6 environmental issues to watch in Olympia

Washington's state capitol building is seen across Capitol Lake. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

OLYMPIA – Should Washington businesses and consumers pay to offset their impact on the global climate? Should the state keep water in streams to preserve fish, or is promoting rural home-building more important? How many safety precautions are necessary to protect Puget Sound from oil spills?

As the Legislature moves through the second of nine weeks in its 2018 session, these and other longstanding questions about environmental protection have emerged with a different backdrop.

For the first time since 2012, Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. And yet, that might not make much difference by the time the Legislature adjourns in early March.

Democrats have gained a one-vote advantage in the Senate, controlled in recent years by Republicans, but it remains to be seen whether that slim advantage after an election on Seattle’s Eastside will translate into actual gains for environmentalists this year. Numerous middle-of-the-road Democrats from suburban and semi-rural areas are not sure votes, even if Democratic leadership toed the advocates’ line.

Despite this high bar, environmentalists are confident.

“We’re feeling very optimistic,” said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council and other green groups that have banded together as the Environmental Priorities Coalition.

When it comes to the advocates’ priority issues, “the last five sessions we have had an inability to be successful,” Traisman acknowledged. And yet, during a short 60-day session when most legislators are running for re-election in the fall, developers and others stand ready to short-circuit environmental activists’ ambitions.

“Most of the heavy-lifting bills may have a harder time,” said Art Castle, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, which represents developers.

Here’s a rundown of key environmental issues expected to be argued and voted on by March 8:

Carbon tax

A proposed carbon tax is the most significant and potentially far-reaching environmental issue the Legislature will deal with in 2018. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is trying for a sixth time to find a way to tax fossil-fuel use. This year’s proposal would place a $20 tax on every ton of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and transportation, with certain exceptions, including aircraft fuel and biogas. What’s different this year: More business support. Microsoft and Puget Sound Energy have endorsed Inslee’s proposal, for example.

“2018 is the year for #WA state to accelerate efforts to address climate change,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote on Twitter. “We look forward to working with stakeholders to reduce emissions & advance clean energy, including putting a price on carbon.”

How many businesses jump onboard remains a question, given opposition by petroleum and other interests. Association of Washington Business President Kris Johnson warns that consumers would pay higher costs — to heat homes and for gasoline to drive to work — while the state’s competitiveness could be put at risk, as industries may decide to move to where there isn’t a carbon tax.

Environmentalists acknowledge passing a carbon tax will be difficult. “We don’t definitely have the votes,” Traisman said. “But we feel like for the first time in five years this issue is connecting with the Legislature because it’s connecting with the constituents.”

Water for development, or for salmon?

Perhaps the most politically volatile environmental issue to be considered this year is a holdover from the 2017 session that pits rural landowners who want to build on their land against the state’s iconic salmon. It’s about how much water can be sucked out of the ground by water wells in rural areas without nearby streams running too low to support healthy fish runs.

Reacting to a 2016 Washington Supreme Court ruling that has prevented many rural landowners from starting construction, Republicans in the Legislature last year refused to pass the normal capital budget — which pays for such state services as $1 billion in school construction funding, expanding health treatment and protecting against floods and wildfires.  This year, Democrats appear ready to deal on this issue.

Democratic Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim has filed a bill (SB 6091) called “Ensuring that water is available to support development.” It’s an illustration of how Democrats are trying to find a middle ground in a closely divided legislature.

But environmentalists are pushing back, saying the legislation for the first time would allow people to draw water out of critical salmon streams without making up for the lost water. Instead, they could plant streamside trees or the like.  “There’s not enough water right now to support existing uses,” said Bruce Wishart, lobbyist for the Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “It’s only going to get worse with climate change.”

Old development rights

As InvestigateWest reported in 2011, a loophole in Washington law has repeatedly authorized major real estate developments to go forward even after they’ve been declared urban sprawl, which violates the state’s landmark Growth Management Act.

This year, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Seattle, is again bringing forward legislation that would put some limits on the so-called “vesting” of development approvals, which have allowed thousands of homes to be built despite modern limits on development.

Mike Ennis, a government affairs director at the Association of Washington Business, said his organization is likely to oppose Goodman based on early discussions with the lawmaker.

Oil spills

After horrific scenes of oil-bearing trains exploding and killing people, the Legislature in 2015 passed legislation to improve safety of oil transport by rail. But the law failed to ensure better protection for Puget Sound from oil spills.

“While this bill is a solid step forward, much more work needs to be done when it comes to protecting Puget Sound,” Inslee said at the time.

Lawmakers in 2018 are considering whether to boost taxes on oil imported to Washington refineries to provide money for better oil-spill protection, as well as tax oil shipped by pipeline, to help pay for water infrastructure on tribal lands. Another measure would beef up security measures for oil tankers and oil-bearing “articulated barges” pushed by tugboats — the latter being used for more than 1,000 voyages in 2015.

At least half a dozen measures to improve oil transportation safety are under consideration this year.

Protecting fish and shorelines

A long-running controversy over how much development can be allowed in streams or bays where it can hurt increasingly imperiled fish is again an issue in the legislature. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, a Democrat from Burien, seeks to give the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife civil authority to crack down on unpermitted construction in state waters — first, by providing a warning and, if unheeded, using the force of civil penalties of up to $10,000 for every violation.

The department’s Hydraulic Project Approval program, often referred to by its acronym HPA, issues permits statewide for private or government building projects that might harm fish habitat. But the program, initiated in the 1940s, lacks enforcement mechanisms common to most modern environmental problems, a shortcoming environmentalists have repeatedly tried to address.

The measure faces headwinds from business. “We’re willing to have that conversation, but we need reforms,” said Ennis of AWB.

Particularly, he seeks a more explicit definition of exactly where and when rules would apply, as the department now applies rules “very inconsistently across the state,” he said. From the start, some have questioned whether the program should be applied above the ordinary high water line, although Fish and Wildlife applies it in situations where erosion could be created uphill.

Ports’ air pollution

Six years after InvestigateWest and KCTS revealed how thousands of truck trips per day around the Port of Seattle were fouling the air in south Seattle in neighborhoods with low median incomes and high proportions of non-white residents, trucks moving goods around the port have still not met deadlines to clean up the air.

A group of Democratic House members, concerned that the Port (now operating with the Port of Tacoma) just failed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline, is pushing a bill to ensure once and for all that only modern, cleaner trucks will be allowed starting Jan. 1, 2019. The legislation also calls for all port trucks to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

"Air quality in the areas around these ports fell below 17 federal standards in the not-distant past,” reads the bill. “This history of air quality problems that threaten both public health and the economic vitality of the communities adds extra import.”

The bill got a hearing Tuesday in the House Environment Committee.

The InvestigateWest and KCTS reporting had cited studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry showing large air-pollution impacts in South Park and Georgetown.

Robert McClure contributed to this report.

 This story is part of InvestigateWest’s Statehouse News Project, a crowdfunded effort to provide independent reporting on environmental issues being considered by the 2018 Washington Legislature. Please support the project with a tax-deductible donation at www.invw.org/donate.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Sally Deneen

Sally Deneen is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.