Water regulations again take center stage as previous concessions come up for renewal

BRAD SHANNON; Staff writerJanuary 30, 2012 

Clean-water advocates at the Capitol fear environmental protections could be repealed or softened this year as part of a budget and tax deal.

One clearly marked target is stormwater permits and rules that cities and counties won a one-year delay on last year.

Republicans and conservative Democrats also are looking for ways to write exemptions into growth management rules as well as the way “clean energy” is calculated for electrical power companies’ alternative energy portfolios.

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt said last week that House Democrats would have to consider taking steps toward deregulation before his caucus would seriously consider a major stimulus and jobs plan emerging in the Senate with bipartisan support.

“I’m beginning to see some bills that are definite indicators that – either through the budget or other (legislation) – there will be a push to roll back environmental regulations,’’ Democratic Sen. Sharon Nelson of Maury Island said Friday. “We have one in my committee that would give a delay for three years on stormwater regulations and permits.”

Nelson is among a cadre of lawmakers in the Senate and House that have written their leadership to demand a firm line on retaining environmental standards, believing it is wrong to trade environmental protections for what might be a empty promise of jobs.

As Nelson argues, the economic recovery is being delayed by a housing market damaged by foreclosures that are resulting from reckless acts earlier in the decade on Wall Street. And she believes that what draws businesses to open up shop in Washington is a quality of life dependent on a clean environment.

“What really concerns me and upsets me is here we have a budget crisis. We need to take care of education and our most fragile citizens,” Nelson said in an interview. “To use that crisis to roll back environmental regulations … I think it should be offensive to the people of this state. … It’s the wrong way to go.’’

But a larger debate might just be starting. And Republicans, who say regulatory string is tripping up job creation, want to see a less active government.

And what could be important to any budget deal, so-called “Road Kill” Democrats, such as Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond, say evidence of regulatory reform and changes in the way government functions are needed before they will be willing to support a tax package.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked the Legislature to send a temporary, half-penny sales tax increase to the voters in the spring to raise $490 million a year and blunt cuts she says are otherwise unavoidable for schools and programs serving vulnerable residents.

Hatfield said he shares Gregoire’s goal to get more funding for education and health care programs that are part of the safety net. But he needs to convince voters in his conservative-but-Democratic district along the coast that government is reforming itself and is responsive to his district’s needs.

It’s not so much that he is worried about voters’ wrath, but that he wants to be sure a revenue package succeeds on the ballot, according to Hatfield. “We can’t do it just by saying we’re going to raise the sales tax and nothing else,” he said.

Hatfield declined to say that stormwater rules are a drop-dead issue for his fellow Road Kill Caucus members, but he said there is a shared “concern that the Department of Ecology has too much authority over these issues.’’

Hatfield also would like to see changes in Initiative 937’s requirement for utilities to buy a portion of new energy from alternative sources. Under current law, clean energy definitions include wind power and some “biomass” options but Hatfield wants to include the burning of mill waste for electricity, which he said is important to his logging-dependent district and other parts of the state.

Majority Democrats in the House and Senate both expect to release their budget plans shortly after the next revenue forecast on Feb. 16. The 60-day session is scheduled to end March 8.

But environmentalists believe a jobs-vs.-regulation argument is a false one and that the state can have both, said Mo McBroom, lobbyist for the Washington Environmental Council. McBroom says environmentalists also have already compromised.

Only last year, a coalition including the Environmental Council, Futurewise and Puget Sound advocates agreed to a delay in updates for major environmental rules to help out cash-strapped cities and counties. That included a controversial one-year delay in Department of Ecology rule-making for stormwater discharge permits, which were supposed to be revised and in effect for five-year permits that expire this year.

The so-called 2011 fiscal relief bill also delayed deadlines for updating plans for growth management, shorelines and the use of alternative fuels in city or county vehicle fleets. Cities and counties never put a dollar savings on the bill but the changes were widely believed to be worth millions of dollars a year.

A year later, the cities are back saying it wasn’t enough.

Despite her opposition, Nelson gave a hearing last week to the new fiscal relief bill – Senate Bill 6207, sponsored by Republican Sen. Mark Schoelser – in the Senate Environment Committee that she chairs.

Advocates for cities and counties spoke in favor of it on Tuesday, while environmentalists and the Department of Ecology warned further delays could put the state in the crosshairs of a lawsuit to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.

Pierce County lobbyist George Walk was among those asking for leniency. Walk said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is doing an audit of a portion of its permits rules, which Ecology enforces, and “we understand EPA may come up with some new standard. … We would prefer a five year delay rather than three years.”

Walk also said counties are trying to harmonize actions by different jurisdictions that must live up to different standards inside a single watershed.

Don Seeburger of Ecology acknowledged under questioning by Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale and others that state stormwater standards are higher than federal standards, but he said Washington also has a different landscape that requires different handling.

Seeburger also said the state’s delayed stormwater revisions, which are being written this year, would not take effect immediately – instead being phased in after 2013 and over a five-year period.

Seeburger also said public comments on the ongoing draft are due Feb. 3, and additional feedback will be taken on those rules when a final draft is prepared later in the year.

“We are well aware of the economic conditions that local governments currently face,” Seeburger said. For example, he said, requirements for what is known as “low-impact development” that put more rainwater straight into the ground are already delayed all the way to 2014.

At the same time, Seeburger warned further that action and further delays of three to five years could be illegal.

Katelyn Kinn of Puget Sound Keepers Alliance sounded a firmer warning, saying further delays would be flat “illegal.” Kinn also warned that another delay in standards for the five-year permits would leave some 2007 permits unchanged for up to a decade, despite storm-runoff’s role in putting pollutants into waterways.

As the debate wore on in committee, Republican Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside asked the environmentalists how they would help cities or counties pay for the upgrades in stormwater treatment.

Honeyford said grants of up to $50,000 were “a drop in the bucket for the cost of these programs” to cities and counties. In response to Seeburger’s statement about phasing in pieces of rules year-by-year, Honeyford said: “So you’re nickel-and-diming the cities.”

At that point Nelson intervened and said Ecology did not have to answer. She noted that lawmakers and local governments tried unsuccessfully to pass an oil-products tax a few years ago.

Needless to say, the tax that passed in the House died in the Senate where Democrats have a slimmer majority and where the Road Kill Caucus holds a different view of what should be done.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

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