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Businesses balk at dealing with ocean threat

The Northwest's native Olympia oyster. Credit: Feet Wet/Wikimedia Commons

Business interests say a proposal to deal with the rising acidity of Washington's coastal waters is "not ready for prime time."

The Association of Washington Business and the Washington Farm Bureau lined up Wednesday against a bill to create a council to advise the state government on how to tackle ocean acidification. The bill also calls for considering the acidity of water runoff in urban planning efforts.

"Most of those recommendations (by a 2012 scientific, business and legislative panel on how to deal with ocean acidification) the business community doesn't believe are ready for prime time," AWB representative Brandon Houskeeper told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Tom Davis of the Washington Farm Bureau argued that science has not shown that local factors are increasing ocean acidification. However, ocean scientists and biologists on the 2012 panel pointed to industrial emissions and water runoff as factors in increasing the acidity of Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean off Washington's West Coast.

Meanwhile, Taylor Shellfish, the Nature Conservancy, the Pacific Shellfish Growers, the Surfriders Foundation, University of Washington research interests and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supported the bill by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, to create an ocean acidification issues panel.

Washington is the first state to try to tackle ocean acidification.

Thanks to rising acidity levels in Northwest waters, tiny oyster shells in Washington's Dabob and Willapa bays and in Oregon's Netarts Bay are crumbling faster than they can grow back; the problem has cut sharply into the most recent oyster harvests. Billions of oyster larvae have died. Scientists have pinpointed a drop in the water's pH level as the cause. The trend has two primary contributing factors: additional carbon dioxide in the air and nitrogen-laden nutrients that seep from cities, septic tanks and agriculture into the ocean.

The problem has a local economic component because the state's shellfish industry is one of the biggest in the world, bringing in about $270 million annually and employing roughly 3,200 people in predominantly rural areas, where jobs are often hard to come by and losses could greatly hurt local economies. "It has a huge impact, not just on the environment, but on economic drivers," Ranker said.

"Ocean acidification is a serious problem, especially for our industry. We're experiencing losses because of it," said Bill Dewey, representing Taylor Shellfish.

"Washington needs to think proactively," said Bill Robinson of the Nature Conservancy.

Opponents argued that the proposed council would create a new layer of bureaucracy. And they said business and agricultural interest are not earmarked to be represented on the council. Environmentalists made the same argument about conservation interests. Ranker said that underrepresentation can be easily fixed in the bill.

If the bill makes it to the floor of the Senate, it has a chance of passing. Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, is a co-sponsor. His vote along with the 24 minority-side Democrats would provide a winning 25 votes.

If the council is formed, it would then tackle recommendations by the 2012 panel, which include:

  • Studying the relationships between the state's carbon emissions and Puget Sound's acidity. The report also recommended doing similar studies on nutrients from various uses, such as fertilizers and their effects on Puget Sound's water. Relationships between acidity and shellfish health also need expanded study. These will be expensive, and should be tackled soon, with expectations that the studies will take years.
  • Introducing legislation on nutrient limits for rural sewage going into or toward Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean.
  • Beginning long-range studies on whether urban sewage plants and other specific nutrient-waste sources should be modified to decrease the amounts of nutrients leaving them.
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