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  • Asphalt sealants

    Washington is now the first US state to approve a ban on coal-tar asphalt sealants that leach toxic chemicals into the environment, and eventually our homes. The coal-tar sealants are used to preserve asphalt parking lots and driveways, and it gives them a rich, black hue. But the sealant flakes off and can be tracked into our houses and workplaces, or it gets flushed into rivers and streams with stormwater. Investigate West’s Robert McClure, who has led the coverage of this issue, cites the potential harm to humans including:

    • cancer
    • asthma, lower IQs, and other health problems in children
    • sperm damage in men
    • problems with umbilical cords in pregnant women

    In the environment, chemicals found in the sealants “have been shown to kill tadpoles, cause tumors on fish, stunt growth of aquatic creatures and reduce the number of species able to live in a waterway,” McClure reports.

    HB 1721 makes it illegal to sell coal-tar sealants beginning next year, and it will be illegal to apply coal-tar sealants after July 1, 2013.

    Drydock_Flickr_reidspiceCopper boat paint

    Speaking of firsts in Washington, last year the state was the first in the nation to approve a near ban of copper from vehicle brake pads. The seemingly innocuous metal actually wreaks havoc on the ability of salmon and other fish to smell. They use their noses to find food, mates, avoid enemies and other essential functions.

    This year,  lawmakers turned their attention to copper boat paint. The  legislation—SB 5436—had an unexpected champion: the Northwest Marine Trade Association—a group representing marina owners and other boat-related companies. Deborah Bach at Three Sheets Northwest, a marine news site, has done a great job tracking this issue and reports that the trade group was trying to get out in front of an environmental organization that has sued marinas for pollution violations. The rationale: remove the pollutant at the source, and the marinas don’t have to try to clean up the copper later.

    The copper is added to the paint as an anti-fouling agent that prevents the growth of barnacles, worms, algae, and other watery pests that gnaw on boats.

    The ban applies only to the use of copper-containing paint on recreational vessels that are less than 65 feet long; larger vessels and commercial ships are not affected. The law bans the sale of new, recreational vessels with copper-containing paint beginning in 2018. A ban on the sale of copper-containing boat paint starts in 2020.

    Algal geese_Flickr_AndwarPhosphorus in fertilizers

    Phosphorus that makes lawns green and lush is also happily gobbled up by algae and other weeds that choke Northwest rivers, lakes, and bays. The wrong kind and amount of algae can prove insidiously awful. With help from fertilizers, the little water plants spring to life in big blooms, then die and rot, sucking the oxygen out of the water, potentially creating dead zones so oxygen depleted that they can kill fish. Some algae also create toxic chemicals, which forced a BC community to temporarily switch water sources after a bloom. Stormwater runoff scoops up the extra fertilizer from lawns, yards, and farmland, dumping it in fragile waterways.

    New rules approved in Washington will shrink the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers by making them more difficult to buy. HB 1489 will ban the sale and application of lawn fertilizer that contains phosphorus except in certain situations when (according to the bill report):

    “…the fertilizer is being used to establish or repair grass during a growing season, for adding phosphorus to soils with deficient plant-available phosphorus levels, or for application to pasture lands, houseplants, flower or vegetable gardens, or agricultural or silvicultural lands.”

    The most important thing here: the ag industry still has unfettered use of the phosphorus fertilizers. Is that a good thing for the environment? I can’t say, but the legislation’s green proponents aren’t complaining at the moment.

    “We’ve worked hard over the past few years to craft sensible legislation to reduce phosphorus pollution,” said Rick Eichstaedt, with Spokane Riverkeeper, in a press release.


    Copper brake pads

    One of the prime sources of copper pollution in local waterways is copper brake pads (California calculated the sources in this study). When drivers tap their brakes, tiny amounts of copper are shaved off, which then migrate from the air to roads and driveways where it’s swept away with stormwater runoff that dumps it into salmon-bearing streams, lakes, and bays.

    Washington got major kudos for last year becoming the first state to restrict the sale of copper brake pads, and California followed with a similar set of rules. Now Oregon is moving to do the same. State leaders in the Senate have approved new brake pad requirements, and now the measure, SB 945, moves to the House for consideration.

    Pollution fee for stormwater

    Now to the half empty part of our stormwater story. The third time was definitely not the charm when it came to creating a new funding source to clean up and curb Washington’s polluted stormwater.

    Rainbow slick_Flickr_[citation needed]In 2009, legislation (HB 1614/ SB 5518) would have assessed a fee on petroleum products. In 2010, new rules (HB 3181/SB 6851) sought to increase a tax that is already added to thousands of toxic chemicals, including petroleum, pesticides, and other products. This year, the anti-stormwater coalition backed the “Clean Water Jobs Act” (SB 5604/HB 1735) which would have put a 1 percent fee on petroleum products, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

    Each of these measures failed; last year’s tax had a fighting chance, but the proposal this year never got a full vote in either the House or Senate. The past efforts have faced intensive lobbying from the petroleum and chemistry industries, and this year ag joined the fight as well thanks to the inclusion of pesticides and fertilizers in the list of items subject to fees.

    What’s interesting is the biz world agrees that stormwater is a significant threat to the health of Puget Sound and other waterways—even Grant Nelson from the Association of Washington Business conceded the point at a stormwater forum that Sightline helped host this spring (see coverage in The Olympian here, and my blog here). But the various industries targeted by the fee or tax have argued—at great expense in lobbyists—that they’re being singled out unfairly to pay for stormwater solutions.

    Last year the greens got a late-breaking stormwater win when the Legislature earmarked $50 million out of a state toxic cleanup fund to pay for stormwater projects, but no one yet knows if the region will score extra stormwater dollars this year (see this nice wrap up of the stormwater-fee legislation from Crosscut).


    Trashy drain photo from Flickr user Chloe Dietz, dry-dock boat photo from Flickr user reidspice, geese in algae-polluted lake photo from Flickr user Andwar, and rainbow colored oil slick photo from Flickr user [citation needed]. All are used under the Creative Commons license.