With Washington's 2011 legislative session half over and a big budget gap still left to fill, environmental lobbyists say they've made some compromises on their agenda, but they still have high hopes for their top priorities this year.
The Environmental Priorities Coalition, which represents 24 environmental groups in the state, started off the year with four main legislative goals:
End coal-fired electricity generation, limit phosphorus pollution from fertilizer, fund stormwater cleanup and mitigate budget cuts to environmental programs.
Now, with the session well under way, bills are up for consideration on most of those issues. But they face tenacious opposition from Republican lawmakers, business people and farmers who say that with a state budget crisis and sputtering economy, it’s not the time to institute new regulations.
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“I think we’re having a great conversation about how smart policies can improve the economy and clean up our environment,” Environmental Priorities Coalition spokesman Craig Benjamin said. “As difficult as things are, we’re realistic about things moving forward, but we’re also optimistic.”
A bill to limit when and where people can use fertilizer that contains phosphorus passed the House in a 58-39 vote Monday; another proposal to end coal-fired electricity generation in the state made it out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday, and bills in both houses that would add a fee to petroleum products to pay for stormwater cleanup had hearings in February.
Bills relating to the governor’s proposed cuts to environmental programs in the state, including $5.3 million in cuts to the Ecology Department, probably will not be introduced until later in the session when the Legislature begins work on the next biennial budget.
Most environmental bills face a Monday deadline, after which the Legislature can no longer vote on policy bills in their houses of origin. The stormwater bill won’t have to make that deadline, because budget-related bills are exempt.
Although they have bills on three of their four priorities, environmental groups have run up against some obstacles, said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters and the Environmental Priorities Coalition.
The bill to limit phosphorus fertilizer use, House Bill 1489, faced concerted Republican opposition, with only three Republican lawmakers joining Democrats in support of the measure.
During floor debate, Republicans introduced a series of amendments to add exemptions to the bill that would allow phosphorus fertilizers to be used on golf courses, dog parks and athletic fields, among other locations. The original bill allows people to use phosphorus fertilizer when it is necessary to repair turf and in agriculture and gardens, but prohibits its sale or use for other purposes.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andrew Billig, D-Spokane, said the measure was a “common-sense, clean-water bill” and that he thought it had a good chance of passing the Senate.
Washington Ecology Department spokeswoman Sandy Howard said phosphorus can be harmful because phosphorus runoff causes algae blooms, and the bacteria that decompose dead algae use up oxygen in the water, harming aquatic life.
Meanwhile, the stormwater bills, House Bill 1735 and Senate Bill 5604, have been stalled in committee by the oil and gas industry, environmental lobbyist Traisman said.
Frank Holmes, the Northwest region director for the Western States Petroleum Association, said the measures would put an unfair burden on the oil and gas industry.
“It’s a very onerous bill,” Holmes said. “In reality it’s a tax, a tax on only two components on the list of threats to the Puget Sound: petroleum and agriculture.”
The bill would add a fee of 1 percent of the wholesale value of petroleum products, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers when they enter the state and dedicate the money to cleaning up or preventing stormwater pollution.
Benjamin said the environmental lobby would keep pushing for the stormwater proposals to pass because there are no other options on the table for funding stormwater cleanup in the state, and the burden for doing so tends to fall on local governments.
In 2009 and 2010, similar bills were introduced in the Legislature, and, though the 2009 version passed the House, neither made it through both chambers before the session ended.
The environmental lobby’s third priority, Senate Bill 5769, an end to coal-fired power in the state, has to get a vote on the Senate floor by the end of the day Monday to survive. Whether that happens depends on negotiations between TransAlta, the state’s only coal-fired power plant operator, and environmental groups, Traisman said.
The bill, which drew competing rallies from pro-environment and pro-business groups in February on the Capitol Campus, was weakened in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday when lawmakers added an amendment that removes a firm phase-out date for coal power in Washington.
Republican leaders from the House and Senate said at a news conference Wednesday that they would like to see the environmental agenda postponed until the state economy improves, arguing that it sent the wrong message to voters to spend time on environmental bills when job creation and addressing the state’s budget shortfall should be top priorities.
“Our concern going into this whole session was: we’re focused in on trying to solve a budget problem,” said Rep. Charles Ross a Naches Republican and the minority floor leader. “We were hoping to see the Legislature just kind of hold the ground on the environmental communities and not aggressively create new programs.”
This week, the Legislature also took action on several other environmental bills, including House Bill 1186, a bill to require tanker companies to invest more in oil spill preparedness, and House Bill 1294, which would create a Puget Sound Corps branch of the Washington Conservation Corps.
On Monday, the House also passed House Bill 1721, which would ban coal-tar sealants in Washington. The sealants are used to protect asphalt pavement and contain chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which can be harmful to humans and aquatic life.
Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org