Getting inside the brouhaha over car washes

UPDATE 2, Monday, Sept. 29, 10:51 a.m.
The Department of Ecology has issued has press release which begins “Contrary to a story in today’s USA Today, Washington has not banned residential car washing.” I’ll provide a link once it’s posted on Ecology’s Web site.

UPDATE, Monday, Sept. 29, 9:30 a.m.
USA Today offered a story on this issue 14 hours ago, and already 120 comments — including one from Sandy Howard of Ecology — have been recorded.


If you wash your car and notice that soapy runoff is washing down a storm drain that flows into a stream or other waterway, you are technically in violation of the law.

The Washington Department of Ecology wants cities to adopt a standard, as part of their local stormwater rules, that recognizes the problem of soaps and detergents carrying toxics into the state’s waterways.

Now, before anyone gets up in arms about Big Brother watching to see who might be washing his car, Ecology officials have stated that nobody should worry about getting a ticket or facing legal action for allowing soapy water to run down a driveway.

In fact, since this issue blew up in Clark County, Ecology Director Jay Manning has come out with a detailed, two-page letter (PDF 52 kb) covering the law of car washes and calling for a little common sense.

It all started with a story in the Vancouver Columbian by Michael Anderson, which included a comment from Cary Armstrong of Clark County Public Works. Armstrong said he expects he will start responding to car wash complaints called in by neighbors, much like any other violation of county code. But it will be at the bottom of his priority list.

Across the Columbia River in Oregon, the Portland Oregonian picked up the story in a piece by Holley Gilbert, who quoted Bill Moore of Ecology.
“We want people to make the connection of “what goes on the street goes into the creek,’” Moore said.

Regardless of Ecology’s position, Vancouver’s director of public works said he would look for other alternatives. “We’re not going to be car-washing bureaucrats run amok,” said Brian Carlson. “We have higher priorities than that.”

The story then got picked up by blogs, which stirred the pot some more, causing people to worry about “car-washing bureaucrats” sneaking around their neighborhoods. Here’s an example from Autoblog: “If residents in several cities in Clark County, Washington, want to get their cars clean, they could soon be forced to do it at retail car washes.”

That’s when Ecology Director Jay Manning decided to write his letter.

“It has recently become clear that there is significant confusion regarding how Washington’s municipal stormwater permits apply to residential car washing,” Manning began.

Manning acknowledged that many people fail to see the connection between the long-standing practice of washing their cars and environmental harm.

“However, thousands of people washing their cars can be a serious problem,” he said. “Soapy, dirty car wash water — carrying with it oil, grease and toxic metals — is, without a doubt, a serious pollution source when it occurs on a large scale.”

Manning pointed out that state rules do not prohibit car-washing, only the discharge of contaminated water into public storm drains. That can be avoided by washing the car on grass, where the water soaks into the ground, or laying something on the pavement to divert the water elsewhere. For more information, check out Ecology’s Web page on Car Washing and Stormwater Permits.

Manning also talks about commercial and “charity” car washes, which I’ll address in a moment with relation to Kitsap County.

Manning concluded his letter by saying that he does not want to see enforcement of the law, because he is confident that people will do the right thing if they understand the problem. Other water-quality steps to take, he said, include the cautious use of fertilizers, cleaning up pet waste and making sure vehicles don’t drip oil.

Kitsap County has a long history of trying to educate people about car washes, and it seems the effort has had some lingering effect. I remember an education program by Kitsap County Public Works along with an effort to get so-called charity car washes to capture the runoff and pump it into a toilet, where the water would eventually make it to a sewage treatment plant.

A tight county budget with no state grants available led the county to discontinue the program. I can’t say whether the number of charity car washes increased after that, but I noticed quite a few this summer.

Since then, the county has substituted the Fund Raiser Car Wash Program, which could work even better. To raise money, groups can sell tickets to commercial car washes. The car washes then split the proceeds with the groups. Most, if not all, of the car washes involved in the program filter and recycle their waste water. (Some car washes may discharge their wastewater into a sewer, but none may dump it into a storm drain.)

Another option proposed by Kitsap is the Bay for a Day program, in which groups pay a flat fee to rent a car-wash space at a commercial operation, where the participants can scrub to their hearts’ content.

For those of us in the Puget Sound region, I think the days of washing your car in your driveway may be coming to an end — not because of state enforcement, but because we need to do everything we can to reduce pollution. If you want to scrub your own car, plenty of car washes let you do that for a relatively small number of quarters.

There’s a good chance we’ll all being hearing more about car washes next spring, when people are overcome with the desire to get their cars clean.

With stormwater now ranked as the greatest pollution problem for Puget Sound, King County has been granted nearly $1 million to help people in the region take personal actions to reduce pollution. The program, called “Storming Puget Sound,” will include a media campaign to get people to reduce pollution generated around their homes and by their cars and pets.

Spending $1 million for pollution education may seem like overkill — but only if you don’t believe stormwater pollution is a huge problem or if you have no objection to Big Brother chasing after people who wash their cars in their driveways and refuse to clean up after their pets.

7 thoughts on “Getting inside the brouhaha over car washes

  1. If a law is not to be enforced, it shouldn’t be put on the books. These actions, little by little, rob government of credibility and, utlimately, do a disservice to the causes they hope to advance.

  2. Well said Blue.
    I agree with saving our environment…yes, who wouldn’t? But to enact another law – unenforceable law – is nonsense.

    What would the Car Wash Detectives do to catch the law breakers?
    Drive by Driveway Checks? Would seeing loose water or soap suds be the damning evidence needed to actually drive onto the private property to arrest the Home Car Wash lawbreaker?

    Sharon O’Hara

  3. Given these comments, I may have over-simplified the issue and caused a little confusion. I’m hoping that someone more knowledgeable about the law will weigh in, but let me make a couple of points.

    The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 made it illegal to discharge pollutants to surface waters without a permit. So, technically, it has been illegal for 36 years to allow dirty, soapy water to go into a storm drain that connects to a stream.

    Ecology and local governments are working through a process that will result in cities and counties getting a permit to operate their storm-drainage systems under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

    The question is whether local governments should issue a blanket exemption that would allow people to discharge pollutants from washing cars or any other activity. Ecology prefers not to write an exemption nor to launch an enforcement effort but to undertake an educational program to gain compliance with the law.

    Every state and local government exercises its discretion in the enforcement of its laws, especially in the environmental arena, where most public officials say the goal is to protect the environment, not to collect fines.

  4. “Every state and local government exercises its discretion in the enforcement of its laws, especially in the environmental arena”

    And loses credibility as a consequence.

  5. Do you mean that people who don’t have storm drains or live near one are exempt? No storm drain around here that I know about.

    Education is the key…not another law. None of us want to harm our environment…but somehow it doesn’t seem right that we follow all the safe environment rules and the county can alter any environment law to suit themselves.
    And in more than one case, drastically allow a homeowner to build within ten feet of the high water mark when the setback is 100 feet.
    Ludicrous…wrong. The legal herbicides and pesticide poisons will have only ten feet of soil to filter before it gets directly into our waterway.

    If the county – our local government – hold themselves above the environment safeguards followed by the rest of us…they should be arrested and tossed out of the job.

    Leadership is supposed to come from the top….but in this case the ‘top’ seems to be us.
    Sharon O’Hara

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