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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Water quality is defined by its effect on sea life

Friday, April 11th, 2014

We just completed another group of stories in the ongoing series we’re calling “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” This latest story package is about marine water quality and marine sediments. (The stories themselves require a subscription.)

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

Noctiluca, a type of plankton that could disrupt the food web, has grown more prevalent in recent years.
Photo by Christopher Krembs, Eyes Over Puget Sound

For all my years of environmental reporting, I have to say that I’ve never really understood the meaning of water quality. Keeping the water free of chemicals and fecal bacteria is one thing. Safe levels of oxygen, temperature, acidity and suspended sediment are other important factors.

But in the real world, you never find ideal conditions. You take what you get: physical conditions dictated by weather, climate and bathymetry; a strange brew of toxic chemicals; and a mix of nutrients and organic material, all drifting through complex cycles of life and death.

Water quality means nothing without the context of living things. More than 1,000 species of tiny organisms live in or on the mud at the bottom of Puget Sound. In many areas, sensitive species have disappeared. We are left with those that can tolerate harsher conditions. Why are they dying off? What can be done about it?

Some plankton species are becoming more dominant, and the effects on the food web are unknown. When water quality is poor, Jellyfish are displacing forage fish, disrupting the food supply for larger fish.

We know that toxic chemicals are spilling into Puget Sound in stormwater and getting into the food web, first touching the tiniest organisms and eventually causing havoc for fish, marine mammals and humans. Compounds that mimic hormones are affecting growth, reproduction and survival for a myriad of species. Because of biomagnification, some chemicals are having serious effects at concentrations that could not be measured until recently.

Puget Sound can’t cleanse itself by flushing its chemicals and waste out to sea, as most bays do. Puget Sound is long and narrow and deep, and the exchange of water takes a long time. Most of the bad stuff floating in the water just sloshes back and forth with the daily tides.

We can’t forget that some of the good stuff floating around are microscopic plants that feed the food web, along with a variety of larvae that will grow into fish, shellfish and many other creatures. But many of these planktonic life forms are vulnerable to chemicals, which can reduce their ability to survive against predators, tipping the balance in unknown ways.

Understanding water quality is not so much about measuring what is in the water as understanding the effects on living things. Which species are missing from a given area of Puget Sound, and what killed them off?

Biological monitoring has been around for a long time, but we may be entering a new phase of exploration in which we begin to connect the dots between what takes place on the land, how chemicals and nutrients get into the water, and what that means for every creature struggling to survive.

We have some brilliant people working on this problem in the Puget Sound region. I would like to thank everyone who has helped me gain a better understanding of these issues, as I attempt to explain these complexities in my stories.

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While I was looking into the sediment story, Maggie Dutch of Ecology’s sediment monitoring team introduced me to a huge number of benthic invertebrates. In a blog she calls “Eyes Under Puget Sound,” she talks about the monitoring program and offers a slideshow of some of the bottom creatures. See also Ecology’s Flickr page.

For some amazing shots of polychaete worms, check out the work of marine biologist and photographer Alex Semenov who took these colorful pix in Russia and Australia.


Washington now has an official state oyster

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Washington state now has an official state oyster, thanks to the lobbying efforts of 14-year-old Claire Thompson, who raised the prominence of the Olympia oyster as part as a school project. That’s assuming, of course, that the governor signs the bill.

I talked about Claire’s effort, along with Olympia oyster restoration projects, in a previous Water Ways post on Feb. 14.

The bill designating Ostrea lurida as the state oyster first passed the Senate Feb. 13 on a 47-1 vote. It was approved March 5 in the House, 94-4, after an amendment expanded the language of the bill to this:

“This native oyster species plays an important role in the history and culture that surrounds shellfish in Washington state and along the west coast of the United States. Some of the common and historic names used for this species are Native, Western, Shoalwater, and Olympia.”

The Senate then agreed to the amendment and passed the bill into law today, again on a 47-1 vote. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane, was the only dissenting voice in the Senate.

Opponents in the House were Reps. Richard DeBolt, Chehalis; Brad Klippert, Kennewick; Jason Overstreet, Lynden; and Rep. Elizabeth Scott, Monroe. All are Republicans.

When Claire testified on the Senate bill in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, she looked toward the future. When she testified on the earlier House version, she was looking to the past. You can hear her testimony in the viewer on this page, or at 56:40 on TVW.

Here’s what she said, in part, to the House committee:

“The last time I came to testify I talked about the history of this oyster. This time I would like to talk to you about what I hope is the future of this oyster…

“I am only 14 and most of my life still lies ahead. To make my future and the futures of all the kids who live around Puget Sound better, I would like you to not only pass this bill but get as many of these and other bivalves seeded and into the Puget Sound as quickly as possible. This is because these oysters filter the water and can help regulate harmful algal blooms, including the red tide. By keeping algae down, they increase the overall oxygen content for fish and crustaceans and all the other animals.

“In the large numbers that Puget Sound needs, these oysters can link together to build coral-reef-like structures that provide an ecosystem habitat of room and hiding for young sea animals and all the kelps and sea plants that we are losing… Oyster beds this thick keep sediments anchored and the entire Puget Sound in balance.”


New video describes quest to restore Skokomish

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

In an impressive new video, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team tell the story of the Skokomish River, its history and its people, and the ongoing effort to restore the watershed to a more natural condition.

The video describes restoration projects — from the estuary, where tide channels were reformed, to the Olympic Mountains, where old logging roads were decommissioned to reduce sediment loading that clogs the river channel.

“I thought it was really well done,” SWAT Chairman Mike Anderson told me. “Some people have remarked about how well edited it is in terms of having different voices come together to tell the story in a single story line.”

The 14-minute video was produced with a $20,000 grant from the Laird Norton Family Foundation, which helped get the SWAT off the ground a decade ago, when a facilitator was hired to pull the group together.

The foundation’s Watershed Stewardship Program invests in community-based restoration, said Katie Briggs, the foundation’s managing director. In addition to the Hood Canal region, the foundation is supporting projects in the Upper Deschutes and Rogue rivers in Oregon.

As Katie explained in an email:

“LNFF has been interested in the collaborative work in the Skokomish for a number of years, and we have been consistently impressed with the way an admittedly strange group of bedfellows has pulled together, set priorities, and moved a restoration agenda forward in the watershed.

“We think their story is compelling, and by being able to share that story in a concise, visual way, they could not only attract more attention to the work they are doing in the Skokomish, but also potentially influence and share with other communities grappling with similar kinds of challenges.

“By helping SWAT tell their story, we’ve also gained a tool through which we are better able to share what it is we care about with the larger Laird Norton family and others interested in the foundation’s approach to watershed stewardship.”

The video project was overseen by Tiffany Royal of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a subcommittee of SWAT members. North 40 Productions was chosen to pull together the story, shoot new video and compile historical footage.

“It captures a lot of the collaboration and restoration,” Anderson said, “but it doesn’t cover everything. It leaves out most of the General Investigation and the Cushman settlement.”

The General Investigation is how the Army Corps of Engineers refers to the studies I wrote about Sunday in the Kitsap Sun (subscription) and in Water Ways. The Cushman settlement involves an environmental mitigation project on the North Fork of the Skokomish funded by the city of Tacoma and related to relicensing of the Cushman Dam power project.

Alex Gouley of the Skokomish Tribe said he hopes that the video will help tell the story of the Skokomish watershed, as with other tribal efforts such as watershed tours, educational workshops and classroom field trips.

Alex said he and other tribal members appreciate all the work done by each member of the SWAT, from Forest Service employees to the county commissioners, from Green Diamond Resource Company (formerly Simpson Timber) to small property owners in the valley.

“By coming together, everyone is able to make more informed decisions about the projects they are working on,” he said.


Corps completes draft plan for Skokomish River

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

UPDATE, Jan. 27
The Army Corps of Engineers published a news release today about tentatively selected plan. It lists the total cost of the projects at $41 million. This information was not available when I wrote my story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.
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Residents in and around the Skokomish Valley have demonstrated incredible patience, along with some frustration, while waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan to restore the Skokomish River.

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

Map courtesy of Skokomish Watershed Action Team

I was pleased to announce in today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) that top officials in the corps have now approved a “tentatively selected plan.” This plan will now undergo extensive review inside and outside the agency. Two public meetings are being planned, although they have not yet been announced.

I’ve been following the development of this plan for many years, actually long before I wrote a four-part series in 2009 about the past and future of the Skokomish River. See “Taming the Skokomish,” Kitsap Sun.

As Rich Geiger of Mason Conservation District told me last week:

“We are very glad to be at this point, because we are talking about a physical project moving forward and not just more planning. We asked the Corps to produce a single integrated restoration plan, and they did.”

Rich did not slam the Army Corps of Engineers for taking so long. He and I did not discuss — as we have in the past — how restoration of the Skokomish River plays an important part in the restoration of Hood Canal as a whole.

But we did talk about dredging, which many area residents believe is the only answer to cleaning the river channel, clogged by sediment and flooded more frequently than any river in the state. The corps has determined that dredging is too expensive for the benefit provided and would require ongoing maintenance. I look forward to reading the analysis by the corps and hearing the discussions that follow. I’m sure there is plenty to be said.

Before the agency releases the tentative plan, a final check must be made by corps officials to ensure completeness of the documents, which will include a feasibility report and an environmental impact statement, according to project manager Mamie Brouwer.

The plan includes these specific projects:

  • Car-body levee removal: Years ago, junk cars were used to construct a levee where the North Fork of the Skokomish flows into the main river. Although the course of the North Fork has changed, the old levee continues to impair salmon migration through the area, Brouwer said. This project would remove the levee and restore the natural flows at the confluence.
  • Side channel reconnection: Restoring a parallel channel alongside the Skokomish would give fish a place to go during high flows and flooding. In recent years, migrating salmon have been washed out of the river and into fields and ditches, where they struggle to survive. A side channel, about 4 miles upstream from where the Skokomish flows into Hood Canal, could provide refuge from the raging river.
  • Nine mile setback levee: A new levee is being proposed nine miles upstream to allow an existing levee to be breached, increasing the flood plain in that area. The new levee would be several hundred feet back from the old one and would allow for new pools and vegetation along the river.
  • Grange levee: Like the nine-mile setback levee, a new levee would be built about 8 miles upstream near the Skokomish Valley Grange Hall. The levee could be set back about 1,000 feet from the river, greatly expanding the flood plain in that area.
  • Large woody debris: Creating log jams in the river would increase the complexity of the channel, adding meanders, gravel bars and pools. Such structure is considered important for the survival of juvenile salmon. Several dozen log jams are proposed in the initial plan, but that could change in the final design.
  • Hunter Creek: Continual springs maintain summer flows in Hunter Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish considered excellent fish habitat. But with few side channels or complexity, the stream has limited spawning habitat and fish can be washed away during high flows. The project would alter the channel for better function.
  • Weaver Creek: Similar to Hunter Creek, Weaver Creek has great potential for increased spawning and rearing habitat along with refuge from high flows. The project would alter the channel to improve natural functions.
In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.

In 2009, members of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team observed how high flows in the Skokomish River had washed away vegetation and left huge deposits of gravel.
Kitsap Sun file photo


Is that a light I see shining at the end of restoration?

Friday, November 15th, 2013

When it comes to ecosystem restoration, I love it when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s rare when we have a chance to say that restoration is nearing completion, since we know that habitat work continues on and on, seemingly without end, in many areas of Puget Sound.

Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from developments that was flowing into Steele Creek. Photo by Larry Steagall

Last summer, a massive pond was constructed off Waaga Way to capture stormwater from Central Kitsap developments flowing straight into Steele Creek. / Photo by Larry Steagall

So let us anticipate a celebration when Kitsap County’s regional stormwater projects are completed, when all the deadly ghost nets have been removed from the shallow waters of Puget Sound, and when there are no more creosote pilings left on state tidelands.

Of course, the light at the end of the tunnel may be a mirage, but let’s not go there quite yet.

Kitsap regional ponds

Kitsap County has been collecting a Surface and Stormwater Management Fee from residents in unincorporated areas and using some of that money to leverage state and federal stormwater grants. The fee is currently $73.50, but it will rise to $78 in 2014, $82 in 2015, $86.50 in 2016, $91 in 2017 and $96 in 2018. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 27, 2012.

The good news is that the effort to retrofit old, outmoded stormwater systems is nearing completion, with remaining projects either in design or nearing the design phase. Check out the Kitsap County Public Works Capital Facilities Program for a list of completed projects with maps as well as proposed projects with maps. As the documents show, the regional retrofits are on their way to completion.

So what are the sources of future stormwater problems? The answer is roads, and the problem is enormous. Still, the county has begun to address the issue with a pilot project that could become a model for other counties throughout Puget Sound. Please read my September story, “New strategies will address road runoff” (subscription) to see how the county intends to move forward.

Ghost nets and crab pots

Earlier this year, the Legislature provided $3.5 million to complete the removal of derelict fishing gear that keeps on killing in waters less than 105 feet deep. The work is to be done before the end of 2015.

Sites where known nets are still killing fish. Map courtesy of Northwest Straits Commission

Sites where known nets are still killing fish.
Map courtesy of Northwest Straits

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was excited about the prospect. Here’s what he said in a news release.

“Working in conjunction with our partners at Northwest Straits and in the State Legislature, we have made enormous strides toward eliminating the risks posed to fish and wildlife by derelict fishing gear. This is difficult work, and it requires a real commitment from everyone to get it done. We look forward to celebrating the next milestone in 2015.”

The most amazing statistic I found on this topic involved the number of animals trapped by ghost nets. According to one predictive model, if all the nets had been left alone to keep fishing, they could be killing 3.2 million animals each year.

For additional information, read the story I wrote for last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription) or check out the Northwest Straits webpage.

Creosote pilings and docks

Washington Department of Natural Resources hasn’t slowed down in its effort to remove old creosote pilings and docks. The structures can be toxic to marine life, obstruct navigation and snag fishing gear. By 2015, the total bill for removing such debris is expected to reach $13 million.

Nobody is sure how much it will cost to remove the last of the creosote materials from state lands, but DNR officials have inventoried the various sites and expect to come up with a final priority list over the next six months. Some pilings on privately owned land may be a higher priority for the ecosystem, and officials are trying to decide how to address those sites. Of course, nobody can tackle pilings on private lands without working through the property owners.

Download a spreadsheet of the work completed so far (PDF 53 kb), which involves a focus on 40 sites throughout Puget Sound. Altogether, the projects removed about 11,000 pilings plus about 250,000 square feet of “overwater structures,” such as docks.

I mentioned work underway in Jefferson County in my story last week (subscription), and reporter Tristan Baurick mentioned a specific cleanup project at Nick’s Lagoon (subscription) in Kitsap County. You may also wish to check out the DNR’s page on Creosote Removal.


Tours will help people understand Elwha restoration

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Guided tours of the empty reservoir behind Elwha Dam near Port Angeles will be offered on Saturdays beginning Aug. 3 and continuing through Sept. 7.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.

The Elwha River flows through what had been the Lake Aldwell reservoir, fully drained after removal of the Elwha Dam.
Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Rangers from Olympic National Park will lead the tours and talk about the massive dam-removal project. This will be a wonderful service for visitors who wish to get up close and understand one of the largest ecosystem-restoration projects in the world.

Instead of wandering aimlessly in what many would consider a wasteland, visitors will gain an appreciation for the shifting and eroding sediments and understand how the gravel is moving as the river reclaims its channel. They will view newly established vegetation and hear what it takes to restore native species to the area. They will stand alongside the mighty stumps of old-growth trees buried within the lakebed until the sediments began washing away.

The hour-long walks will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from the boat launch at the end of Lake Aldwell Road. Turn off Highway 101 just west of the Elwha River Bridge. Explorers should wear boots or sturdy walking shoes and plan for windy conditions with no shade. For information, contact the Elwha Ranger Station, (360) 452-9191.

Earlier this year, I wrote a story for visitors interested in the Elwha restoration. Given that the tours of Lake Aldwell will last about an hour, you may wish to visit some of the other viewpoints while you’re there. See “Visiting the Elwha: Explore a River Transformed.” Also, check out a few of my observations in Water Ways, April 30, 2013.

Meanwhile, officials at Olympic National Park posted a new entry to the Dam Removal Blog yesterday. It describes how aerial surveys are being used to measure changes in the sediments during this period of low flows on the river. The entry also discusses the revegetation effort, pointing out that sediments along the river are drying out faster this year than last.

Elwha River visitors guide


Plankton blooms observed throughout Puget Sound

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013
Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge ferry in the background. Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology

Taken over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, this photo shows a Noctiluca bloom with the Bainbridge Island ferry in the background. / Photo by Christopher Krembs, Ecology

Plankton blooms reported last week from numerous locations in Puget Sound were confirmed and examined from the air Monday by Christopher Krembs and his colleagues at Eyes Over Puget Sound.

The marine monitoring group for the Department of Ecology reported notable Noctiluca blooms, as I reported in a story in Friday’s Kitsap Sun. The blooms are relatively harmless and not unexpected, given the mild weather and freshwater flows that bring nutrients into Puget Sound. They are earlier than in recent years, however.

Christopher also observed heavy sediment flows coming out of the Fraser River near Vancouver and moving south along the Canadian border. These and many other observations can be reviewed by downloading the latest report on Ecology’s website.

A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

A brightly colored plankton called Noctiluca was observed last week along the shore of Bremerton’s Evergreen-Rotary Park. / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.


Here’s my guide for visiting the Elwha area

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

When my editor, Kim Rubenstein, asked me to write a story for people who wish to check out the Elwha River restoration, it seemed like a good idea. After playing the role of tourist for a day, I’m convinced that many visitors will have a good time learning about this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

Looking upstream where the Elwha River flows into an empty Lake Mills, the upper reservoir. / Photo by Steve Zugschwerdt

I wrote a story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun that describes where you can go to see the river and various features of the restoration project. The area map we created for the newspaper can be downloaded and taken with you. Click here for map (PDF 438 kb).

Learning about the natural features of the Elwha River watershed is an important part of the experience. Before you leave home, I recommend that you view a series of “webisodes” on the Olympic National Park website. I’m told these videos by Wings Over Watersheds are a sampling of what will eventually become a longer video production.

A more complete story about the Elwha Restoration Project, including a history of the two dams, has been captured in a new book by Seattle Times reporter Linda Mapes. I wrote a review of her book, “Elwha: A River Reborn,” to accompany my visitor’s guide to the area.

I think kids and adults alike will enjoy playing around with a model of Glines Canyon at Feiro Marine Life Center, where one can pull out the dam and watch the sediment move downstream.

Randall Walz, director of education and volunteers at the center, told me about misconceptions that some people have. Many believe that the sediment in the Elwha moved downstream and piled up behind the dams, he said. Instead, most of the sediment was dropped off in the upper portion of the two reservoirs, where the water slowed down as it entered the lakes.

The restoration work included digging a pilot channel through the Lake Mills delta to form a new channel and guide the river through the trapped sediment. The goal is not to move the sediment downstream as quickly as possible, Walz said, but rather to stabilize the deltas and allow them to erode over a longer period of time.

If you want to see change, be sure to visit the mouth of the Elwha River, which you reach from a dike trail at the end of Place Road. Wherever you see sand, that’s change, because there was no sand here before, said Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute.

The sandy habitat will better support the migration of juvenile salmon and provide spawning areas for sandlance, a forage fish. The decline of the rocky habitat could mean the end of tall kelp, but researchers hope the new sandy habitat will support the growth of eelgrass and a burgeoning community of diverse plants and animals. Check out the story I wrote in March, following a conference on the nearshore changes taking place.

I have to say there’s not a lot of excitement to behold in the upper portions of the two reservoirs unless you remember what it was like when the lakes were in place or can visualize the enormity of the change. The river now carves its way through a dry lake bed, where one can see large old-growth stumps, which were either under water or buried by sediment. Plants are coming back, some placed there by restoration workers, others by natural processes.

With or without the dams, one can enjoy the escape into this natural area, particularly as one moves into the higher trails in Olympic National Park. Be sure to take time to enjoy the natural surroundings, even if you need to cut out parts of your planned trip.

If you want to observe the changes over time, I suggest you find a vantage point and take a picture during your visit. When you return the next time, take another picture for comparison. The heavy gravel and silt seems fairly inhospitable at the moment. But if you return again and again, I expect you’ll be amazed at the transformation taking place over the next few years.


Elwha River transformation comes swiftly

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Changes are coming rapidly to the Elwha River, as massive amounts of sediment shift around in the river channel and flow out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Phoebe Tyson, a Student Conservation Association intern, joins in planting efforts in the former Lake Mills to help restore a natural forest. / Photo courtesy of Olympic National Park

Over the past few months, researchers have documented the formation of new beaches and the growth of the delta at the mouth of the Elwha. I described these latest changes in a story in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The new information came out of an annual workshop of the Elwha Nearshore Consortium, which has a special interest in the river, especially its effects on the coastal reaches along the strait.

It’s exciting to hear about the transformation of the river, and I would like to congratulate the scientists for the monitoring work that allows us to talk about “before” and “after” dam removal — although the “after” part will be an ongoing story for decades. Many research organizations are involved in the Elwha, and I hope their funding holds out to tell a more complete story from a scientific perspective.

Meanwhile, many writers, photographers and videographers are telling their own stories about the restoration in various ways, and new books and documentaries are on the way. I’ve talked about some of these in the past and will continue to do so as new works are released.

The human connections to the river, particularly those of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, have been widely recognized as an integral part of the restoration story. Many Klallam elders have been gracious in sharing their culture and traditions.

Although the Elwha Dam removal is far from the only restoration effort taking place in Western Washington, it may be the one place where nature is working at an extraordinary pace to put things back the way they were.


Group offers ideas to reduce harm from chemicals

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Washington state can better protect people’s health by deliberately stepping up to the problem toxic chemicals in the environment, according to a new task force report provided to the Washington governor and Legislature.

The task force, organized by the Washington Department of Ecology, includes representatives from the world of business, government and public health. The new “white paper” calls for specific, creative actions to reduce potential harm caused by chemical exposures.

Howard Frumkin, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, served on the task force. He said worrisome health trends and rising health-care costs provide evidence of the problem. As he stated in a news release:

“We don’t know as much as we’d like about how toxic chemicals affect health, but we can’t wait. We need to act, and we need to do so in ways that are sensible, fair and evidence-based. I believe that our state can come together to identify and implement creative, effective solutions.”

Another member of the group, Sara Kendall, vice president for corporate affairs and sustainability at Weyerhaeuser Company, added:

“These issues are important, but they are also very complex. The white paper represents a good starting place for a more complete and thorough discussion by stakeholders.”

Because of the diverse membership on the committee, the overall conclusions seem to be derived more from common sense rather than from a desire to expand government oversight.

“Although we each individually have our preferences and concerns, across this suite of ideas we all share a belief that we, as a society, can do a better job reducing the adverse health, environmental and economic impacts of toxic chemicals,” states a letter accompanying the report.

Download the white paper, titled Toxics Policy Reform for Washington State (PDF 1.5 mb), or visit the Toxics Reduction Strategy Workgroup on the Washington Department of Ecology’s website.

Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, said:

“These proposed strategies come from knowledgeable experts working alongside the Department of Ecology. The idea now is to begin a broader conversation about how to build on our state’s past accomplishments to reduce toxic chemicals.”

The white paper contains 12 recommendations for dealing with toxic chemicals, including a proposed state policy that would say simply, “Safer is better.”

Task force members suggest setting up a “Green Chemistry Center” to identify or invent safer chemicals for specific purposes.

“Washington should become a national leader in green chemistry, making these innovations a trademark of the state, just like apples, wheat, software and airplanes,” the paper says.

The report calls for continuing state actions to reduce exposures to a list of priority chemicals and to add chemicals with toxic effects at very low doses, such as endocrine-disrupting compounds.

Chemical bans and restrictions may be necessary at times, the paper says, but such regulations “should not strand people or businesses by banning or restricting chemicals before safer alternatives are viable.”

The Legislature should consider exemptions when a chemical is absolutely needed for a process or product, the paper says. Still, an imminent public health threat might at times justify an outright ban before a safer alternative is identified.

Education campaigns and effective product labeling can help people take personal actions to reduce their exposure to toxic chemicals, the committee said.

As for why members of the task force feel strongly that Washington should not wait to address hazardous chemicals, let me quote from the report, which first discusses toxic effects on children:

“The developing nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to perturbation by chemicals and other insults. Environmental chemicals thought to be association with impaired brain development include lead, methyl mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), manganese, organophosphate insecticides, arsenic, Bisphenol-A (BPA), PBDEs and phthalates.

“Autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) appear to result from a complex interaction between genetics and environmental factors. In Washington state in 2010, more than 75,000 children — one in every 14 kids — ages 3-21 were receiving special education services through school districts for learning disability, emotional or behavioral disability, autism, intellectual disability or developmental delay….

“Adults also are impacted by exposures to toxic chemicals. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia are growing problems, and evidence suggests that chemical exposures may play a role. For example, pesticides, solvents, PCBs, PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and heavy metals such as lead and manganese have all been linked to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

“There are troubling toxic releases to the environment as well. More than 1,700 water body segments in Washington are impaired due to high levels of toxic chemicals or metals. The Puget Sound Toxics Loading Assessment found that the vast majority of toxic chemicals in Puget Sound come from non-point sources and are released to Puget Sound through stormwater.”

Washington State Department of Health also weighs in on the effects of environmental chemicals on children, offering fact sheets on childhood asthma, cancer, learning and behavior, obesity, and reproductive systems:

“Young children often have higher exposure to environmental chemicals in the home because of their higher breathing rate and natural activity of mouthing or sucking on household objects and surfaces.

“There are critical periods during early childhood development when small exposures to toxic chemicals can have permanent negative effects. Without efforts to protect children during early life, lifelong health can be negatively impacted.”


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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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