Politics & Government

Green groups look to defend turf

The state's environmental advocates head into the 2011 legislative session trying to fend off major cuts to environmental protection programs while advancing a few familiar measures unsuccessful in past sessions.

Environmentalists are fully aware of the severity of the state budget deficit and acknowledge programs near and dear to them are not immune from the budget ax.

“We’re going at this with our eyes wide open,” said Bill Robinson, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy.

On the budget front, they hope to fend off further general fund raids of the state toxics account, which is dedicated to cleanup of hazardous-waste sites around the state.

Just last week in emergency session, lawmakers pulled $20 million from the toxics account, which is funded from a tax on hazardous substances, to help patch the gaping hole in the current general fund budget.

“We want to hold the line on the toxics cleanup fund,” said Kerry McHugh, of the Washington Environmental Council, noting that the cleanups create jobs and protect public health. “No more raids.”

The budget released Wednesday by Gov. Chris Gregoire uses toxics-cleanup money to help balance the state Department of Ecology budget, a move acceptable to environmental groups, Robinson said.

To help balance the state budget, environmental groups will support recreation and access fees on state lands and higher fees for processing water-rights permits, Robinson noted as examples of ways to raise revenue.

Environmentalists will resurrect a plan to tackle stormwater pollution, which has been identified as the No. 1 threat to Puget Sound.

Last year, a bill to raise the tax on hazardous substances by 0.85 percent to generate $100 million for stormwater-control projects failed. This year’s bill could call for a tax or fee increase, said Brendon Checkovic of the Washington Environmental Council.

The measure likely will face the same opposition as last year from business interests and oil companies.

“I think the voters made it clear in the last election – no new taxes,” said Grant Nelson of the Association of Washington. “These are tough times to raise taxes.”

Another priority of the environmental coalition is closure by 2015 of the Centralia coal-fired power plant, which is the largest stationary source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the state. They want the plant owner, TransAlta Corp. of Calgary, Alberta, to invest instead in projects that place coal plant workers in greener-energy jobs.

A similar proposal is under discussion between TransAlta and the governor’s office, but the deadline for a 50 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions from Centralia would be 2025.

Those talks have moved slowly, and it’s unlikely a new plan for the Centralia plant’s future will be ready for the 2011 Legislature, state Department of Ecology air-quality program manager Stu Clark said.

TransAlta obviously opposes the early closure of the coal plant, TransAlta spokeswoman Angela Mallow said.

“We want to keep our options open and continue to operate and be part of the community,” she said.

The fourth and final environmental priority in the 2011 session is to enact a ban on phosphorus in lawn fertilizers, environmental lobbyist Neil Beaver said.

Phosphorous is a nutrient that can create algae blooms that rob water of oxygen when it washes into rivers, lakes and streams. More than 200 lakes and rivers statewide are polluted with phosphorus, Beaver said.

The proposed bill would allow phosphorus-containing fertilizers on golf courses and ball fields, and organic fertilizer would be exempt from the ban. Homeowners who can prove their lawn is deficient in phosphorus could get permission to use it.

Nelson said the business community will oppose the bill.

“Phosphorus is not an issue in marine waters,” he said. “It’s a key nutrient in new lawns. To require homeowners to pay for a soil test is overly burdensome.”

A ban on phosphorus in detergents went into effect in this state in July. The bid to ban it in fertilizers passed the Senate last year, but it didn’t clear the House, Beaver said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com