Category Archives: Pollution and spills

No end in sight for dispute over pesticide injury to salmon

It has been 15 years since a federal judge ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service must consider whether pesticides increase the risk of extinction for Northwest salmon populations.

Chlorpyrifos

Since 2002, NMFS (also called NOAA Fisheries) has determined that some pesticides do indeed pose a significant risk to the ongoing existence of salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, after all these years, permanent protective measures have not been imposed by the EPA, which is responsible for regulating pesticide use.

One could argue that progress has been made in the face of litigation from environmental groups. The EPA has acknowledged its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, and the agency has adopted a new and evolving methodology for measuring the risk to listed species.

After its initial assessments were thrown out by the courts, NMFS has agreed to complete new biological opinions for five pesticides that pose some of the highest risks. Studies for chlorpyrifos, malathion and diazinon are scheduled to be done by the end of this year, followed by carbaryl and methomyl by the end of next year.

What we don’t know is whether President Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts and pledge to dismantle the EPA will slow or stop the process of protecting salmon. When it comes to pesticides, environmental activists will tell you that the Trump administration has already taken steps to undermine not only salmon but also human health.

For example, the insecticide chlorpyrifos was scheduled to be banned by the EPA after a new analysis found that its ongoing use on food crops could pose unsafe risks for people, especially young children whose brain development could be impaired.

In March, just before the ban was to go into effect, Trump’s new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed EPA’s course, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture disagrees with the methodology used by the EPA in developing the ban.

Environmental groups, which had already obtained a court order to force the EPA to reconsider its approval of the pesticide, were outraged. They filed yet another lawsuit, as described in a news release from Earthjustice.

“EPA’s stunning reversal on chlorpyrifos in the face of overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children signals yet another dereliction of duty under the Trump administration,” Kristin Schafer, policy director for Pesticide Action Network, said in the news release.

After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to force the EPA to take immediate action on chlorpyrifos, nine U.S. senators stepped in to draft legislation that would ban the chemical. See news release and video from Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and a separate statement from Earthjustice.

Chlorpyrifos is among numerous pesticides that can harm salmon directly and indirectly in a variety of ways, including destroying salmon’s ability to make their way upstream to spawn and killing off the insects they eat.

In its latest biological evaluation released in January, the EPA looked at more than 1,400 toxicity studies before concluding that chlorpyrifos in all its various uses could be expected to have an adverse effect on all threatened and endangered species throughout the U.S. — including killer whales in Puget Sound. Check out the news story by Adam Wernick, Living on Earth.

Of course, chemical manufacturers and farming groups — including apparently the USDA — are not easily convinced that certain pesticides are harmful. They want to go on selling and using these chemicals, as they have for many years. Consequently, they want the EPA to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a chemical is causing damage. But federal law actually requires that all chemicals on the market be proven safe, so any doubt should trigger a reduction of pesticide use or at least greater restrictions on their application.

It is easy to complain about the adequacy of any scientific study. In fact, a disputed difference in methodology between the EPA and NMFS led to a National Academy of Sciences Review, which eventually made suggestions for unifying the agencies’ different scientific approaches.

Through the years, one thing that I have found remarkable is that chemicals rarely appear to get safer with time. For most pesticides, more study raises more concerns, and when you mix pesticides together you never know what you’ll get.

In 2008, shortly after I started writing this blog, I reported on a study by Nat Scholz, a NOAA toxicologist in Seattle who has been studying the effects of chemicals on salmon and other species. This particular study examined mixtures of chlorpyrifos and four other pesticides.

The biggest surprise, Nat told reporter Erik Stokstad of Science magazine, was the strength of the synergistic punch from the pesticides diazinon and malathion. Together, the two chemicals killed all the salmon exposed to them. Even at the lowest concentration, fish were extremely sick.

“It was eye-opening,” Nat was quoted as saying. “We’re seeing relatively dramatic departures” from what happens with each pesticide by itself. See Water Ways, Feb. 19, 2008.

Such findings raise questions about the adequacy of all studies conducted on single pesticides. Pending final reports on pesticide effects on salmon, the courts have imposed 60-foot no-spray buffers along streams (300 feet for aerial spraying) to reduce chemical exposure to salmon and other species.

Nobody can say for sure if those buffers are adequate, but biological opinions from NOAA due out at this end of this year could shed new light on the problem. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers are hoping those court-mandated reports never see the light of day — and they are putting pressure on the Trump administration to slow down the process.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a lawyer for the three companies — Dow AgroSciences, ADAMA and FMC — called on the EPA to withdraw its biological evaluation, saying the analysis is flawed in several ways. The lawyer also wrote to other federal officials, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delay their biological opinions. According to the lawyer, the court-imposed deadlines are not legally binding.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker of Bloomberg BNA does a nice job describing various viewpoints surrounding this complicated issue. She also describes a close relationship between Dow and the Trump administration.

“The company donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee,” she wrote. “Trump appointed Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris to head the White House American Manufacturing Council.”

Dow spent more than $13.6 million on lobbying efforts last year, according to Michael Biesecker, environmental reporter for the Associated Press.

“When Trump signed an executive order in February mandating the creation of task forces at federal agencies to roll back government regulations, Dow’s chief executive was at Trump’s side,” Biesecker wrote.

“’Andrew, I would like to thank you for initially getting the group together and for the fantastic job you’ve done,’ Trump said as he signed the order during an Oval Office ceremony. The president then handed his pen to Liveris to keep as a souvenir,” according to the AP report.

Patti Goldman, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office, said Dow executives are doing everything they can to suppress the science surrounding chlorpyrifos and other pesticides — including hiring their own scientists to raise doubts and delay proposed bans for these toxic chemicals.

“We have a person (Pruitt) in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency who really doesn’t believe in the mission of the agency,” Patti told me.

Turmoil over pesticides has been heightened by the Trump administration just when the EPA and NMFS appeared to be coming together to resolve long-held conflicts over how to assess risk and reduce harm to salmon, she said.

Now, after 15 years of court battles, the end of the conflict appears far from over.

“I think we have had incremental progress, because we’ve gotten the agencies to look at this,” Patti said. “Some chemicals are no longer on the market, and some are on the market for only particular uses.”

While there is plenty of disagreement over whether controls on pesticide use are working, for now the no-spray buffers remain in place as a temporary protection.

Amusing Monday: Videos by students try to convince climate skeptics

“How do you convince a climate-change skeptic?” That’s the question posed to high-school film producers in a contest sponsored by the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

I find it interesting that the challenge to create a two-minute video does not include a reason that climate-change skeptics might need convincing. No doubt this was intentional, giving young filmmakers more leeway to be creative. It may result from a recognition that so-called skeptics are not all of one mind when it comes to talking about climate change.

In fact, I’ve observed varying points of view among people who disagree with widely held findings among climate scientists. Consider these types of skeptics:

  • First, there are some people who do not believe that the scientific method could ever produce meaningful answers about climate change.
  • Others accept the methods of science, but they believe the evidence actually shows that the climate is not warming and may even be cooling.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that the climate is warming, but they believe that this is a natural phenomenon and that human-produced greenhouse gases have nothing to do with it.
  • Some accept scientific evidence that climate is warming and that humans are having an effect, but they believe that climatologists have miscalculated the rate of warming.
  • Finally, there are those in the policy realm who admit that they don’t know what is causing climate change, but they believe that the costs of addressing the problem are too great or that government should not be involved.

So I was interested to see how high school filmmakers would address the skeptics of climate change. The winner, Tiamo Minard of Roosevelt High School, simply laid out the facts, as they are best known by climate scientists.

Second place went to a team from Lynwood High School, whose approach was highly personal, showing how people’s everyday actions contribute to climate change. The team included Saron Almaw, Hani Ghebrehiwet, Brittaney Hong, Kristen Nguyen and Jasmine Pel.

Third-place winner, Hazel Camer of Lynnwood High School, simply pounded home the fact that climate change is real and that the consequences for the human race could be severe. One man on the video pooh-poohed the notion that climate change is a liberal conspiracy. Then, surprisingly, the next person on the video is U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat who is not likely to convince many skeptics.

I found the winning videos entertaining and at times amusing, and I can’t argue with their arguments. But I doubt that they will convince any of the climate-skeptic types that I outlined above. This was truly a difficult challenge, yet one that seems worthwhile. Even professional media experts have trouble addressing this issue, although humor may be helpful. See, for example, the blog post, “Ontario employs humor in climate discussion,” Water Ways, May 15, or “‘Don’t fret,’ says new celebrity video for climate deniers,” Water Ways, Dec. 14, 2015.

Other finalists:

Judging the contest were Laura Jean Cronin, producer/director of award-winning short films currently involved with B47 studios in Seattle; Melanie Harrison Okoro, water quality specialist and the aquatic invasive species coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Region; Cody Permenter, social media manager for Grist, an online news magazine; and Ethan Steinman, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who owns Seattle-based production company Daltonic Films.

A report on last year’s contest can be found on Water Ways, June 27, 2016. It is great to see the work of local filmmakers, and I hope the contest continues.

Facing challenges that could save chinook salmon from extinction

Nineteen years ago this month, then-Governor Gary Locke made a bold declaration about salmon that would echo through time: “Extinction is not an option.”

Juvenile chinook salmon depend on high-quality habitat for their survival.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It was a call to action that would lead to major protection and restoration efforts throughout Puget Sound. Still, today, chinook salmon have not experienced a population rebound, as many people had hoped. The failure to thrive has been a disappointment to many, yet we are often reminded that it took 150 years to push salmon to the brink of extinction and it will not be easy to ensure their future.

Last week, concerns about the survival of chinook salmon prompted a coalition of Puget Sound tribes to propose a series of “bold actions,” as I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, later reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

“The way we are managing lands is not working,” stated salmon expert Dave Herrera, speaking for the tribes. “It may be working for people, but it is not working for fish.”

The bold actions, spelled out in a three-page proposal (PDF 380 kb), include greater controls on the use of land and water, among other things. I won’t describe the details, which you can read in the memo. The ideas were prompted by a new Chinook Salmon Implementation Strategy, designed to accelerate an increase in the Puget Sound chinook population.

The tribes complained that the proposed strategy, as drafted, mostly mimicked the 10-year-old Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan. That plan has made limited progress in restoring wild salmon runs, despite millions of dollars spent to protect and restore habitat while limiting fishing and controlling hatchery production.

In his speech of June 1998, Gov. Locke worried about the risk of extinction for these migratory fish, which are an economic asset as well as a celebrated symbol of the Northwest.

Former Gov. Gary Locke

“In several Puget Sound watersheds, our wild salmon have less than a decade to live, unless we act now,” Locke said in 1998. “And in many more rivers and streams, if the status quo continues, our wild salmon will be gone before my daughter Emily graduates from high school. So we just don’t have any time to waste. For better or for worse, we are about to make history.”

Locke’s speech was indeed historic, as he launched an unprecedented endeavor to rebuild salmon runs at great financial cost. The governor seemed to understand the challenge, as I noted at the time in my coverage of the speech before more than 100 county officials in Tacoma:

“Locke appears to be glancing over his shoulder, ready to duck for cover, as he talks about the financial and political commitments required to keep salmon from disappearing in various parts of the state,” I wrote.

“We need to wake up every morning ready to challenge the status quo,” Locke said, adding that basic changes are needed in the way businesses and average citizens use their land and water resources.

“There is a risk,” Locke said, “in just delivering that message, let alone acting on it.”

The following year, the Washington Legislature created the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to prioritize state and federal funding for salmon recovery. And the next governor, Chris Gregoire, ushered in an even greater ecosystem-recovery effort under guidance of the Puget Sound Partnership.

Wetlands are critical habitat for salmon.
Photo: Eric Grossman, U.S. Geological Survey

Today, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened without these salmon- and ecosystem-recovery efforts. Would the salmon be gone, as Locke predicted? It’s hard to say, but researchers have learned a great deal about what salmon need to survive, and the money is being better targeted toward those needs. As a result, it is understandable why some people are both disappointed with the past and hopeful for the future.

One of the great challenges facing public officials today is to find ways for local governments to truly live up to the standard of “no net loss” of ecological function — a standard required by the state’s Growth Management Act. When new developments affect “critical areas” — such as fish and wildlife habitat — they must include vegetated buffers and stormwater controls to minimize the damage. Then they must enhance degraded habitat — either on-site or off-site — to make up for losses that cannot be avoided.

I used to believe that this goal was unachievable, and I have questioned many state experts about it. How can any developer construct a commercial or residential development and walk away with no net loss of habitat function? The answer is to include a serious restoration component.

One example is the Hood Canal Coordinating Council’s In-Lieu Fee Program, which I wrote about last month in Water Ways (May 19). This program was started on a large scale to mitigate for construction at the Navy’s submarine base at Bangor, but it also works on a small scale, as I mentioned in that blog post.

When an older site is redeveloped, there may be no ecological loss, since the damage was done in the past. But when a developer builds in a new location, the local government is charged with measuring the loss, coming to terms for mitigation and making sure the mitigation is carried out. The concept of “no net loss” works only if the mitigation is permanent — another major challenge in many areas.

If no net loss can be achieved while major restoration efforts continue, we will see a net increase in salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region, and that will be a cause of celebration. One success has been in the program Floodplains by Design, which improves critical off-channel habitat for salmon while reducing flooding problems for nearby residents. Checkout the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound and the blog post in Water Ways, April 15.

Washington State Department of Commerce, which oversees the Growth Management Act, is in the process of updating its Critical Areas Assistance Handbook (PDF 6 mb), which serves as guidance for local regulations. New information about how to protect habitat for all life stages of salmon will be a key addition to a revised version, soon to be released for public review. See the CAO page on the Department of Commerce website.

Local governments in every part of the state must become part of the discussion if we expect them to carry out the mandate of protecting habitat for salmon. Money for planning and regulatory enforcement must be worked out. One idea I’ve heard is a regional approach that involves a group of compliance officials working to enforce the rules for multiple counties and cities.

No doubt the salmon-recovery effort must be improved. Challenges remain for issues including fishing, predation by marine mammals and climate change. But if the protection and restoration of salmon habitat can outpace unmitigated damage from development, we may be justified in believing that extinction is not an option.

Federal grant may help bring life to abandoned properties in Bremerton

Up to 14 abandoned buildings or otherwise underused properties in Bremerton will undergo pollution assessments with an eye toward ultimate restoration, thanks to $300,000 in federal “brownfields” funds.

The old K-Mart building in East Bremerton is one of many properties that might benefit from a new brownfields grant awarded to the city of Bremerton.
File photo: Meegan Reid, Kitsap Sun

The pollution assessments are considered a first step in restoring life to properties that have been neglected because of the high cost of investigating and cleaning up hazardous substances on the sites.

The city of Bremerton targeted four neighborhoods in its grant application, which has been given conditional approval by the Environmental Protection Agency. These are the specific areas with descriptions from the city’s application:

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Earth Day on Saturday includes old events plus new March for Science

With Earth Day falling on a Saturday this year, all sorts of environmental activities have been scheduled for this weekend. On top of your typical Earth Day activities, there will be a March for Science in Washington, D.C., as well as in Seattle and hundreds of other communities across the country.

It just seems like a great time to get out and do something. I’m hoping the weather cooperates. The National Weather Service predicts that warm weather tomorrow will give way to a low-pressure trough moving over Western Washington on Saturday. That weather system might be traveling slowly enough that the rains won’t appear until later in the day when most activities have been wrapped up in the Puget Sound region.

I should mention that Saturday also is the annual Kids Fishing Party in Gorst, which coincides with the opening of trout season. Sponsored by the Kitsap Poggie Club, the family-fun event allows youngsters to catch a fish at the fish-rearing facility at Otto Jarstad Park in Gorst. Fishing rods and bait are provided, and the Poggies will even clean the fish for cooking. For details, go to the Poggie Club’s website.

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Amusing Monday: World Water Day inspires photos and videos

World Water Day, coming up on Wednesday, is an annual event first established by the United Nations in 1992 to focus on the importance of freshwater and to encourage actions to provide clean drinking water while reducing water-borne illness around the world.

This year’s theme, waste water, was formulated into a question that creates a double meaning. It can be either “Why waste water?” or “Why wastewater?” The first question emphasizes the water-supply issues associated with World Water Day. The second emphasizes the closely related health aspects of sanitation. For a serious discussion of these two questions, listen to the talk on YouTube by Guy Ryder, director general of the International Labour Organization and chairman of UN-Water.

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New videos talk about protecting the ecosystem with tribal treaty rights

Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission this week released two new videos, including one that shows how tribes are using their treaty rights to protect the environment on behalf of all Northwest residents.

The video was released under the commission’s new communications banner, “Northwest Treaty Tribes: Protecting Natural Resources for Everyone.”

The video describes the Lummi Nation’s success in getting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham. If approved, the shipping terminal could have been the transfer point for up to 59 million tons of Montana coal each year. The coal would be transported by train to Cherry Point and onto ships bound for China and other Pacific Rim countries.

The Corps of Engineers halted the permitting process last May, saying the project was too big to be considered de minimis, and it would violate the tribe’s treaty rights to take fish in the usual and accustomed area. See news release.

The video does a nice job of explaining the tribe’s position and the ecological value of fish, including a Cherry Point herring population that has declined so severely that it can no longer support the food web as it once did. Also described well are the cultural values of the Cherry Point site and longtime fishing practices.

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After environmental restoration, quiet has returned to Port Gamble

Twenty-five years ago, I stood and watched as a screaming buzz saw tossed clouds of sawdust into the air while slicing through thick logs of Douglas fir at the Pope & Talbot sawmill in Port Gamble.

Last week, I walked across the vacant site of the old mill, which was torn down years ago. Along the edge of Port Gamble Bay, I could hear nothing but the sound of the wind and an occasional call of a seagull.

Linda Berry-Maraist, restoration manager for Pope Resources, describes the renewed shoreline along Port Gamble Bay. // Photo: Dunagan

I came back to the old mill site to see how things looked following completion of the $20-million-plus cleanup of Port Gamble Bay. Some 111,000 cubic yards of dredge material is now piled up in the middle of the site, an amount roughly equivalent to 10,000 dumptruck loads.

In addition, nearly 8,600 wooden pilings — most imbedded with creosote — were removed and shipped off for disposal, making it one of the largest piling-removal projects in state history. The final number of pilings removed far exceeded original estimates, largely because buried ones kept turning up during the removal work.

“It’s a huge relief to get this done,” said Jon Rose, vice president of Pope Resources who has overseen a decade of planning and cleanup. “It has been very hard on our staff, hard on the town, hard on our financial statements.

“I think we are on the right side of the mountain,” he added. “Look at how incredible the shore looks.”

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Hope is alive for restoration of Puget Sound shellfish beds

Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800 net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.

The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale populations by 2020.

In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories “Bringing the shellfish back” and “Closing in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

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