State lawmakers’ habit of raiding special-purpose funds to balance the budget has come home to roost in South Sound.
A potential $6 million state grant for the Port of Olympia’s long-term cleanup in Puget Sound is in limbo, and so are important cleanup efforts in other communities such as Tacoma.
The Budd Inlet project is still in the planning stages. It deals largely with dioxin pollutants — some of it a legacy from the city’s industrial past, some from new from storm water runoff from roads and highways.
The overall cleanup could cost $50 million to $100 million, port executive director Ed Galligan says. Federal grants would be part of the solution.
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The state grant is needed to help identify the best cleanup method for the toxic hotspots in the port’s ship turning basin and the larger inlet — once lawmakers agree on a way to restore funds to toxic cleanup accounts.
The funding hole came about for at least three reasons worth mentioning.
▪ Legislators in recent years raided money from accounts holding Model Toxics Control Act funds. These accounts are filled with a voter-approved tax on hazardous materials like oil and pesticides and are used in cleanups and storm water projects to prevent future pollution. Lawmakers took the money because they believed it wouldn’t be needed right away.
▪ Then, a global collapse in oil prices drove down the product price on which the state’s hazardous materials tax is levied. That reduced the flow of new money into toxic cleanups, erasing some three quarters of the $57 million the Department of Ecology had banked on for cleanups during 2015-17.
▪ Money also has been diverted to other Ecology programs including air quality, for instance.
To fix the problem, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed issuing $26 million in bonds and using the borrowed funds to restore funds for a portion of the projects. That’s a worthy attempt, but it would fall short of what is needed to help the port in Olympia and also reimburse the Tacoma port for two major cleanups it completed on dirty industrial sites used by a chemical plant and aluminum smelter.
The past raids of MTCA accounts totaled about $250 million, but only half has been paid back — using bonds, as Inslee is suggesting again.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who chairs of an environmental committee, prefers that funds come out of the general fund that also pays for schools, prisons and other general government bills.
An idea advanced by top House budget writer Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, is to temporarily raise the toxic materials tax temporarily from its current $7 rate per $1,000 of wholesale value. Unless lawmakers impose other taxes on oil refining, this makes the most sense at a time oil prices are so low.
Whatever is decided, it is essential to keep moving forward on cleanups and actions that keep tainted storm water from requiring additional cleanups in places like Budd Inlet.
The 60-day legislative session that just got under way is too short for quibbling on this.