Tag Archives: Jay Inslee

Climate Sense: So much is still about politics

Climate change is finally being discussed in Congress and by the Trump administration, but not necessarily in a good way. This week I share some of the things I’ve been reading with regard to the politics of climate change. If there’s a silver lining, it could be that climate change is getting some attention among politicians. I’m holding some interesting scientific studies for another week.

Item 1: Concerns about politicizing climate change

In a letter to President Trump (PDF 192 kb), 58 former national security leaders have voiced their concerns about a committee being formed by the Trump administration to question whether climate change is a national security threat.

“It is dangerous,” the letter says, “to have national security analysis conform to politics. Our officials’ job is to ensure that we are prepared for current threats and future contingencies. We cannot do that if the scientific studies that inform our threat assessments are undermined. Our national security community will not remain the best in the world if it cannot make decisions based on the best available evidence.”

Among the leading signators are President Obama appointees John Kerry, former Secretary of State; Chuck Hagel, former Secretary of Defense; and Ray Mabus, former Secretary of the Navy. Their letter is posted on the website of the Center for Climate and Security, which includes other information about climate change.

CNN’s Christine Amanpour interviewed retired Rear Admiral David Titley about why the 58 security officials feel the need to speak out on the issue. Check out the video on CNN.

The letter was prompted by a discussion within the administration about forming a panel called the Presidential Committee on Climate Security. William Happer, a national security adviser in the Trump administration, could be chosen to lead the panel. Happer has been downplaying concerns about climate change and is often labeled a “climate denier.” Check out a story in “The Hill” by Miranda Green.

Item 2: Avoiding the trap of the Green New Deal

I thought that David Roberts, climate reporter for Vox, made some good points about the maneuvering being done by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer with regard to a vote on the Green New Deal:

“Schumer is now trapped in a familiar bind: He has to decide whether to vote on something bold and ambitious, which could divide his caucus, or to continue dodging clear votes and rallying behind nonthreatening statements of purpose that will receive the full backing of his caucus but won’t excite anyone,” Roberts writes.

“This is just another version of the trap Democrats have been in since 2010. Since there is zero prospect of Republican cooperation, being ‘realistic’ about legislative goals means crafting them so they are acceptable to the rightmost member of the Democratic caucus. (Recall when Joe Lieberman single-handedly killed the public option in Obamacare.)”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t seem to care about climate change, but he wants a vote on the Green New Deal, which calls for major changes in the country’s energy system.

Politico Reporter Anthony Adragna lays out the political drama this week in an article titled, “Democrats seek to evade GOP trap on Green New Deal vote.”

Despite McConnell’s political games, some Republicans are beginning to look for more conservative ways of addressing climate change, as reporter Mark Matthews describes in E&E News. If the discussion can begin in earnest among members of both parties, there might be hope of taking steps toward reducing the impacts of climate change.

The political dynamics is interesting, but David Roberts of Vox remains skeptical that the Republicans in Congress intend to do anything at all. He called the U.S. political system a “dumpster fire.”

“There’s no prospect of any cooperation from the right on any climate response of any remotely appropriate scale,” he wrote in his column. “The only way to change the status quo is through power, and the only power available to progressives on this issue is people power — bodies in the streets, in congressional offices, and in voting booths. Any plan to address climate change must involve not just policy but the question of how to build people power around it and thus change the status quo.”

Item 3: How will Jay Inslee handle the Green New Deal?

Gov. Jay Inslee, who is now officially running for president, has been saying that climate change is part of every major issue, from health care to education to jobs and the economy. His vision is clearly separate from the Green New Deal, but he won’t escape questions about its specific goals.

When Inslee appeared on “The View,” Meghan McCain began by telling him, “Maybe I am just a unicorn from another planet, but climate change doesn’t even hit my top 30 of how I vote for somebody. I do think I am on this panel to say that (climate change) isn’t what is selling me on you beating Trump. I say that with respect. What also isn’t selling me on you beating Trump is the Green New Deal…”

How well Inslee handles these kind of exchanges could make a difference among people who still need to be “sold” on climate change.

Item 4: ‘Inoculation’ against climate change misinformation

I’ve listed some articles and videos that could help people talk to their friends and family members about climate change (Water Ways, Feb. 16). Now a group of researchers led by Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at Yale University, describes some strategies that might be used on a wider scale.

Writer Kevin Dennehy of Yale News describes four of the strategies, including the notion that “society can ‘inoculate’ against misinformation by exposing people to refuted scientific arguments before they hear them, much like one can prevent infection through the use of vaccines.”

The paper was published in the journal “Nature Climate Change.”

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Climate Sense: The last four years are the warmest four on record

I would like to share five items about climate change.

Item 1

“The website you are trying to access is not available at this time due to a lapse in appropriation,” states several websites about climate and climate change managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I hit that dead-end trying to find out how the year 2018 stacked up for global warming. It would also be nice to report data on national, regional and state trends collected by NOAA and NASA, which usually announce their findings about this time of year. It appears that this year we’ll need to wait. As an alternative, I turned to the Climate Change Service of the European Union.

Here are some of the findings announced yesterday by CCS in a press release:

  • The last four years have been the warmest four on record, with 2018 being the fourth warmest, not far short of the temperature of the third warmest year 2015.
  • 2018 was more than 0.4°C (0.72°F) warmer than the 1981-2010 average.
  • The average temperature of the last 5 years was 1.1°C (1.98°F) higher than the pre-industrial average (as defined by the IPCC).
  • Europe saw annual temperatures less than 0.1°C (0.18°F) below those of the two warmest years on record, 2014 and 2015.
Item 2

Washington Post reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report the findings by an independent research firm under the headline: “U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018 — and it couldn’t happen at a worse time.”

UPDATE, Jan. 9: I’m adding a second article on this topic by Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic: “U.S. carbon pollution surged in 2018, after years of stasis.”

Item 3

Maryland Sea Grant produced an eight-minute video (this page) about Smithville, a community on Maryland’s eastern shoreline that supported a population of more than 100 people a century ago. The loss of industry and advancing marsh waters has reduced the community to just two homes. The story of the changing waters and community response provides a perspective on conditions that could be in store for many communities as a result of climate change.

Item 4

In Washington state, the quest for national political leadership merges with efforts to address climate change, as Gov. Jay Inslee weighs the prospects of running for president while pushing ahead with a state initiative for climate change.

Check out the article by Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic titled “Jay Inslee is betting he can win the presidency on climate change” and watch the interview with Inslee by Chris Hayes on MSNBC.

Item 5

Looking back: Royal Society Publishing compiled an extensive description of feedback processes that increase or decrease the rate of global warming. Feedback effects are critically important aspects of climate change. A brief introduction to feedbacks was offered on the website “Carbon Brief” by Eric Wolff, a research professor at The Royal Society, which is Great Britain’s national science academy. Wolff is also the lead author for an introduction to a special issue of a journal called “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A” dated Nov. 13, 2015. If you’re ambitious, you can read the details about various feedback responses in chapters of the journal itself.
———-

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year

In October, I was grabbed by a headline on a column by Margaret Sullivan, who writes about media issues for the Washington Post: “The planet is on a fast path to destruction. The media must cover this like it’s the only story that matters.” See Water Ways, Oct. 23.

Margaret Sullivan
Photo: Michael Benabib

As I wrote in my blog post, “Climate change is not a subject that generates happy news. It is not a subject that most politicians wish to address in any form, but it is one subject that separates those who care about the future of the planet from those who care only about short-term economic benefits or political gains.”

Nearly every time I write about climate change, someone reaches out to me to ask that I keep telling the climate story in my blog. I do a lot of reading about water-related issues, of course, and I am constantly learning about climate change — from detailed studies by scientists to government plans to address a future with greater floods, larger forest fires and extensive loss of marine life.

I have decided this year to share some of the more fascinating, ground-breaking or inspiring reports that I come across during my reading. I may provide just a link to an article or scientific report with a brief commentary, as opposed to a full-blown discussion. I’m going to label these brief references “Climate Sense” — as in the headline on this blog post. I hope we can all become better informed about this issue so vital to the future of humanity. (As always, one can subscribe to this blog in the column to the right.)

On Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press devoted its entire program to Climate Change — the science, the damage, the cost and the politics. Watch the entire show at Meet the Press online, or check out the individual segments on YouTube.

It is difficult for a Sunday-morning program to tackle a singular topic, especially in this era of Donald Trump, said anchor Chuck Todd at the beginning of the news show. Climate change, he noted, is an “Earth-changing subject that doesn’t get talked about this thoroughly, on television news at least.”

I was impressed when Chuck Todd threw down the gauntlet by emphasizing that his hour-long program would not devote any time to a debate over the existence of climate change.

“The Earth is getting hotter, and human activity is a major cause — period,” he said. “We’re not going to give time to climate deniers. The science is settled, even if political opinion is not.”

What Americans think about climate change from a political perspective was covered in a segment called “Digital Download,” the first video on this page. I also found it interesting to hear how some experts thought they could better engage the public in climate change, as shown in the second video.

Whether Congress will seriously address climate change in the next two years is yet to be seen, but we know that the debate is coming to the Washington Legislature, with Gov. Jay Inslee leading the charge. Check out the governor’s announcement or read my interview with state Sen. Christine Rolfes, which I wrote after Washington voters rejected a carbon-tax proposal on November’s ballot.

I would like us to always remember the words about climate change from Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan:

“There is a lot happening in the nation and the world, a constant rush of news. Much of it deserves our attention as journalists and news consumers. But we need to figure out how to make the main thing matter.

“In short, when it comes to climate change, we — the media, the public, the world — need radical transformation, and we need it now. Just as the smartest minds in earth science have issued their warning, the best minds in media should be giving sustained attention to how to tell this most important story in a way that will create change.

“We may be doomed even if that happens,” she concludes. “But we’re surely doomed if it doesn’t.”

Kongsgaard departs Puget Sound Partnership; Manning assumes chair

Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, has always spoken with a voice of both reason and passion while guiding the Puget Sound Partnership in its efforts to restore Puget Sound to health.

Martha Kongsgaard
Martha Kongsgaard

Yesterday and today, Martha attended her final meeting as a member of the Leadership Council, the governing body of the Partnership charged with coordinating Puget Sound ecosystem recovery.

While listening to presentations on technical and financial issues, Martha always seems to quickly focus discussions on the key issues of recovery while asking how to help average people understand the complex problems.

As a reporter, I’ve enjoyed speaking with Martha, who not only answers my questions in a direct and revealing way but also indulges my curiosity. Our discussions often take tangents onto other interesting subjects, sometimes leading to new stories or old stories told in a new way.

Nobody doubts Martha’s love of Puget Sound, expressed by her willingness to spend countless unpaid hours working for a better future.

Continue reading

Children join forces to demand action
on climate change

I find it fascinating that children are making a strong legal argument that governments must take swift action to reduce climate change.

A series of lawsuits across the country are founded on the idea that many adults will be gone in 40 or 50 years when climate extremes become the new norm. It is the young people of today who will suffer the consequences of ongoing government inaction.

In a case filed by a group of children in King County Superior Court, Judge Hollis Hill took the Washington Department of Ecology and Gov. Jay Inslee to task for delaying action on new clean air regulations to help curb greenhouse gas emissions:

“Petitioners assert, the department does not dispute, and this court finds that current scientific evidence establishes that rapidly increasing global warming causes an unprecedented risk to the Earth, including land, sea, the atmosphere and all living plants and animals…

“In fact, as petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming by accelerating the reduction of emission of GHGs (greenhouse gases) before doing so becomes too costly and then too late.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the current rates of reduction mandated by Washington law cannot achieve the GHG reductions necessary to protect our environment and to ensure the survival of an environment in which petitioners can grow to adulthood safely.”

One can download Hill’s full opinion (PDF 2.6 mb) from Our Children’s Trust website. Also, reporter Jeannie Yandel of radio station KUOW interviewed the attorney and some of the children involved in the case.

Attorney Andrea Rogers (far right) poses with young plaintiffs outside a King County courtroom. Their legal victory requires state government to address climate change by the end of 2016. Photo: Our Children’s Trust
Attorney Andrea Rogers (far right) poses with young plaintiffs outside a King County courtroom. Their legal victory requires state government to address climate change by the end of 2016. // Photo: Our Children’s Trust

It is ironic that Gov. Inslee finds himself under attack for failure to act against greenhouse gas emissions, given that he is one of the nation’s leading advocates for action on climate change. Inslee literally wrote the book on this issue while serving in Congress: “Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy.”

Unable to get the Legislature to act on his specific program, the governor is now on a course to impose new regulations to force a reduction in greenhouse gases. Initially, the new standards would apply to large industrial sources. The governor says his authority stems from a 2008 law passed by the Legislature requiring a reduction to 1990 emission levels by 2020. We can expect the rule to be challenged by business interests.

Originally, the rule was to be completed this summer, but the proposal was withdrawn in February in light of an overwhelming number of comments and new ideas that needed to be addressed. The rule is scheduled to be re-released later this month and adopted by the end of the year.

Judge Hill’s latest ruling from the bench on April 29 requires Ecology to adopt the rule by the end of the year. That fits within Ecology’s current schedule, said Camille St. Onge, spokeswoman for Ecology. Whether the agency might appeal the ruling to preserve its options won’t be decided until after the judge’s written findings are issued, she said.

“We agree with Judge Hill,” St. Onge told me in an email. “Climate change is a global issue, and science is telling us that what was projected years ago is happening today, and we need to act now to protect our environment and economy for future generations. We’re working vigorously on Washington’s first-ever rule to cap and reduce carbon pollution and help slow climate change.”

Gov. Inslee said in a news release that he has no dispute with Judge Hill’s findings, which actually support his approach to combatting climate change:

“This case is a call to act on climate, and that call is one that has been a priority for me since taking office. Our state is helping lead the way on climate action in our country…

“In a way it is gratifying that the court has also affirmed our authority to act, contrary to the assertion of those who continue to reject action on climate change and ocean acidification. Hundreds of people have participated in the creation of our state's Clean Air Rule and the draft will be out in just a few weeks.”

For details about the proposed Clean Air Rule, visit Ecology’s website.

Meanwhile, Washington state is not the only state where youth have filed lawsuits to assert their rights to a healthy future. Cases also are pending in Oregon, Massachusetts, Colorado and North Carolina, according to Our Children’s Trust, which provides details about the state lawsuits on its website.

At the same time, another case is underway in U.S. District Court in Oregon, where Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin ruled that the young plaintiffs have standing and legitimate claims to be adjudicated. He allowed the case to move forward with additional evidence to be submitted. Read his April 8 ruling (PDF 3.2 mb) on the website of Our Children’s Trust.

The video below features reporter Bill Moyers discussing the legal issues in these cases, which include claims related to the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient principle that asserts the public’s right to use and enjoy certain natural resources that cannot be ceded to private property owners.

Inslee to decide whether to revise water-pollution standards for the state

Identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution — a process involving “chemical action plans” — is a common-sense idea that never faced much opposition among legislators.

Capitol

But the Legislature’s failure to act on the idea this year cut the legs out from under Gov. Jay Inslee’s anti-pollution plan, which included updated water-quality standards along with authority to study and ban harmful chemicals when alternatives are available.

Although chemical action plans make a lot of sense, the idea of coupling such planning to water-quality standards never quite gelled. Inslee argued that water-quality standards alone would not solve the pollution problem, because the standards address only a limited number of chemicals.

Furthermore, while the water-quality standards define an acceptable level of pollution for a body of water, they are limited in their regulatory control. The standards generally limit discharges only from industrial processes and sewage-treatment plants. In today’s world, stormwater delivers most of the pollution. Legal limits for stormwater discharges are nonexistent, except in rare cases where a toxic-cleanup plan has been established.

Environmentalists and tribal leaders were disappointed with the governor’s proposed water-quality standards. They believed he should be calling for much more stringent standards. While most people liked the idea of an ongoing program of chemical action planning, the governor received limited support for his legislation, House Bill 1472, among environmental and tribal communities.

Inslee

We can’t forget that Inslee had publicly stated that if the Legislature failed to act on his full pollution-cleanup program, he would revisit the water-quality standards — presumably to make them stronger. So the governor kind of boxed himself in, and that’s where we stand today.

Republican legislators acknowledged the value of chemical action plans. Their concerns seemed to center around a distrust of the Department of Ecology, reflecting the views of the chemical industry and others who could find themselves under greater regulatory control.

The House stripped out a provision in the bill that would allow Ecology to ban chemicals without legislative approval. And the key committee in the Senate — the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee — went further by limiting Ecology’s ability to study safer chemicals when a ban is under consideration.

The governor ultimately shifted his support away from the bill that emerged from the committee, as I described in a story I wrote in April for InvestigateWest. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate, and it ultimately died, along with funding for a wider range of chemical action plans.

“Not only did we not get additional policy help, but we also didn’t get funding to implement the chemical action plans that were already done,” noted Rob Duff, the governor’s environmental policy adviser.

In all, about $3.8 million for toxic cleanup efforts was cancelled along with the legislation.

Plans have been developed to reduce toxic releases of five classes of persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs, including polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. But carrying through on cleanup ideas spelled out in those plans has been slow without targeted funding, and many toxic chemicals of concern, such as pharmaceuticals, are not considered PBTs.

“We aren’t going to throw up our hands,” Rob told me. “Under the PBT rule, we can do PBTs. We will continue to push toward source reduction, although we did not get additional authority from the Legislature.”

Educational programs and voluntary efforts by industry remain in play, pending a further try at legislation next session. Meanwhile, the governor will review the proposed water quality standards, according to Duff.

Rule note

“We will put everything on the table and see what is the best path forward,” he said. “We will have the governor briefed and the necessary discussions over the next two weeks.”

The governor’s proposed water-quality standards have gone through public hearings and must be approved by Aug. 3, or else the process must start over.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing its own water-quality rule, which could impose stronger standards upon the state. Water-quality standards, which are a concentration of chemicals in the water, are based on a formula that accounts for how each chemical is assimilated through the food web and into the human body.

One factor involves how much contaminated fish a person is likely to eat. For years, states across the country have used the same fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams a day, which is less than a quarter of an ounce. This number was long recognized as grossly underestimating the amount of fish that people eat, especially for Northwest residents and even more so for Native Americans who generally consume large quantities of fish.

If adopted, the new water-quality standards would raise the daily fish-consumption rate to 175 grams, or about 6 ounces. If all other factors stayed the same, the new fish consumption rate would raise the safety factor by 27 times. But, as the update moved along, several other factors were amended as well.

Inslee’s proposal was to raise the allowable risk of getting cancer after a lifetime of eating 175 grams of fish each day. The proposal was to increase the risk factor from one case of cancer in a million people to one case among 100,000 people. Inslee included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that the allowable concentration of chemicals would not be increased, no matter what the formula came up with.

Environmental advocates and tribal leaders cried foul over the cancer risk, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA, said he did not want the cancer risk to be increased for any state under his authority.

I covered these issues in a two-part series for the Kitsap Sun:

The EPA expects to have its proposed standards for Washington state ready this fall, possibly November. EPA officials will review the state’s proposal when it is final, but that won’t stop the agency from completing its work, according to a written statement from the EPA regional office.

“We continue to work closely with Governor Inslee’s office and the Washington Department of Ecology to see water quality standards adopted and implemented that protect all residents of the state, as well as tribal members, who regularly and often consume fish as part of a healthy diet,” according to the statement.

Industry officials and sewage-treatment-plant operators have argued that the technology does not exist to meet some of the water-quality standards that would result from a cancer-risk rate of one in a million if the other factors stayed the same. PCBs is one example of a pollutant difficult to control. Besides, they argue, stormwater — not their facilities — is the primary source of PCBs in most cases. That’s why eliminating the original sources of PCBs is so important.

McLerran, who seems to support the more stringent standards, has mentioned that facilities can apply for variances, relaxed compliance schedules or other “implementation tools,” to get around strict numerical standards impossible to meet with today’s technology.

Environmental groups are calling on the governor to tighten up the proposed water-quality standards, rather than let them go into effect, given the Legislature’s failure to approve his overall plan.

“Gov. Inslee must do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable — babies and children — from the devastating health effects of potent neurotoxins like mercury and carcinogens like PCBs,” stated Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper.

“Ecology’s draft rule provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math, leaving the actual water quality standards largely unchanged,” he said. “This is simply unacceptable. Without the veil of a new source control package from the Legislature, the Governor’s plan clearly has no clothes.”

Others maintain that the governor has been on the right track all along, and they warn that the state could face lawsuits if it imposes standards that are too strict.

Bruce Hope, a retired toxicologist, wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times that included these statements:

“Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met…

“Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground.

“Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.”

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

What’s to happen with funding for Puget Sound?

Finding money for Puget Sound restoration is likely to become more difficult next year as legislative power shifts to Republicans in the state Senate and the Legislature wrestles with funding for education.

The power shift follows the defection of two Democratic senators to effectively create a Republican majority in the Senate. See reporter Mike Baker’s story for the Associated Press.

The upcoming budget debate will no doubt revolve around new funding for education. The State Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature must find more money to fund basic educational needs, as required by the Washington State Constitution. Gov. Chris Gregoire has been talking about proposing a new dedicated tax, but now opponents of tax increases will have a stronger position.

Gov.-elect Jay Inslee ran on a no-new-taxes pledge, so it is likely that all state programs will go back on the chopping block, and nobody can predict what will come out of the turmoil.

Inslee told me a month ago that he could not predict whether Puget Sound programs would get more or less money, but he considered the state’s “paramount duty” to be education. Please review the Kitsap Sun story on Nov. 15.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gregoire told Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber that her greatest disappointment was not getting more done to restore Puget Sound:

“Because that’s forever. That’s a big forever issue for this state. What I think happened… is we were on our way, and then we just got taken to our knees by the recession. While I kept funding it through other means, it didn’t get the focus I think it needs and deserves because I was so consumed by the recession.”

The governor told me during an interview last month that she still hopes the Legislature can find more money for Puget Sound — including a stable funding source — once the state gets to a stronger financial footing:

“We kept putting money in… I kept pushing for ongoing funding, and we will have to continue to do that for awhile.

“When the recession hit, I have to say that everybody’s attention got drawn away. People wondered, ‘Can I put food on the table? Am I going to lose my job?’ It was so all-consuming that I couldn’t focus on the sound.

“There was a lot of talk about a flush tax. We have never really done the research on it. The last couple of years was no time to be thinking about that. We have demands for education and transportation. But at some point we will have to find the ability to (pay for) more capital projects.

“I think we have held our own and made some improvement, but not the improvement we should have. We have to kick it up. The population continues to grow. We’re going to have to kick it up or we are going to lose ground. I’m not proud of the fact that we are kind of treading water right now.”

Gov. Gregoire also acknowledged to me that federal funding for Puget Sound could become more difficult with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who has been a powerful advocate for Puget Sound. On the other hand, she has hope that Norm’s effort through the years and the establishment of the Puget Sound Partnership with provide ongoing credibility for the program. She also believes that Norm’s replacement, Democrat Derek Kilmer, will be a strong advocate for Puget Sound, along with the state’s two U.S. senators.

Other comments from my interview with the governor were used in the first story in what will be an ongoing series about the Puget Sound Partnership’s ecosystem indicators. See Kitsap Sun, Nov. 24.

Speaking of money for Puget Sound, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board has approved $19.2 million statewide for salmon projects next year. I focused my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun on estuary projects in Hood Canal, but the full list of projects (PDF 279 kb) can be downloaded from the website of the Recreation and Conservation Office.

It might be interesting to review the history of these grants, year by year. The following are the annual allocations with links to more details:

2013: $19.2 million. News release, Dec. 10, 2012

2012: $30 million. News release, Dec. 12, 2011

2011: $19.8 million. News release, Dec. 20, 2010

2010: $42.8 million. News release, Dec. 15, 2009

2009: $19.8 million. News release, Dec. 12, 2008

2008: $60 million. News release (PDF 360 kb), Dec. 19, 2007

2007: $16.6 million. News release (PDF 262 kb), Dec. 8, 2006

2006: $26.6 million. News release (PDF 262 kb), Jan. 11, 2006

2005: $26.7 million. News release (PDF 188 kb), Dec. 9, 2004 (Gov. Gary Locke)

Incoming and outgoing governors view Puget Sound

Gov. Chris Gregoire and her replacement, Jay Inslee, still have great hopes for the future health of Puget Sound, as I learned when I interviewed them separately in recent days.

I reserved some of the governor’s comments for a story that appeared in today’s Kitsap Sun titled “Human values count in Puget Sound recovery.”

Jim Barnes of Olympia partakes of an abundance of oysters at Twanoh State Park, which meets outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s call for beaches that are “swimmable, diggable and fishable.” / Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

This is the first of an undetermined number of stories I’ll be writing over the next year or so dealing with ecosystem indicators. Indicators are selected measures to help us understand the pace of progress in restoring Puget Sound. I hope the upcoming stories will reveal something about the functioning of the ecosystem and how the various pieces fit together.

The first story today addresses human health and quality of life, which have always been a central focus of Chris Gregoire’s effort to make sure Puget Sound is “swimmable, diggable and fishable” for future generations.

“Things have not moved as quickly as I had hoped,” the governor told me, referring to efforts by the Puget Sound Partnership. “I thought we got off with a bang, including public engagement. Now, we are into the tough stuff.”

She recalled how, years ago, cleanup efforts focused on reducing industrial discharges. That includes the period from 1988 to 1992, when she served as director of the Washington Department of Ecology. Now most of the serious pollutants reach Puget Sound through stormwater runoff. The current effort is to reduce the volume of water flowing across the ground while eliminating a huge variety of pollutants at their source.

If you read the comments at the end of news stories regarding the Puget Sound Partnership, you could come to believe that the agency has a long way to go in convincing the average person that he or she is part of the problem. But many of the comments are made by cranky people who seem unlikely to be convinced of anything.

In general, most people really care about Puget Sound and simply need help in taking the right steps, according to surveys. In my story today, the partnership’s Dave Ward talks about an indicator that could help measure changes in human behavior.

As for Gov.-elect Jay Inslee, it is hard to tell how things will change under his leadership. He reminded me in our interview that he faces severe budget difficulties — and money certainly is a major factor in Puget Sound recovery. See my story in the Nov. 15 Kitsap Sun.

To the dismay of some opponents, Inslee has always been a strong advocate for the environment. That is not likely to change. He has been a leader on climate change and clean energy, and he has a deep-rooted passion for Puget Sound and the surrounding forests. I learned a good deal about his views a decade ago during an extended interview, which involved a hike through a roadless area in Olympic National Forest. See the Kitsap Sun story from May 19, 2002.

Gov. Chris Gregoire tours an oyster nursery near Shelton in October 2010.
Kitsap Sun file photo by Larry Steagall

While the governor-elect has no immediate plans to change the structure of the Puget Sound Partnership, he stressed that he wants to ensure that restoration projects are guided by science.

Gregoire said during our recent discussion that she would advise the incoming governor to keep up the pressure on the partnership, and she hoped that more funding will become available as the economy recovers.

In October 2010, if you recall, Gregoire emphasized the importance of maintaining Puget Sound programs, despite the financial crisis.

“We are in the hardest economic problem since the deep depression, but we cannot take a recess; we cannot take time out,” she said at that time during a tour of Belfair’s new sewage-treatment plant. See Kitsap Sun, Oct. 15.

In our recent discussion, the governor said she was not able to find as much money for Puget Sound as she had hoped. Here’s how she put it:

“We kept putting money in. We couldn’t let up. I kept pushing for ongoing funding, and we will have to continue to do that for awhile.

“I think we have held our own and made some improvement, but not the improvement we should have. The population continues to grow. We’re going to have to kick it up or we are going to lose ground. I’m not proud of the fact that we are kind of treading water right now.”

She said things are unlikely to get easier right away, because the state is still struggling with its budget. Furthermore, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, a successful advocate for federal funding, is leaving office. Dicks was instrumental in putting Puget Sound on a national stage, on par with Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes, Gregoire said. She expressed hope that the increased profile for Puget Sound will endure with the help of others in the state’s congressional delegation.

As Washington’s economy recovers, Chris Gregoire would like to see talks turn to a stable funding source, such as a “flush tax” on residents in the Puget Sound region. Another idea debated in the Legislature was a tax on oil and chemical products that could be used for stormwater improvements. Gregoire continues:

“There’s been a lot of talk about a flush tax. We have never really done the research on that. The last couple of years was no time to be thinking about that. We have demands on education and transportation. But we need a sustained reliable source of funding.

“And we need public support. Unless and until we get everyone engaged, we are not going to make it…. I think we are well on our way. Local communities are doing a lot of volunteer work. School groups are monitoring the environment….

“When the recession hit, I have to say, everybody’s attention got drawn away by other concerns: ‘Can I put food on the table? Am I going to lose my job?’

“Now we’ve got to find a better way. We have to have a bottoms-up approach. People must consider themselves part of the solution.”

Congressional principles offered to address global warming

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, working with U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have managed to get 149 of their fellow House members to sign onto a set up principles to guide Congress on a quest to reduce global warming.

All 152 members of Congress signed a four-page letter (PDF 592 kb) (not including six pages of signatures) sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The letter outlines and elaborates on four principles.

“Acting in accordance with these principles is critical to achieving a fair and effective bill that will avoid the most dangerous global warming and assist those harmed by the warming that is unavoidable, while strengthening our economy,” the letter states.

The four principles:

  1. Reduce emissions to avoid dangerous global warming;
  2. Transition America to a clean energy economy;
  3. Recognize and minimize any economic impacts from global warming legislation; and
  4. Aid communities and ecosystems vulnerable to harm from global warming.

Other members of the Washington delegation who signed the letter are Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks, Jim McDermott and Brian Baird.