Watching Our Water Ways

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.


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.


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.


Puget Sound grants continue ecosystem restoration

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

About $22 million in state and federal grants were awarded last week for Puget Sound ecosystem restoration, another installment in the struggle to nurse Puget Sound back to health.

About $12 million in state and federal funds came through the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, or ESRP, under the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As the name suggests, these funds are focused on improving nearshore and ecosystem processes.

Another $10 million came from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration (PSAR) Fund, which is focused mainly on salmon restoration. More of those funds will be awarded before the end of the year.

Reporter Tad Sooter and I wrote about the West Sound projects in Friday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required), focusing a good deal of our attention on a key acquisition of property on the Bainbridge Island shoreline along Agate Passage.

The property includes 4.5 acres of tidelands, including 550 feet of undeveloped beach, along with 7.5 acres of upland woods and meadows, all to be preserved by the Bainbridge Island Land Trust.

Brenda Padgham, stewardship director for land trust, told Tad that this property is one of the last intact nearshore habitats on Bainbridge Island. “The whole reach is so pristine,” she said.

Of the $1.2 million provided for the Bainbridge Island purchase, $810,000 came from the PSAR funds and $396,000 came from the ESRP.

Betsy Lions, who manages the ESRP for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said most of that money this year will go toward removing unnecessary bulkheads, replacing culverts that block salmon passage and restoring tidal functions.

The 20 ESRP grants are described in a news release from Fish and Wildlife.

The salmon recovery money was approved Thursday by the Salmon Recovery Funding Board. In a news release yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee stressed the economic value of preserving the state’s salmon runs:

“These projects will increase salmon populations while giving a boost to the economy. Salmon are important economically to Washington state and these projects will provide construction jobs and help countless numbers of Washington families and businesses, including tackle shops, charter operators, restaurants and hotels, that rely on the world-renowned Pacific salmon.”

David Troutt, chairman of the SRF Board and natural resources director of the Nisqually Tribe, made this comment:

“Puget Sound Chinook are about one-third as abundant as they were a century ago. As we have developed our urban and rural landscapes, we’ve damaged many of the estuaries, floodplains and rivers that salmon need to survive. These projects have been selected as ones that will make big impacts on Puget Sound and salmon recovery. Those two things go hand in hand. Puget Sound needs healthy salmon, and salmon need a healthy Puget Sound.”

The 11 PSAR projects are outlined in a document (PDF 106 kb) on the state Recreation and Conservation Office’s website. By the way, projects in Hood Canal were held up until October, as members of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council continue discussions about priorities.


New method could reveal presence of human waste

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

A technique that could flag the presence of human waste in a sample of water is under development in a partnership between the Kitsap Public Health District and University of Washington’s Center for Urban Water.

Shawn Ultican, left, a water-quality investigator with the Kitsap Public Health District, and University of Washington-Tacoma undergraduate student Derek Overman test the water from the drainage pipe at Silverdale Waterfront Park. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

Shawn Ultican, left, a water-quality investigator with Kitsap Public Health District, and University of Washington-Tacoma undergraduate Derek Overman test the water from a drainage pipe at Silverdale Waterfront Park.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

As I explained in a May 29 story in the Kitsap Sun, it could be helpful for pollution investigators to know whether bacteria are coming from human waste or from animal waste.

For example, if bacterial levels are high in a stream but human waste is not present, then investigators could look for deposits of dog waste or livestock waste or else search out signs of wildlife. In that case, one could avoid testing for failing septic systems, saving a lot of time and money — not that this would occur in most investigations.

The technique under review involves testing for certain chemicals associated with humans, such as caffeine, medicines, personal care products, flame retardants, pesticides and human hormones. The current research is trying to identify which of these compounds could serve as the best routine test for human waste.

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Embracing a new approach to nonpoint pollution?

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

When it comes to cleaning up bacterial pollution in Puget Sound, we seem to have a clash — or at least some redundancy — in the methods we use.

Sailors take advantage of the nice weather last week on Liberty Bay. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid.

Sailors take advantage of nice weather last week on Liberty Bay.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid.

In Kitsap County, water-quality officials are saying studies conducted by the Washington Department of Ecology, which allocated total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), have not been much help in attacking the local pollution problem.

That’s because the approach developed by Kitsap County, called the Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC) Program, has been highly successful in tracking down and cleaning up bacterial pollution.

I wrote a story about this issue as it relates to Liberty Bay in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

I also talked a little about the two water-quality standards used for streams. It’s somewhat odd how Liberty Bay must conform to a stricter standard than nearby Dyes Inlet, since both are in urbanizing areas. By the way, there is only one standard for marine waters, and Liberty Bay is generally clean under that standard.

Other information on the Liberty Bay TMDL study can be found on Ecology’s website and in a news release.

With regard to cleanup methods, now that PIC has been adopted and funded for the Puget Sound region, one might argue that it is time to back away from the more cumbersome TMDL approach, which spends a great deal of money to allocate pollution loads with no guarantees that any cleanup will get done. For recent funding details, review the Washington Department of Health’s Page on “EPA Grant: Pathogens, Prevention, Reduction and Control” and the specific funding for PIC projects.

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Take special care to save carwashes from extinction

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

I used to feel happy for teenagers who got together on a weekend to wash cars and raise money for a good cause. I would often take time to drive in, get my car washed and praise the teens for their efforts. And I would give them a nice tip.

Now, when I see a charity carwash, I just want to know where the water is going. If the water is washing into a storm drain that spills into a stream, I can’t help but wonder if these kids care about fish and wildlife, or if they might not have gotten the message about the harm caused by dirty, soapy water.

You may wish to read the story I wrote on this topic in last Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Sometimes, being an environmental reporter causes one to think a little too much about the environment. Sure, carwashes probably are not going to kill everything in sight. But they are just another insult from a human society that has not yet learned how to protect the living Earth.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 declared that it was illegal to discharge polluted water into any natural stream or waterway. At the time, industrial discharges were so severe that soap and heavy metals from carwashes were insignificant. But now, after 40 years, those industrial point sources are greatly diminished, and researchers are learning that the greatest threat to water quality today comes from thousands of small sources.

Gov. Jay Inslee has declared this month “Puget Sound Starts Here Month,” according to a press release issued by the Puget Sound Partnership. The idea is for each of us to pay attention to how we affect Puget Sound.

Here’s the message from Marc Daily, the partnership’s interim executive director:

“It’s not just about the pipe coming out of the factory anymore. Today, stormwater runoff is the single largest contributor to our water quality problems. That pollution comes from our cars and how we wash them, from the chemicals we put on our lawns, and from not picking up after our pets. When it rains, bacteria and toxic chemicals from these and other sources end up in our local waterways. That’s a problem.”

From King County Water and Land Resources

From King County Water and Land Resources

One way to keep charity car washes alive is to capture the wash water and direct it into a toilet or sink that connects to a municipal sewer system, not a septic system. King County provides instructions for making and using a carwash kit to handle the water.

People can also sell tickets to commercial carwashes, which is the method being pushed by most water-quality programs across the nation. It’s not just here that carwashes are getting increasing attention.

How much harm do they cause? It varies from place to place, but some students from Central Kitsap High School calculated the amount of various chemicals produced by capturing the water from washing cars and conducting lab tests on some of the pollutants. See “Characterization of Runoff from Charity Carwashes in the Dyes Inlet Watershed” (PDF 475 kb).

Like many people, I feel a tinge of sadness that carwashes will probably die out. Like many harmful traditions, such as burning garbage and smoking, it might be time to give this one up.

Still, if you want to operate a weekend car wash, get yourself a carwash kit to deal with the wash water. Then stand on the corner and wave signs promoting the fact that this is a clean and safe carwash that protects the environment. If I see you, I’ll even stop and donate to the cause.


Bremerton leads in national water challenge

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

In the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, Bremerton is leading all U.S. cities with populations between 30,000 and 100,000.

water

The water challenge, sponsored by the Wyland Foundation, asks people to take a pledge to work for water conservation. Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent has embraced the national competition by talking about it often when she meets with community groups.

To take the pledge and boost your own city’s ranking in the competition, go to www.mywaterpledge.com and fill out a brief form.

Last year, Bremerton came in first among medium-sized cities in Washington state and third among those in the West.

“Water is Bremerton’s remarkable resource,” the mayor said in a news release. “I encourage all Bremerton residents to pledge to learn more about their water and energy use at home. This challenge, which runs through April, is an exciting opportunity to learn about water wise habits as we engage in a friendly competition with other cities across the nation to create a more sustainable environment.”

Kathleen Cahall, Bremerton’s water resources manager, noted that this year’s competition pits all like-sized cities in the country against each other. Last year, the first competition was regional. Now, there are five nationwide population categories instead of three for each region.

Bremerton has not done as much personal outreach on the project as last year, Kathleen told me, but the city has placed messages on city utility bills and in electronic news letters; on BKAT, the community access television station; and with flyers for students to take home at schools within Bremerton’s water service area.

“It really takes no effort for us to be involved,” Kathleen said, “and it is easy for our residents to learn about water-wise habits and pollution-prevention.”

A federal water-quality permit requires the city to do public education, and people can learn from the water challenge, she said.

As an added incentive, the contest awards prizes to random people who take the pledge.

The only other Washington cities currently in the top 10 are Seattle, which is eighth among cities with more than 600,000 people, and Sequim, which is tenth among cities with populations from 5,000 to 30,000.

Port Orchard is 14th among the 5,000-30,000 cities. Poulsbo is 119th and Bainbridge Island is 291st in that same population category.

Cities in Washington that ranked within the top 100 in their own population categories include Lacey, 15th; Bellevue, 19th; Tacoma, 42nd; Spokane, 48th; North Bend, 50th; Vancouver, 53rd; and Bellingham, 62nd.


‘Don’t Drip and Drive’ offers one approach to oil leaks

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

I would like to share some comments from a story along with an editorial cartoon, but first I want to talk about rain runoff from streets, driveways, parking lots, yards and roofs — also known as stormwater.

Stormwater is considered the greatest pollution threat to Puget Sound, according to studies by the Washington Department of Ecology. Of course, it is not the rain itself that causes the problem. It is what gets picked up along the way: chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, bacteria … The list goes on.

Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection. Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

Cameron Coleman finishes up an oil change on a car at Hockett & Olsen Automotive on Bainbridge Island, where car owners can obtain a free oil-leak inspection.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid

Among the toxic chemicals, one of the biggest problems appears to be motor oil from vehicles. Oil leaks out of cars as they are moving down the road or while they are parked, then the rains wash the pollution into the nearest ditch and eventually into Puget Sound. By some estimates, that amounts to 7 million quarts of oil each year.

Fortunately, not all the oil goes into the water. In Kitsap County, for example, city and county street sweepers are driving around, picking up some of the oil and other chemicals along with soil particles on the roads. It is a proven effort to reduce pollution.

It would be better still if the oil didn’t get on the roads or parking lots in the first place. But how do you get people to fix the oil leaks in their cars?

An organization of local governments throughout the Puget Sound region is hoping that awareness will provide one answer. More than 80 service shops in the region have agreed to check for oil leaks at no cost or obligation to anyone. See my story in last Tuesday’s Kitsap Sun.

It’s a pilot program with the clever title “Don’t Drip and Drive.” It will run through April. The cost to the government is the cost of advertising on the radio. A federal stormwater permit issued to local governments throughout the region already requires that they try to educate the public. Maybe this campaign will work; maybe it won’t. I’ll report on the results after the program is over.

It seems like a simple approach to the problem. Even if people know their cars are leaking, this program encourages them to think about solutions. Why not get a free estimate to see what it would cost to fix the leak? Maybe it won’t cost much. Maybe a few people will find a way to address the problem sooner rather than later. Maybe it will reduce wear on their vehicles.

If people become informed and are offered a free, no-obligations solution, will it make a difference? I hope it does, because it avoids the more heavy-handed ideas, such as requiring vehicle inspections to obtain a car license.

If you read some of the comments at the end of the story, however, you might think this pilot program is intruding into people’s personal lives, not just asking them to check for oil leaks. I realize that the comments section can be a dark place, occupied by people who see a full glass as empty. But it is amusing to see what bothers some people.

Here are the first few comments:

“I would guess that 99% of drivers park their vehicle in the same spot in their driveway or garage every night. Do we need a government program so they won’t have to look at that spot to see if oil has dropped there?”

“I agree! Government is way outside of what they are supposed to be. This is ridiculous and out of control.”

“Yep so they find a leak and what’s next??? Big time repair bill and just in time to keep your wallet empty! Nice program! Big goverment (sic) get out of my life will you???”

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’d like to share with you an editorial cartoon by Milt Priggee published in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

Oil


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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