Location: Seattle, WA

According to a new analysis by Seattle-based Sightline Institute, one of Washington State’s few fees designed to discourage toxic pollution is undermined because it gives bulk discounts to some of the state’s biggest polluters.

As a result, the fee—the Hazardous Waste Planning Fee—hits hardest on small- and mid-size businesses and gives big producers a free pass to pollute.

“The fee should follow the ‘polluter pays’ principle,” said Alan Durning, executive director for Sightline, who co-authored the analysis with analyst David Kershner. “Instead, because the fee is capped, once a facility is over the cap, it has no incentive to cut back on pollution. And it’s fundamentally unfair.”

The analysis provides a number of key examples:

  • In 2006, Canyon Creek Cabinet Company in Monroe—a typical mid-size waste generator that makes wooden cabinets for new homes and remodeling projects—paid $220 per ton for each of the 23 tons of used paint solvent and other hazardous materials it disposed of.
  • The same year, specialty chemicals-maker Emerald Kalama Chemical (formerly Noveon Kalama), the state’s largest hazardous polluter, paid just 81 cents per ton for the more than 20,000 tons of toxic-laden tar and other wastes it generated at its plant beside the Columbia River.

Like Canyon Creek, the overwhelming majority of hospitals, laboratories, manufacturers, metals processors, and other facilities that generated appreciable quantities of hazardous materials in Washington paid $220 per ton in 2006.

But Emerald Kalama Chemical and 46 other very large generators of hazardous wastes—the 12 percent of firms that together produced more than 90 percent of hazardous wastes covered by the program—paid less than $16 per ton, on average. In fact, the large generators got a discount averaging 93 percent.

The cause of this inverted incentive scheme is that the Hazardous Waste Planning Fee is capped by law. No matter how much toxic waste a facility generated in 2006, for example, it could not pay more than $16,755.

The analysis recommended eliminating this cap so that all waste is taxed equally.

“Eliminating the cap would clean Washington’s air and water far more effectively than the current fee, because it would motivate waste prevention among bulk polluters,” said Durning. “It would also make the tax fair to the hundreds of small and mid-size firms who are already doing their part for a clean Washington by paying the regular fee.”

Durning said that revising the fee’s structure would also improve its fairness and effectiveness.

“The revised fee would help protect our health, protect our natural heritage, and make prices tell the truth,” said Durning.

Download a complete pdf of the analysis here.

September 5, 2007