Friday, May 28, 2010

Gulf spill lessons: Understanding the cost surrounding oil spills is complex

By Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Spill Preparedness Section Manager, Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program

There’s been a lot of conversation in the news lately about who pays for oil spills. These articles are interesting and sometimes confusing to me because there are a lot of different ways to look at costs. For instance, these costs can include paying for:
  • The costs associated with the response, including cleanup.
  • The costs of the public agencies who are responding to the spill.
  • Public and / or private losses through claims.
  • Penalties for the spill.
  • Restoring the damage to the public’s natural resources at a level assessed by the government. These are known as natural resource damage assessments.
Spillers are legally obliged to pay for all cleanup costs but feds limit some liabilities.
The law is clear that a spiller must pay for all cleanup costs. However, the federal government limits the additional liability of a spiller for things like compensating the days lost for fishermen or restoring habitat. And for the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, we now know BP’s liability for damages is capped at $75 million dollars.

Liability for Washington spillers a different story

However, thanks to the foresight of the Washington Legislature more than 18 years ago, our state has unlimited liability for spillers. This allows Ecology to recover cleanup costs, natural resources damages, and the state’s spill response costs that go beyond the federal $75 million limit. Regulated vessels and oil-handling facilities also have to demonstrate they have the ability to pay for oil spill cleanup and damages. Now is the time for us to ask whether we have structured the levels of responsibility adequately and make improvements if need be.

A Deepwater Horizon-like spill would cost Washington State dearly

Several years ago, we conducted an economic study to try and determine how a major spill might impact Washington. Our study concluded that a significant spill would cost our economy $10.8 billion in economic losses and impact more than 165,000 jobs across the state economy. Puget Sound alone helps drive $20 billion of economic activities in Washington State. Economic losses from oil spills come from:

  • Lost port operating costs, business interest and wages.
  • Damages to marina income.
  • Shellfish and other fish kills and closures
  • Income loss and damages to our commercial fisheries.
  • Income lost due to the damage to our state and national parks.
  • Losses to recreational boating and fishing.
  • Wildlife viewing losses as well as upland game and waterfowl hunting losses.
  • Tourism losses.
And the $10.8 billion figure doesn’t include the spiller’s cost of public and private damage claims or the penalties Ecology would levy for the spill.

Assessing the cost of damage to natural resources

When a spill occurs, representatives from state, federal, and tribal governments perform a damage assessment to quantify the environmental harm and assess the spiller with the cost. This is intended to compensate the public and not be punitive on the spiller. It is not an exact science and can be very controversial. It’s tough because how can everyone agree on the value of geoduck, seals, salmon and seabirds? In Washington State, we’re fortunate because we created a simplified process used for the majority of spills (not a big one like the Deepwater Horizon). However, our process is a bit outdated and could be modernized. Another area for potential improvement.

What does it costs to respond?

I sometimes hear oil industry representatives say they estimate it costs somewhere in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 per gallon of oil spilled to clean up the environment. That cost varies depending on:
  • Type and quantity of oil spilled.
  • Location of the spill.
  • Time of year.
  • Kinds of natural resources damaged.
BP says it spent $350 million during the first 20 days of the Deepwater Horizon spill response – that’s about $17.5 million a day! In Puget Sound, we know that spilled oil quickly reaches our shorelines – unlike the scenario in the Gulf where oil took weeks. Shoreline cleanup costs and managing the waste that’s generated are some of the costliest aspects of a spill response. And it can actually be more costly per gallon spilled to clean up a small spill than a large one.

Understanding how much it costs to be prepared for spills

Here in Washington State, the oil industry is required to:
  • Train people so they know how to manage any spill response in partnership with government agencies like Ecology.
  • Develop oil spill readiness plans.
  • Purchase and maintain response equipment.
  • Conduct frequent preparedness drills that test and improve the plans.
Our study, which is several years old, estimated that Washington’s oil spill preparedness regulations cost Washington’s oil industry $6.8 million dollars a year. The majority of those costs are associated with the equipment they must maintain at various locations around the state. Ecology’s regulations have been in place for about 18 years. We calculate that industry’s investment in the state’s preparedness program was worth around $220 million. Investing wisely in preparedness helps to greatly reduce the costs to clean up a spill by getting equipment to the site faster, configured more efficiently and with people trained using pre-designed oil spill strategies.

Influencing the regulations

Yesterday, President Obama said this about the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, “What’s also been made clear from this disaster is that for years the oil and gas industry has leveraged such power that they have effectively been allowed to regulate themselves.”

He may have been referring to the permitting process for offshore oil rigs. But in my opinion, you can apply the same perspective to the federal rules about oil-spill preparedness. The federal planning standards set around the nation, including the Gulf, are inadequate. It’s fortunate that oil spill preparedness isn’t subject to being pre-empted by federal law and that the individual states are allowed to set higher standards. Spill impacts are local. Some may argue that our state’s standards should be raised – but I believe we can all be grateful that we can establish standards that are more specific to this area and not have to live with the blanket national standard. This is another area where we will be looking at possible improvements.

Sharing lessons learned from the Gulf

We intend to keep blogging about the lessons learned from the Gulf and how they apply here in Washington. You can send us an email if there is a topic you want to hear about.

River cleanup plan is historic pivot point

Jani Gilbert, Communication Manager, Eastern Region Office

On May 14, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed a letter that moves this community from talking about cleaning up the Spokane River and Lake Spokane to actually doing the work to clean them up.

The enormity of this accomplishment may not be apparent because of the differences of opinion on the best way to protect the health of the river. But at the Department of Ecology, we consider it great news that the EPA has approved the Spokane River/Lake Spokane Dissolved Oxygen Water Quality Improvement Report.

It’s an event worth celebrating in Spokane—great news for the Spokane area, for people who use the river, and for the fish who depend on it.

The EPA signed the letter to formally approve the report, which is often referred to as the total maximum daily load (TMDL) report.

This report, 12 years in the making, requires a reduction in phosphorus pollution from industrial and municipal pipes by approximately 87,000 pounds of phosphorus a year—a 90 percent reduction.

What this means is a gigantic reduction in algae and other aquatic plants that use up the oxygen that fish need to survive. It means not slipping on rocks covered in slimy green algae and getting rid of toxic blue-green algae that threatens swimmers and household pets and wildlife each summer.

It means cleaner, clearer healthier water.

Due to the sensitivity of the Spokane River system, the phosphorous limits for industrial and municipal discharges are among the most stringent in the country.

It's not going to be easy, but the municipalities and industries that discharge waste water into the Spokane River will have help all along the way from the Department of Ecology as we implement the requirements of the plan together through the next decade.

The result? Spokane will have truly earned its tag line of "Near Nature, Near Perfect."

Students soak up groundwater lessons at Salmon Summit in Kennewick

By Erika Holmes and Ginger Wireman, Community Outreach & Environmental Education Specialists, Nuclear Waste Program

On May 4 and 5, about 4,000 students from schools in Benton and Franklin counties flocked to the east end of Columbia Park in Kennewick. They were there to release the salmon they'd raised into the Columbia River as part of the Salmon in the Classroom program and to attend Salmon Summit. Each of the mostly fourth- and fifth-grade classes visited eight learning stations during their visit. There were 80 stations focusing on water, salmon, and other environmental science topics.

One station featured Community Outreach and Environmental Education Specialists Ginger Wireman and Erika Holmes from Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program, one of the regulators of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup. They shared presentations with roughly 400 students and 30 chaperones and teachers. Wireman has presented at Salmon Summit for 10 years both with Ecology and as a Washington State University Water Resources Specialist. Holmes’ experience includes pairing Eastern Washington University college students with a local conservation group to create outreach materials about endangered species in Washington.

“The students, teachers, and chaperones were all a pleasure to work with, and they asked a lot of great questions,” Holmes said. “I hope to work with many more by increasing Ecology’s presence in schools throughout the area.”
Modeling cleanup methods
Watching a Hanford-specific groundwater model in action, students saw how plumes of groundwater contamination look, how they occur at Hanford, and how techniques like pump and treat, apatite sequestration, and biostimulation have helped to reduce the 80 square miles of groundwater contaminated above federal and state drinking water standards.

Not just nuclear waste
The Benton and Franklin Conservation Districts — sponsors of local Salmon in the Classroom programs — searched the region for presenters to cover all the stations. Professionals came from as far away as Spokane, including Ecology's own Brook Beeler and Kendra Robinson-Harding who presented on water quality and air quality.

Wireman attended the Summit as a chaperone with her daughter's fifth-grade class the second day. “I've known many of the people in the environmental education community for years. It was nice to finally get to see all these amazing 'non-formal' educators in action.”

Want more?
Sign up your class for free classroom outreach by contacting Ginger Wireman (372-7935), and don’t miss our web pages made just for kids. More photos of the event are available from the Tri-City Herald and Pasco School District.

Air Time: Enjoy holiday safe from wildfire, harmful smoke

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

It looks like the weather will be decent enough this weekend for folks to get outdoors for the Memorial Day holiday.

For the most part, that’s great news. But camping and other outdoor activities often mean lighting campfires and using fire to clear property. The fires can easily spread out of control, damage property and the environment and threaten human health.

Ecology and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are working together to reduce the number of wildfires in the state and to prevent health problems caused by breathing smoke.

This smoke contains some of the same chemicals that are present in cigarette smoke. And like cigarette smoke, breathing in the tiny, toxic particles in smoke from outdoor burning can cause serious health problems like asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and lung cancer.

DNR offers tips on how to prevent wildfires.

Beyond that, our agencies are working to round up burn barrels, which are illegal statewide. We’re organizing events in several counties where people can bring in their burn barrels and exchange them for free compost bins. A federal grant from the Bureau of Land Management for wildfire prevention is making this project possible.

As we firm up event details, we will post them on Ecology’s Alternatives To Burning website.

Have a great holiday!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gulf spill lessons: Laud EPA for dispersant decision

By Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Spill Preparedness Section Manager, Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program

We all should thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for showing leadership on the chemical dispersant controversy in the Gulf. As manager for Ecology’s oil spill preparedness program, I have learned a lot from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response and their experience with dispersants.

More than 700,000 gallons of dispersants applied

The EPA regulates the approval of these products. More than 715,000 gallons of dispersants have been used so far in the Gulf – including 85,000 gallons that was applied underwater. Last week, EPA required British Petroleum (BP) to identify and use a less toxic, more effective product on the spill.

Less toxic, more effective dispersants needed

The Gulf brand, Corexit EC9500A, is on the EPA’s list of approved products but apparently has been banned in Great Britain for decades due to a limited toxicity test that produced negative results. The testing criteria in the United States are different than Britain’s.

This is something that should be looked at once the response is done. There may not be sufficient quantities of other, less toxic dispersants available in the quantities needed for this incident. However, BP should have been searching for that from the start.

Short- and long-term environmental impacts unknown

Dispersants are used to break up the oil and move it from the water’s surface down into the water column. The oil will more quickly dilute in the water. Dispersants and the dispersed particles are toxic. The decision to use dispersants is a trade off – removing oil from the surface and avoiding shoreline impacts – with the increased exposure to plankton or other water column organisms. The Deepwater Horizon underwater application is a new technique, the short and long term impacts are truly unknown.

BP, other companies reluctant to release information about toxicity

Because the chemical formula is proprietary, BP and other companies are reluctant to publicize the chemical composition to help address the question of toxicity. It’s a bad thing that BP initially refused to comply with the EPA’s directive. There was simply no call for it.

Washington State’s Corexit sent to aid Gulf spill response

Corexit is the same brand of dispersant we stored here in Washington before it was shipped to the Gulf to aid the response there. Our local cache was an earlier version of the product (Corexit 9527) which had a different chemical formula.

Valid answers – or maybe not

The Deepwater Horizon response is sure to answer a lot of questions about dispersants that have gone unanswered for years. However, because Washington’s waters are so different, including being much colder, the answers may not all directly apply here.

Dispersants have limited use here

In Washington, there are areas off the coast where dispersant use has been pre-approved, and in the deepest areas of Puget Sound there are areas with conditional approval – which means the decision will be made during the spill. All other areas in Washington have been disapproved for its use. We have never had to use dispersants on spill here yet.

Sharing lessons learned from the Gulf

We intend to keep blogging about the lessons learned from the Gulf and how they apply here in Washington. You can send us an email if there is a topic you want to hear about.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Be the wave in your local shoreline master program

By Cedar Bouta, planner and communications specialist, Ecology Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program

There are 28,000 miles of shoreline in our state – equal to flying around the globe. That means there’s about 22 linear feet of shoreline for every man, woman, and child living in Washington.

Where’s your favorite piece of beach, stretch of rock and water?

What do you want it to look like 5, 10, 50 years from now?

As a Washington native born on the shores of the Columbia River, I feel a strong draw to all shorelines – the place where land and water meet. There’s magic in shorelines where children fly kites and fishermen cast flies, where snow-fed rivers rise and fall, and waves move mountains of sand.

I also feel a kinship with others who care about Washington’s shorelines. On a recent trip to a Tacoma waterfront park, I saw seniors strolling, families picnicking, dogs swimming, sailboats cruising, barges moving goods, and restaurants serving local seafood.

There were hundreds of people (and dogs!) enjoying access to our public shoreline. A month ago, I visited a coworker who lives on a local lake. We took in the view and birds from their waterfront property.

Right now, more than 250 towns, cities and counties are making decisions that will affect your future relationship to shorelines. They are updating local Shoreline Master Programs and deciding where parks and marinas, waterfront homes, and fishing spots will be.

They are answering tough questions:
  • How do we allow development and protect our resource-based economy?

  • How do we protect both the public’s right to access their waters and shorelines, and protect private property rights?

  • How do we plan for our needs, without compromising our children’s future?
These tough questions will take all Washingtonians to answer them. That’s why Ecology requires local governments that are updating Shoreline Master Programs to create a public participation plan and engage “all interested parties.”

Most cities and counties are providing ample options to be heard – citizen advisory groups, surveys, focus groups, public meetings, reviewing and commenting on technical and policy documents. If you care about shorelines, contact your city or county planning office and share your point of view about shorelines.

The future is listening. Learn more about getting involved in charting the future of Washington’s shorelines.

Air Time: Governor supports President's call for more pollution cuts for vehicles

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Gov. Chris Gregoire just released a statement lauding President Obama’s call to expand auto emission standards for cars and trucks, and develop new standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

She praises the President’s “bold step” and points out that Washington has been at the forefront of the states pressing for tougher standards.
(Read the entire statement).

In other air quality news:
  • Ecology and EPA have come up with a solution to an obstacle that was blocking Longview Fibre’s request for a variance to its permit for operating a furnace at its Longview plant.

    Here’s an Ecology news release about the public comment period for the request.

    Longview Fibre asked Ecology for permission to operate a furnace above current limits for one year while promising to keep emissions at or below permitted levels. The furnace generates steam for the mill.

    Longview Fibre would temporarily shut down an older, less-efficient furnace and reduce overall sulfur emissions. The mill also could measure the effectiveness of its pollution control technology on the furnace that would be operating at higher output.

    While state rules allow Ecology to grant such a variance, the authority delegation agreement between the EPA and Ecology doesn’t. We’ve worked it out.

  • Our friends at DNR offer tips on how to prevent wildfires if you take to the outdoors for the coming Memorial Day weekend.

    We’re working with DNR to protect property and human health from wildfires. Fine particles in smoke from wildfires pose risks to people who breathe them.

  • Here’s a new look at an old idea – burning garbage to produce power.

Western Climate Initiative meets in Seattle; three regional groups announce carbon offset framework

by Janice Adair, special assistant on Climate policy

Washington welcomed its Western Climate Initiative partners to the state this week as the group held a two-day meeting in Seattle. Gov. Chris Gregoire, who helped found the WCI, met with us this morning.

If you haven’t followed the WCI closely, it’s a coalition of state and provincial governments concerned about greenhouse gas emission and climate change and taking actions at the regional level.

It’s one of three regional initiatives that have formed in North America. The others are the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (the Accord).

Reducing emissions is good for the economy

Government policies that require greenhouse gas reductions have multiple benefits. They help create jobs, improve efficiencies so we spend less on energy, and reduce the impacts of climate change.

Clean energy will drive the new “innovation” economy. The rewards will go to states, nations and businesses that face the realities, and seize the job-creating opportunities, of living and working in a carbon-constrained world.

But we haven’t had a clear federal framework in place, so regional groups like ours are stepping up to take the lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and positioning states and provinces for the economy of the future – and the jobs that will come with it.

Leading the change

On May 19, 2010, the three regional initiatives released a paper describing a jointly designed framework for making work a key component of a carbon market.

In a carbon market, large emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) need a permit for every ton of greenhouse gases they emit. If they emit less than the number of permits – called allowances – they have, they can sell those extra allowances to others who need them. That provides an incentive to industries and utilities to emit less. If they need more allowances than they have, they can buy reductions made by companies that aren’t part of the carbon market. These are called “offsets.”

Most people know “offsets” as a way to make their airplane trips or electricity “carbon neutral” because they buy offset credits to match the GHG emissions associated with those actions. But this kind of voluntary offset isn’t good enough for a regulatory program. And, there are serious questions about the real value of those offset credits. Reliable, high-quality offsets are necessary for companies that need them to take the place of an emission allowance and ensure that money is being well spent.

By agreeing on standards for offsets, the regional initiatives’ work delivers a “guidepost” for the criteria to use in developing high quality offsets. Or as RGGI board chair David Littell has said, “By making offset definitions and criteria uniform, and by potentially accepting offsets issued by other jurisdictions, we will enhance the market for offsets.”

It’s also a blueprint for Congress as it continues to tackle federal climate change legislation.

Taking it national

What’s really exciting as WCI participant is seeing how quickly the three regional initiatives have come to agreement. The three groups started this project just six months ago.

While there are many questions that still must be answered, it’s clear that when people roll up their sleeves to collaborate, it can be done. There is at least one offset project here in Washington, and we hope to have more. And we are working with congressional staff and federal agencies so this model can serve as a framework for a strong national program in the U.S. and Canada.

Even though Congress is once again working on climate change legislation, we’re continuing our work, continuing to lead. We’re moving closer to designing a system that could be implemented across 23 states and four Canadian provinces. That accounts for nearly ½ of the U. S. population and ¾ of the Canadian population and significant portions of both countries’ greenhouse gas emissions.

“By collaborating on this issue, we’re moving close to uniformity across the three regional programs,” said Accord member Doug Scott.

He’s right: With or without national legislation, our uniform approach will have major national impact.

What it means

Q: What’s a carbon offset?
A: Offsets are reductions in greenhouse gases that happen outside of the industries that are required to have permits (or allowances) to emit those gases.

Q: What are the key features in the three-region blueprint for designing an offset program?
A: The three regional climate groups agree that reductions achieved through offset projects must be real, must add value, must be verifiable, must be permanent rather than short-term, and must be enforceable.

Uniform standards gives purchasers of offset great confidence in the value of the offset, and suppliers will find it easier to meet a consistent set of standards.

Q: What makes this multi-region consensus document a big deal?
A: Together, these 3 regional cooperatives represent 23 states, four Canadian provinces, half the U.S. population and three-quarters of the Canadian population. This blueprint is a milestone and it’s a first. Regional leaders in the three North American cooperatives believe this is a good model for Congress to consider when establishing a nationwide offset program as part of comprehensive climate and energy legislation.

Q: What’s in it for businesses and other employers?
A: Offsets reduce the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions because sometimes, these reductions are cheaper or faster to achieve than others. It also allows companies that aren’t part of the carbon market to participate, making it more liquid.

Q: What’s in it for consumers and the public?
A: Offset projects can create jobs. And, we all benefit if utilities, manufacturers, and others can minimize costs while maximizing their reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Around the Sound: Wrapping up the week

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

Ecology staff responded this week to a diesel fuel spill from an old naval vessel in Port Gamble Bay.

Here’s a Kitsap Sun story on the incident, along with a KING-TV report. And here is our original news release.

Here are two stories about some interesting projects that have ties to the Sound:

  • The Seattle Times reports that the National Park Service is giving a boost to the effort to build an education wall as part of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American memorial project.

    Here’s more about the memorial, which is on the island’s Eagle Harbor. Both it and the Wyckoff cleanup site are within the boundaries of the city’s Pritchard Park.

    See past Around the Sound entries about Ecology’s work focusing on cleaning up the Wyckoff site.

  • The Peninsula Daily News writes about a study that will help map the original shoreline of Port Angeles.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Around the Sound: Gulf disaster resonates here, plus other items

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

As the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico plays out, we continue to see its echoes in the Puget Sound region.

The News Tribune in Tacoma reports how the damage to Gulf seafood resources may mean a boost for Washington-based shellfish producers.

The Seattle Times has this opinion piece about the slow-moving spill of contaminants into the Sound. It’s written by state Sen. Kevin Ranker and David Dicks, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Keep up to date on what the state is doing to support the Gulf response .

In other Sound happenings:
  • BEACHES: Ecology and the state Department of Health are asking Washington residents to sound off on their ideas for the state’s most popular saltwater beaches. The agencies want to know so they can test the water at those beaches for pollution-caused bacteria that can make people sick.

  • BOATING: We're your resource for clean, green boating practices. Lots of useful information here, including a rundown on the Green Boating Festival on Saturday (May 22) in Tacoma.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Public input = improved mosquito control permit

Mosquito season is here and Washington is prepared to protect public health and the environment while also controlling both nuisance and disease-carrying mosquitoes. Our tool is the mosquito control permit. We thank all of you who took time to give us your opinions and comments about this permit. We considered all of your input, and we believe we’ve developed a permit that is workable for mosquito control districts. It shows that the public process is alive and well, helping government improve the way it works. The state is better off for your involvement. Please stay involved. We benefit from your advice.

You can read more about the permit here.

Air Time: Cooperative projects protect your air

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

Members of Ecology’s Air Quality Program work hard to use public dollars to help clean the air you breathe. Here are a couple of examples:

Wildfires and air pollution

Last weekend, Ecology and DNR sponsored the first of several events through our joint effort to reduce dangers from wildfires and air pollution caused by smoke.

On May 15, our agencies and Kittitas County’s solid waste department teamed up to exchange free compost bins for burn barrels. County residents could bring their barrels (which are illegal statewide) to a county landfill and leave with a compost bin.

We ended up collecting 31 burn barrels. Not a bad haul, and one that represents progress in limiting improper burning. Such burning literally can spark wildfires, which threaten people, property, wildlife and the environment. Fine particles in smoke from such fires also pose risks to people who breathe them.

The project is funded by a federal Bureau of Land Management grant.

Last year, DNR and Ecology used a similar grant to sponsor four events – two each in Stevens and Okanogan counties. We collected a total of about 200 burn barrels, which were destroyed.

Now we’re working to schedule more events in several locations around the state. Stay tuned for new event details.

Diesel exhaust emissions and school buses

We’re also working with a number of Washington school districts to continue work to reduce harmful diesel exhaust emissions from school buses.

In Washington, diesel exhaust is the air pollutant most harmful to public health. Breathing tiny, toxic particles in diesel exhaust puts healthy people at risk for respiratory disease and worsens health problems such as asthma and heart and lung disease. Children, who can be exposed to diesel fumes from idling school bus engines, are especially vulnerable. Pound-for-pound, children breathe more air than adults.

Last week, we announced that several districts are eligible for grants to add new, better pollution controls on buses. We’re using money from EPA to fund the work.

This week, we determined that the Manson School District in Chelan County also is eligible for grant money to retrofit an estimated three buses.

This is just the latest round of work, which began in 2003. Since then, the state has invested about $36.7 million to install pollution controls on about 7,700 publicly owned vehicles, including 6,000 school buses. Depending on the type of controls and the vehicle, diesel emissions can be cut by 40 to 90 percent.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Around the Sound: End-of-week news and notes

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

Let’s end the week with a few news and notes about Puget Sound:
  • First, here’s a piece from KPLU on local fishermen commenting on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. You can read it, plus listen to the audio of Liam Moriarty’s report. (In case you’re interested, you can mind more of Moriarty’s reporting.)

  • You can track what Washington state is doing to help respond to the Gulf spill.

  • Here’s a piece from the Seattle PostGlobe website on a cruise line deciding to stop dumping wastewater into Seattle’s Elliott Bay. Good news.

  • You can follow the Puget Sound work being done by Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program. Watch for some upcoming announcements on more projects aimed at cleaning up and protecting the Sound.

  • And if you’re looking to have some fun on the Sound’s waters this weekend, you can head to the Anacortes Waterfront Festival.

Fecal Matters: Which Saltwater Beaches Should the Washington Beach Program Monitor for Fecal Bacteria?

Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. Jess Archer photo.

Welcome to the new Fecal Matters blog for the Washington BEACH Program! We monitor saltwater swimming beaches during the summer for fecal bacteria. While most people don’t spend much time talking about fecal bacteria, we can’t seem to stop (much to the dismay of our dinner dates!). If you want to join in on the discussion, keep tabs on the Fecal Matters Blog for BEACH.

Summer is coming!

Across Western Washington, the BEACH Program is preparing for the summer swimming season. We’ve been working with local health agencies, volunteer organizations, and others to choose beaches for monitoring that are high risk for fecal contamination — while making the most of our budget. This is a tough budget year for us — we monitored 75 beaches last year, yet we’ll only be able to cover 55 this year. These weren’t all easy decisions. Take a look at our DRAFT list.

We choose our beaches based on the number of users and the potential that the beach could become contaminated with fecal bacteria.

Why aren’t we monitoring freshwater beaches?

We always get this question. There’s no doubt that most of the swimming and water contact activities in Washington take place in lakes and rivers. However, our program is funded entirely by the U.S. Environmental Protection BEACH Act grant. The grant requires that all funding be spent on saltwater beaches. Though we can’t monitor freshwater beaches we do provide info to help you find out if a freshwater beach is safe for swimming.

About our proposed list of beaches to monitor this year: Here’s the thinking on some of this year’s changes, which we made while selecting the proposed list for 2010:

Mason County changes: We dropped Belfair State Park. We monitored this beach last year thinking that it would be hugely popular. The shoreline has changed so dramatically that most of the activity is in the stream instead of in the saltwater.

King County changes: These were really tough decisions. We dropped Seacrest Beach for several reasons: results have been low over the years; and we want to monitor beaches across King County rather than focusing on Seattle.

Kitsap County changes: We dropped Lions Field. It will be closed this year for renovation so it seems wise to save money by dropping a beach that folks can’t access. We’ll pick it up again next year.

Pierce County changes: We added Chambers Creek. This is a new beach that will open late in the summer and is expected to be really popular. We want to get fecal bacteria samples before the beach is open to make sure it’s clean and continue collecting samples once the crowds show up.

Skagit County changes: We actually dropped Skagit County completely. We had to drop 20 beaches altogether so this wasn’t an easy choice. Luckily, the Skagit County Beach Watchers got funding to monitor Samish Island DNR Beach. We will help them prepare for the season and manage the data.

Snohomish County changes: We dropped Marina Beach Dog Park. This beach has been closed for several years. Despite huge cleanup efforts by dog owners that use the park, there’s always visible dog waste at the beach and the samples reflect that. It seems like a poor use of our small budget to monitor a beach that is permanently closed for swimming. What do we do when we find high results? The beach is already closed. We will continue to monitor the neighboring park that is popular with kids.

We would love your feedback on Fecal Matters! Contact us and let us know!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Appeals court upholds Whatcom County shoreline master program

By Gordon White, manager, Ecology Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program

We got some important news this week that we hope will help towns, cities and counties across the state that are updating their shoreline master programs.

In a decision (PDF 103.34 KB) issued Monday, May 10, a state Court of Appeals ruled in support of Whatcom County’s segment of our statewide shoreline master program.

The legal decision says a law that limits local governments’ ability to impose certain development restrictions doesn’t apply to shoreline master programs because the shoreline program ultimately is a state product.

It’s important to remember that our Shoreline Management Act was adopted by voters of the state.

This decision should be a confidence builder for county officials as they continue to administer their locally-tailored shoreline regulations. We also hope the decision will allow other jurisdictions that are still involved in updating their shoreline policies and regulations to feel confident in using the years of collaboration and hard work already done in Whatcom County as a template for their own work.

For a little background: When Ecology approved the Whatcom County shoreline master program in August 2008, it was the first county update in the state under new requirements put in place in 2003. It was a landmark effort that significantly increases protection for Puget Sound, protects the rights of shoreline property owners, provides opportunities for public access to local shorelines, and protects all citizens’ public resources.

We were proud to report: “The new master program combines planning policies and implementation strategies, based on scientific data that establishes an ecological baseline of the county’s nearly 400 miles of marine and freshwater shorelines, and the upland areas that affect them. It is the result of five years of collaboration and hard work among groups representing state agencies, builders, farmers, tribes, local governments, and environmental groups.” (Read the whole news release.)

Since it was the first countywide program update, we aren’t surprised that it’s been tested by different groups at the local government level, as well as in court.

In this latest case, a community group called Citizens for Rational Shoreline Planning and the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, which intervened on behalf of the citizens’ group, sued Whatcom County. They argued the buffers and building restrictions were the equivalent of taxes or fees by local government, something that’s prohibited under state law (RCW 82.02.020). Ecology intervened on the county’s behalf.

Skagit County Superior Court ruled that because Ecology is involved in every step of the process — including development, review and approval of the shoreline master program — the prohibitions in the law don’t apply. And when we approved Whatcom County’s segment of the shoreline master program, the state became a legal partner with the county.

When the citizens’ group appealed, the state appeals court affirmed the trial court decision, agreeing that the master program process is so driven by the state’s “pervasive involvement” that there are no circumstance under which that statute, RCW 82.02.020, applies to master programs.

The citizens’ group has the option to pursue an appeal at the state Supreme Court.

Shoreline master programs not only help us protect the ecology and beauty that draws us to the water’s edge, and to the Pacific Northwest, they protect our citizens’ rights to enjoy and use their shorelines, so we are glad for our citizens that the appeals court found in our favor.

More information:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Around the Sound: Unannounced exercise tests local spill response readiness

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Toxics Cleanup Program

As the horrific environmental disaster plays out in the Gulf of Mexico, Ecology on Monday (May 10) used a surprise exercise to test local responders around Puget Sound.

The point was to make sure our oil spill readiness hasn’t been compromised by the deployment of about 25 experienced private contract responders to the Gulf. During their absence, responders from other companies are backfilling these positions at our refineries, oil-handling facilities, and maritime industry.

They need to be able “to mount a rapid, aggressive and well-coordinated response if an oil spill happened in our waters today,” said Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology’s Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response Program.

Activities took place in Sound waters near Anacortes, Bellingham, Neah Bay, Port Angeles, Seattle, and Tacoma.

Here’s some of the media coverage of the drill:

The recent fuel spill at Dash Point State Park illustrates why we must be vigilant to protect our local waters.

Ecology also doing other activities to keep pollution out of the Sound. One way is to provide money to make needed improvements to water systems, sewer plants and more.

Right now, we’re encouraging the public to comment on the list of clean water projects to receive loans and grants worth a combined $108 million in 2011.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Air Time: We're not blowing smoke about dangers of breathing wood smoke

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

This is Air Quality Awareness Week throughout the nation, so in recognition of that, Ecology’s Air Quality Program is offering a look this week at some key Washington air issues.

Ecology and local clean air agencies are taking a number of steps to deal with wood smoke, one of the main sources of air pollution in Washington.

Wood stoves, fireplaces and other wood-burning devices put out hundreds of times more air pollution than other sources of heat such as natural gas or electricity.

The most dangerous material in wood smoke may be the fine particles that make up the smoke and soot. Many of these particles are toxic. Most are so small that they are easily breathed deep into your lungs, where they can cause serious health problems.

Studies show that death rates in several U.S. cities increased when there were higher levels of fine particles in the air. An Ecology analysis estimates that fine particles contribute to about 1,100 deaths each year in Washington.

The same analysis estimates that the direct and indirect costs of illnesses linked to breathing fine particles approach $190 million each year.

Wood smoke is most dangerous to the health of infants and children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with lung or heart disease.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Air Time: Idling engines contribute to health risks

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

This is Air Quality Awareness Week throughout the nation, so in recognition of that, Ecology’s Air Quality Program is offering a look this week at some key Washington air issues.

When we’re driving, we often idle our vehicle engines. We do it while waiting at stop lights; sitting in lines caused by road work; at drive-through restaurants and coffee stands; at schools while picking up or dropping off our children, and so on.

It’s a routine – a harmful one that hurts air quality and people who breathe in toxic fumes from idling vehicle engines. Stopping unnecessary vehicle idling is one relatively easy way to help improve air quality and respiratory health in our communities.

Here’s an example of someone in Portland taking on the problem. And air quality agencies in the Northwest offer a do-it-yourself kit on putting together an anti-idling effort.

A lot of work has gone in to trying to target idling of engines that burn diesel fuel. That’s because Ecology has identified diesel exhaust as the air pollutant most harmful to public health in Washington.

Seventy percent of the cancer risk from airborne pollutants is from diesel exhaust. It puts healthy people at risk for respiratory disease and worsens the symptoms of people with health problems such as asthma, heart disease and lung disease.

For the past several years, Ecology and local clean air agencies have worked with school districts to provide money to upgrade pollution controls on diesel-burning school buses. Children can be easily exposed to fumes from the buses at schools.

Similar efforts nationally, regionally and here in Washington focus on emissions from idling trains, large trucks, cargo-handling equipment at Washington seaports, and ships.

Obviously, air pollution caused by idling engines is a national issue. But each one of us can do our part to make sure that we help address the problem.

Next up: When it comes to health risks posed by air pollutants, wood smoke ranks near the top in Washington.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Air Time: Swapping free compost bins for illegal burn barrels

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

This is national Air Quality Awareness Week, so in recognition of that, Ecology’s Air Quality Program is offering a look this week at some key Washington air issues.

As luck would have it, this also is national Wildfire Awareness Week. This week signals the start of a joint effort involving the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Ecology. During the next few months, the agencies will work together to reduce the number of wildfires in the state and to prevent health problems caused by breathing smoke.

Outdoor residential burning of yard waste, which is illegal in most parts of Washington, is a leading cause of wildfire ignitions across the state. Such burning includes the use of burn barrels, which is illegal statewide.

DNR and Ecology will exchange free composting bins for burn barrels during upcoming events in several counties. A federal grant from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for wildfire prevention is making this project possible.

We’re in the process of arranging the events. As details are firmed up, they will be posted here on Ecology’s website.

Please note that this exchange offer is only available for residents of the counties in which the events are held. So, if you live in County X, you can’t take your burn barrel to an event in County Y and exchange it for a free compost bin.

Similar exchanges held last year in Stevens and Okanogan counties brought in a total of about 200 barrels. The barrels were destroyed.

Breathing smoke from burning yard waste can cause serious health problems, such as asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and lung cancer – even in generally healthy people.

Children, the elderly and people with breathing problems are most at risk from breathing smoke from burning leaves, grass, brush, and tree needles.

Homeowners can compost or chip yard waste to use for landscaping and other purposes. Here’s information on what you can do with yard waste.

Next up: Idling engines have a big impact on air quality.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Air Time: Cars at center of several air quality concerns

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

This is national Air Quality Awareness Week, so in recognition of that, Ecology’s Air Quality Program is offering a look this week at some key Washington air issues.


Many of us love driving our cars or at least see them as a valuable tool for everyday living. But motor vehicles also are a major source of air pollution.

At Ecology, we’re working on a number of air quality issues linked to automobiles. Here are some:
  • Emissions testing is required in specific areas around the state. This reduces air pollution by identifying the most polluting vehicles and requiring proper repairs.
  • Dealers must sell “clean cars” in Washington to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
  • If you drive, you can save money and reduce pollution by properly maintaining your vehicle’s engine.
  • We’re exploring the possible use of low-carbon fuels.

In addition, the Washington State Department of Transportation is working on air quality issues – check out what WSDOT is doing.

Next up: Ecology and DNR are teaming up on an innovative project that reduces dangers from wildfires and smoke pollution.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Air Time: Focus this week on air quality issues

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

This is national Air Quality Awareness Week. So in recognition of that, Ecology’s Air Quality Program is offering a look this week at some key Washington air issues.

Outdoor Burning

Let’s start with outdoor burning (also called “backyard burning” and “residential burning”). When we talk about outdoor burning, we mean burning of yard waste, such as leaves, grass, brush and other yard trimmings; and burning to clear land of trees, stumps, shrubbery, or other natural vegetation.

Ecology regulates all types of outdoor burning except forest burning, which is regulated by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Outdoor burning is illegal in most parts of the state. See more information on outdoor burning.

You might say, “What’s so bad about burning my yard waste? Haven’t people been doing that for years?”

Yes, they have. You could look at burning yard waste as a habit – one that’s similar to smoking cigarettes.

That’s not too much of a stretch. Smoke from burning yard waste contains some of the same chemicals that are present in cigarette smoke. And like cigarette smoke, breathing in the tiny, toxic particles in smoke from outdoor burning can cause serious health problems like asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, and lung cancer.

You can read an Ecology study that details how particles from smoke and other sources contribute to health problems and health-care costs in Washington.

Yard Waste

We encourage people to put their yard waste to productive use instead of burning it. You can chip it or compost it, and then use those materials around your property in a variety of ways.

Learn more about what to do with yard waste - this page includes a clickable map of the state that lists county-by-county alternatives.


By the way, outdoor burning also can trigger uncontrolled wildfires … and it just so happens that this is also Wildfire Awareness Week! (It’s also School Nutrition Employee Week, National Wanna Play Music Week, State of Nevada Employee Appreciation Week, and many other things. But I digress.)

Watch for a blog post in a few days about a joint Ecology-DNR project that aims to reduce dangers from wildfires and smoke pollution.

Next up: How properly maintaining your car saves money and reduces air pollution.