Feds to introduce grizzlies to the North Cascades

Grizzly bears near Yellowstone Naitonal Park

Grizzly bears near Roaring Mountain at Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy of E. Johnston/National Park Service)

Grizzly bears will roam the North Cascades region for the first time in 27 years under a restoration process conducted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the two agencies announced Thursday

According to the agencies’ restoration plan, they will capture 25 grizzly bears from the Rocky Mountains or interior British Columbia and release them in the North Cascades over five to 10 years. The aim is for this initial population to grow to 200 bears in 60-100 years. 

Agencies have not yet set a timeline to relocate grizzly bears to the North Cascades. The National Park Service will publish updates on its website.

Federal agencies say restoring a grizzly bear population would bring back ecological interactions crucial and beneficial to the region’s fish and wildlife habitat, including seed dispersal to replenish plant life and regulation of the prey population. The U.S. portion of the North Cascades region spans 9,800 square miles. About 85% of the region is under federal management. 

However, not all welcomed the news. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima, has proposed legislation to prevent the relocation, noting the potential impact on residents, livestock and wildlife. 

“This administration is, once again, disregarding local public opinion and instead catering to the whims of coastal elites and the out-of-touch environmentalist lobby, which has been rushing to finalize this plan since its inception,” Newhouse said in a news release Thursday. 

Grizzly bears inhabited the North Cascades for thousands of years, but the population has declined due to killing by humans. The species hasn’t been seen in the North Cascade since 1996. The species is currently classified as threatened in the lower 48 states. 

The bears will be designated as a nonessential experimental population under the Endangered Species Act, which provides additional flexibility in restoring a species’ population. 

The bears will have radio collars to provide wildlife managers with updates on their movement. Sightings of the bears are expected to be rare during the first 10 to 20 years of the restoration effort. 

The restoration decision follows a two-year environmental impact evaluation process, which included more than 12,000 comments from the public. 

Tri-Cities wind turbine farm proposal halved for endangered hawks

The propellors of a wind turbine are seen with a mountain in the background

In this June 3, 2011, file photo, wind turbines stand along the Columbia River Gorge near Goldendale, Wash. In recent years, huge solar and wind farms have sprouted on public desert land in the Western United States, buoyed by generous federal tax credits. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A Washington commission recommended approval Wednesday of a slimmed-down wind turbine project just south of the Tri-Cities.

The Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council voted 5-2 to recommend that Gov. Jay Inslee approve the Horse Heaven Hills turbine project. The original project had faced criticism for threatening endangered ferruginous hawks and ruining views.

Inslee now has 60 days to make his decision. EFSEC is a committee of representatives from several Washington state agencies.

Scout Clean Energy of Boulder, Colorado, originally made plans for a maximum of 141 or 222 wind turbines – depending on approved height – along a 24-mile east/west stretch of the Horse Heaven Hills just south of Kennewick. However, the state council decided in February to implement two-mile buffer zones around 60 to 70 ferruginous hawk nests in that area and remove turbines along the north slopes of the hills. 

The buffer zone cuts Scout Clean Energy’s number of turbines by roughly half, though the precise number won’t be available until the company maps out a new plan. The company said the changes trim the projected 1,150 megawatts of wind power to 236 megawatts.

Scout Clean Energy’s original proposal also included two 500-megawatt solar panel farms on the east and west sides of the 24-mile stretch. EFSEC ordered that the eastern solar farm be removed because of its proximity to sensitive Native cultural sites

The wind farm has drawn strong opposition from numerous Tri-Citians because the original plan for the turbines would disrupt a currently pristine view of the hills from the urban area, and could disturb the ferruginous hawk nests. 

"By partially approving the Horse Heaven wind and solar project, EFSEC is balancing the need for renewable, clean energy with potential impacts on tribal cultural resources, wildlife and surrounding communities,” said the council’s chairwoman Kathleen Drew at Wednesday’s meeting.

WA drought emergency map
Washington State Department of Ecology map showing that most of the state is now under a drought emergency. Several cities in the Puget Sound region are excluded because their water storage makes them more resilient to drought. (Courtesy of Washington State Department of Ecology)

The state Department of Ecology declared a drought emergency for most of the state Tuesday. 

The department first noted the threat of drought after a dry start to the winter. While precipitation in the past three months contributed to an increase in Washington’s snowpack, there still isn’t enough water needed for farms, aquatic wildlife and people. 

Snowpack is at 68% statewide, with several areas, including the Olympic Mountains, Lower Yakima and north Puget Sound region, having significantly lower numbers.

Drought is declared when there is less than 75% of normal water supply, and a risk of undue hardship. With anticipated warm and dry conditions this spring, Ecology said in a news release that it wanted to declare a drought to make assistance available before impacts become severe. The agency will have up to $4.5 million available for drought response grants for qualifying public entities to respond to the impact of current drought conditions. Declaring an emergency also allows Ecology to process emergency water-rights permits and transfers.  

Ecology is working with other state agencies to coordinate the drought response. Drought conditions could adversely affect the state’s agriculture industry (still recovering from losses from several years of adverse weather conditions) and also adversely impact fish and other wildlife. 

This drought emergency includes more of the state than the emergency from 2023, which was declared for watersheds in 12 counties. This time around, only a portion of the Puget Sound area, including the cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma, are not included in the emergency. Those cities have reservoir storage and water management strategies that make them resilient to drought, Ecology said in the news release. 

Washington to adopt new U.S. PFAS limits, but may take two years

A Washington Department of Ecology test well

A Washington Department of Ecology test well in the Lazy Acres neighborhood in Tumwater. Statewide, more than 300 water sources contain some amount of PFAS. (Andy Engelson for Cascade PBS)

The Washington Department of Health plans to lower the limits on “forever chemicals” in drinking water after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced new lower limits on Wednesday.

The EPA released new nationwide maximum contaminant levels for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – known as PFAS – after a year-long review. The DOH responded to that announcement with an explanation of what those new limits will mean for Washington. The new EPA maximum levels are mostly lower than the limits adopted in 2021 by the Washington State Board of Health.

Those state limits will stay in place until the Board of Health adopts the new federal levels, which can take up to two years, according to a news release from the DOH.

PFAS are a class of water-resistant human-made chemicals used in a wide variety of products from rain jackets to Teflon pans to firefighting foam. These so-called “forever chemicals” do not break down easily in the environment. They have been found to have negative health impacts that include higher cholesterol, decreased immune response, thyroid disease and increased risks of kidney and testicular cancer.

The DOH offers a page filled with information about PFAS, and so do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent reporting at Cascade PBS revealed how much of a problem these substances have been in Washington.

WA, CA, Quebec move closer to creating a joint carbon market

The site for Puget Sound Energy's new Tacoma LNG Facility

The site for Puget Sound Energy’s new Tacoma LNG Facility in a photo from Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. At 5.6 million tons in 2021, PSE is the state’s top emitter of greenhouse gases. (Dorothy Edwards/Cascade PBS)

California and Quebec on Wednesday took the next step toward partnering with Washington to form a bigger carbon market.

The state and Canadian province formally announced their interest in the joint venture. The earliest that the proposed alliance could happen is 2025. Lurking in the background is a November referendum on whether to repeal Washington’s cap-and-invest program.

“Though Washington has formally expressed interest in joining the California-Québec carbon market, today’s joint statement is the first time that all three governments have expressed their mutual interest in forming a shared market,” wrote Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman Caroline Halter in an email. Details will be hashed out among the three governments.

The Washington Legislature recently passed a bill that brings this state’s fledgling carbon market regulations in sync with the joint California/Quebec market. A bigger market is expected to bring down carbon emission auction prices, which would lead to lower gasoline prices.  

Washington’s carbon polluters, including oil companies, bid every three months on the amount of carbon emissions they can release. The volume of allowances is limited, which has driven up auction bids. 

Until recently, Washington’s auction prices — ranging from $48.50 to $63.03 per allowance of about one metric ton of carbon emissions — have been significantly higher than those of the California/Quebec joint market, taking a lot of blame for this state’s high gasoline prices. But while Washington’s carbon auction prices have been higher than those in California, Washington has frequently had lower gas prices. 

New York, Massachusetts and Maryland are watching Washington and this potential alliance with thoughts of creating their own cap-and-trade programs to eventually join the bigger market.

Earlier this month, at Washington’s first auction of the year, carbon allowance prices of $25.76 came in dramatically lower than those in the California/Quebec market, whose bid prices increased from $19 in 2021 to $41.76 last month, according to the California Air Resources Board. 

Since January 2023, Washington has raised $1.96 billion in cap-and-invest revenue for many dozen climate change mitigation programs.

WA’s first carbon auction of 2024 raises far less than expected

The U.S. Oil & Refining Co. in Tacoma

The U.S. Oil & Refining Co. in Tacoma has been in operation since 1957. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

The first quarterly carbon auction of 2024 has added two new wrinkles to the economics of Washington’s fledgling program. 

First: The auction price was $25.76 per allowance. That’s radically lower than the four quarterly auction prices posted in 2023, which took a lot of blame for Washington’s high gasoline prices. The ripple effect on gas prices is uncharted territory.

Second: The March auction results, announced Wednesday, raised $135.5 million for the state, only a fraction of the $941 million the state predicted the auctions would bring in during the first half of 2024. 

Carbon-emitting corporations, including oil companies, bid every three months on state allowances for the pollution emitted by their facilities. The prices in the four 2023 auctions ranged from $48.50 for roughly one metric ton of carbon in the first quarter of 2023 to $63.03 in the third quarter. Those 2023 prices were significantly higher than predicted before the program began, and were blamed for adding 21 to 50 cents per gallon to Washington’s already high gas prices.

High fuel costs have led to a conservative initiative on the November ballot to repeal the cap-and-invest program. Washington has always had some of the nation’s highest gas prices due to various geographical and economic factors outside of the cap-and-invest program. Washington’s average gas price per gallon is currently $4.22 compared to a national average of $3.40, according to the AAA.

The state Office of Financial Management said the $135.5 million in new 2024 revenue is $108 million to $110 million less than what was predicted for the March auction. OFM spokesman Hayden Mackley said in an email he could not speculate on the effect of auction prices on gas prices. 

But Jaime Smith, Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesperson, noted: “Even as allowance prices were relatively high throughout the fall and winter, gas prices fell to a two-year low, showing how difficult it is to infer direct impacts.”

Washington is exploring joining a joint California/Quebec carbon market in order to bring down auction prices, but this quarter’s auction prices in Washington were lower than those in Quebec and California.  

Environmental justice group Washington Conservation Action is accepting applications for the annual $100,000 Bullitt Prize through June 1, 2024. 

The award is meant to support new environmental justice leaders (under age 35) from across the Pacific Northwest. The eligibility criteria have expanded from academic leaders and now include individual and group professional and grassroots pioneers. 

According the group, ideal applicants would be those who connect their community to environmental justice. Their goal is to broaden, strengthen and diversify environmental justice leaders in the Pacific Northwest. 

Washington Conservation Action board members and current environmental justice community leaders will review applications in June and July. Interviews will take place in August, and the winner will be announced in December. 

The Bullitt Foundation started the program in 2007 as the Environmental Fellowship. One past winner used the award money to develop affordable housing that reduces greenhouse-gas emissions. Since the Bullitt Foundation is sunsetting this year after 33 years of philanthropy, it handed off this program to the Washington Conservation Action Fund, which will continue to administer the Prize in the future.

Sixteen geographic areas around Washington are “overburdened” by air pollution, doubling the risk of early death for residents who live in those places, according to a report released last week by the state Department of Ecology.

The geographic areas identified, in descending order of population, are South King County; South Seattle; Spokane and Spokane Valley; South and East Tacoma; Tri-Cities to Wallula; Vancouver; Everett; East Yakima; Lower Yakima Valley; North Seattle and Shoreline; Wenatchee and East Wenatchee; Ellensburg; Northeast Puyallup; Moxee Valley; Mattawa; and George and West Grant County. 

The report on overburdened communities – required by the state’s Climate Commitment Act to be released every two years – “found that people of all ages in the communities lived an average 2.4 years less than people in the rest of Washington” due to health conditions linked to air pollution. Researchers also found higher rates of chronic respiratory and cardiovascular conditions in the affected areas.

The Climate Commitment Act, passed in 2021, capped carbon emissions statewide and put a price on those allowed emissions set at auction. Pollution-generating businesses buy allowances, and the money raised pays for projects aimed at lowering emissions. The program also has an environmental justice element, prioritizing projects that ease the impact on communities that historically have borne the brunt of industrial and air pollution. 

About $2 billion was raised in 2023, the first year of the cap-and-invest program. While critics and some supporters of the program have linked it to Washington’s rising gas prices, some political leaders say the oil industry’s increasing profits despite cap-and-trade programs call that direct link into question.

Washington raises $2B in first year of carbon pollution auctions

A Volvo XC40 electric vehicle

A Volvo XC40 electric vehicle featured at a December 2021 news conference in Olympia where Gov. Jay Inslee announced several climate-related proposals for the 2022 legislative session, including a plan to offer rebates on the purchase of new and used electric vehicles for qualified buyers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington raised another $370.6 million in its final carbon auction of 2023, bringing the total to slightly more than $2 billion in the first year of the state cap-and-invest program, the Ecology Department announced Wednesday.

Carbon-emitting corporations bid every three months on state allowances for the pollution emitted by their facilities. The winning bidders all pay the same price on those allowances after the auction. The “settlement” prices in the first few Washington auctions were $48.50 for roughly one metric ton of carbon for the first quarter of 2023; $56.01 for the second quarter; $63.03 for the third; and $51.89 for the December auction.

Of the total $2 billion raised through the program, $1.82 billion goes toward environmental investments and another $376 million will go to gas and electric utilities to help ratepayers, especially low-income families.

The cap-and-invest system passed by the Legislature in 2021 is aimed at decreasing carbon emissions to a small fraction of their current levels by 2050.

In addition to clean energy investments, the program has made driving gas-powered vehicles more expensive. It has raised Washington’s price at the pump from 15 to 50 cents per gallon, depending on who is calculating. Republicans have been slamming Gov. Jay Inslee over those increases and a conservative group has been gathering signatures to send an initiative to the Legislature to get Washington out of carbon pricing.

Washington has traditionally had some of the nation’s highest gas prices due to various geographical and economic factors outside of the cap-and-invest program.

For the program’s first two years, the Legislature appropriated $2.1 billion in cap-and-invest revenue for numerous climate mitigation projects. On Monday, Inslee said the state expects to collect $941 million in additional cap-and-invest money in the first half of 2024, bringing the overall income to roughly $3 billion over the system’s first 18 months and adding that much to be spent on climate projects. 

Inslee’s supplemental budget request includes: 

- A one-time $200 credit to the utility bills of roughly 750,000 low- and moderate-income households in Washington. 

- Speeding the transition from diesel school buses to electric school buses across the state. 

- Installing electric heat pumps in low-income multiple-family homes, replacing gas furnaces.

- Providing matching funds for competitive federal grants to bring clean-energy jobs to Washington. 

- Converting a large diesel ferry into a hybrid fuel/electric ferry. As Washington’s ferries are breaking down in increasing numbers, Inslee also said on Monday that future cap-and-invest income could speed up replacing the old ferries with new hybrid ones.

CORRECTION: Fixes the amount raised in the most recent action and how it was distributed.

At long last, Hanford poised to clean up nuclear waste with glass

A building at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The B Reactor at the Hanford site on Oct. 12, 2022. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

The Hanford nuclear reservation is on track to start encasing huge volumes of its worst radioactive wastes in glass within 18 months, marking progress on a cleanup project that is 16 years behind its original schedule.

Hanford, a decommissioned production site of nuclear bomb materials, filled its first canister with melted non-radioactive glass last week, a process called “vitrification,” the site’s leaders announced Monday. 

“It was not obvious to everyone except this [vitrification plant] team that we’d be here today,” said the federal Department of Energy’s Hanford Manager Brian Vance at a Monday ceremony at the site’s low-activity-waste vitrification plant. 

Hanford is expected to begin melting radioactive wastes together with glass flakes between April and June 2025 at a rate of 21 metric tons a day, Vance said. Hanford’s first melter poured its first glass in late October while the first 7.5-foot-tall, 4-foot-in-diameter stainless-steel canister was filled last week. It held slightly less than 1,800 gallons of cooled, greenish glass weighing 6.8 metric tons.

Hanford, which ended production in 1987, has 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in 177 leak-prone underground tanks. The tanks hold more than 100 types of deadly chemicals and highly radioactive wastes left over from its manufacturing of plutonium for atomic bombs during World War II and the Cold War. These tanks are arguably the most radiologically and chemically contaminated site in the Western Hemisphere. 

Hanford plans to start testing its second low-activity-waste melter in a few weeks. The two melters are expected to have lifespans of about five years.

Next year, DOE and contractor Bechtel National plan to test the melters while running them 24/7. The tests will include simulated wastes. The Washington Department of Ecology, one of the site’s regulators, is especially interested in tests of the gases emitted into the atmosphere from the melting process, said Suzanne Dahl, tank waste treatment section manager for the ecology department.

“We will continue tirelessly to complete the entire mission,” said Bechtel’s senior vice president and glassification project director Brian Hartman. (“Glassification” is another term for converting something into glass.)

“This milestone demonstrates the progress we can make when the federal government meets its legal and moral obligations,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in a recorded video presentation to the small crowd Monday.

The glassification project has faced multiple delays and setbacks since it was announced more than two decades ago. Over the past 25 years, the DOE and its contractors have continuously underestimated the project’s complexity, playing fast and loose with short-term goals at the expense of long-term ramifications.

The project’s early history includes the DOE getting rid of two site managers who warned that the glassification plant would be more complicated and more expensive than anticipated. In 2010, another subcontractor manager was exiled due to his warnings that major technical problems threatened potential leaks and explosions, which threatened Bechtel getting a bonus from the feds. In 2015, Bechtel said the project would be delayed because of the problems that it hushed up in 2010

Originally, the legal deadline to start glassification was 14 years ago, in 2009, and to finish glassifying in 2019. The project’s budget has grown from $4 billion to $17 billion, and could expand to more than $30 billion. Right now, Hanford’s legal target is removing all the waste from the single-shell tanks, planning to close those tanks by 2043 and the double-shell tanks by 2052.

The DOE has moved those targets back to 2069, a date not reflected in its current cleanup agreements with the state of Washington, according to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office. Those deadlines are expected to be pushed further back in a tentative agreement that will be publicly unveiled after the DOE and the Washington Department of Ecology finish reviewing changes in the draft.

The single low-activity-waste plant will handle only 40% to 50% of the low-activity wastes, which make up the bulk of the materials in the tanks. The rest of the low-activity wastes will have to be handled by a second plant, or by a different disposal method.

A high-level waste melting plant is on the drawing board, along with a pretreatment plant for that material. Currently, the DOE’s deadline to have its high-level waste melters online is 2033. However, that is expected to change when the tentative agreement is finalized.

A man stands next to a large canister.
U.S. Department of Energy Hanford Manager Brian Vance stands next to the first Hanford canister filled with glass that was melted, then cooled. The DOE plans to store nuclear waste at Hanford in similar canisters. (John Stang for Crosscut)