Puget Sound cleanup crew expected soon

Bill signed: Some say it might help attract federal grant money

April 12, 2011 

More federal money, more jobs and a new Puget Sound Corps are all among the expectations Washington policymakers have for a bill that the governor signed into law Monday.

House Bill 1294, which goes into effect in July, will move the administration of the Washington Conservation Corps from several agencies into the Ecology Department and add a special Puget Sound-focused branch of the corps.

“It’s a very important piece of legislation that’s primarily about the cleanup and conservation of the Puget Sound and about consolidation at the same time,” said Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who helped develop the bill.

The Washington Conservation Corps, which hires 18- to 25-year-olds to work in parks, habitat conservation and other natural resource-oriented projects throughout the state, will add Puget Sound Corps crews dedicated to projects in the Sound’s watershed.

Naki Stevens, executive policy advisor on Puget Sound for the Natural Resources Department, said that focus could attract more federal grant money.

She said the National Estuary Program, a 1987 initiative meant to improve estuary water quality around the U.S., and the 2007 creation of the Puget Sound Partnership in Washington have combined to attract federal attention to the region as an urban estuary in need of cleanup. Having a new job corps focused on the Sound will be a good way to attract funding, Stevens said.

She said the department was hoping to get about $4 million in federal grant money over the coming biennium to hire Puget Sound Corps crews, meaning the conservation corps should be able to take on at least 150 new workers. About 180 are employed now.

Conservation corps workers make $8.67 per hour and receive a $5,350 Americorps Education Award that they can put toward college tuition or use to pay off student loans after finishing a year of service.

Ecology Department spokesman Curt Hart said it was too soon to say where crews will work and when positions will open up because the department is still waiting to see what happens in the state biennial budget. But Puget Sound Corps crews will probably be working by the end of the year.

The bill will also add funding for the Veterans’ Conservation Corps, which has been an all-volunteer force until now.

Under the new law, 5 percent of all federal grant money that agencies get for the Puget Sound Corps will have to be spent on the veterans’ corps, which would mean some veterans could be paid.

Veterans’ Conservation Corps program manager Mark Fischer said the details of that funding were still too unclear to say how many veterans could get paid under the bill, though he expected the prospect of wages would make the program more popular, especially among younger veterans looking for work.

Second-year Washington Conservation Corps member Anthony Foote, who does trail maintenance in the Olympic National Forest, said the conservations corps had been a good experience for him and would help him pay for college. He said he was glad the new law would add corps jobs for Puget Sound.

“Any time we can get more people doing this it’s a good thing,” he said.

Sen. Mike Carrell, a Lakewood Republican who voted against the bill in the Senate, said he worried it was a feel-good measure that wouldn’t be effective at cleaning up Puget Sound. He said adding 150 workers in the area would do little to fend off impending problems, likening it to “repainting the bridge on the Titanic different colors.”

The new Puget Sound Corps’ projects, Hart said, would be designed to fit in with plans for the Sound’s cleanup developed by the Tacoma-based Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency in charge of developing an Action Agenda for cleaning up the Sound by 2020.

Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 katie.schmidt@thenewstribune.com

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