Ecology Under Fire – Skeptical Senate Calls State Agency on Carpet

Agency Goes Too Far, Some Lawmakers Say – Hearings Highlight Ecology’s Plans on Coal Ports, Water-Quality Rules

By Erik Smith
Washington State Wire

On the hot seat: Ecology director Maia Bellon answers questions last week.

On the hot seat: Ecology director Maia Bellon answers questions last week.

OLYMPIA, Jan. 21.—The state Department of Ecology sure seems to be getting the third degree from the Senate this year. As the 2014 session opens, a series of hearings in the Legislature’s upper chamber have put the agency in the spotlight – and there isn’t a lot of warmth involved.

First lawmakers called director Maia Bellon on the carpet, to explain the agency’s plan to write an environmental impact statement for a coal export terminal near Bellingham that seemingly lumps in the the sun, the moon and the stars. Suspicious folk think the agency might be stacking the deck against the project. Then came a hearing on the new water-quality rules Ecology is expected to adopt sometime this spring. Those rules are likely to be so stringent no technology is available to meet them; industry and local-government associations say they will cost billions. Next up, the growing fear from some quarters that the agency will impose low-carbon fuel standards without asking the Legislature, adding a buck or so to the price of a gallon of gas – that’s on the agenda for Thursday.

So maybe all the hearings are natural, when you consider how many far-reaching initiatives are under way out in Lacey at Ecology headquarters. State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee says part of the idea is that lawmakers might be able to “apply pressure to change the direction things are going.”

But what also makes the hearings a natural thing is that they may be the only thing lawmakers can do. The agency doesn’t need legislative action for the coal-port issue or the water-quality standards, and it can act as it chooses. And while some question its ability to enact low-carbon fuel standards without a vote of the Legislature, the agency says it has authority there as well, under the state Clean Air Act. Bills to rein in the agency probably wouldn’t get very far. Any legislation would have to pass a Democrat-controlled House and then get past Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who may be Ecology’s biggest fan.

All of which explains why, for those paying attention, the Ecology hearings have been as dramatic as the ones on all those other issues that get all the headlines. It’s just that marijuana and abortion draw standing-room-only crowds. Department of Ecology authority? You can show up late. Odds are you’ll find a seat.

Sitting in for Inslee

Bellon gets a grilling during a joint hearing of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee and the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.

Bellon gets a grilling during a joint hearing of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee and the Senate Trade and Economic Development Committee.

Take last week’s hearing on the coal-port environmental impact statement. In its analysis of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point near Bellingham, Ecology is drawing in topics that ordinarily would be beyond the pale – the impact of coal-burning on the other side of the world, train traffic between the Midwest and the Pacific, shipping traffic in the Pacific.

Bellon said the state is justified in going beyond the ordinary because coal is involved. “Washington state is essentially being asked to consider an energy pipeline of sorts, where the end use of the product could generate more greenhouse gas production than all other sources in the state of Washington combined,” Bellon said. “…This project proposes to be the nation’s largest coal export facility and would increase North America’s total coal exports by about 40 percent.”

The disturbing thing here, skeptical lawmakers said, isn’t so much the state’s position on coal but rather the fact that the Department of Ecology is using an environmental impact statement – ostensibly a rigorous and fair-minded review process — to defeat a project it apparently opposes, even though it hasn’t quite come out and said so. It was the first time Ecology has been summoned to answer tough questions about its tactics, and whether Bellon succeeded or failed depended on the beholder. Ericksen was unimpressed; ranking Democrat Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said he thought she made a good account of it. The key thing is that Bellon speaks for Inslee, who himself has not expressed a direct opinion on the scoping decision, but whose opinions on coal, climate change and environmental issues are well-known. As governor, Inslee controls the decision-making process at Ecology and other executive agencies.

World Greenhouse Gas Police

Under questioning from skeptical lawmakers, Bellon was forced to admit that the review is unlike anything that has come before. Although the State Environmental Policy Act allows a “lead agency” to consider issues beyond its borders, it is the first time the state has served as a lead agency and considered issues beyond the state line. The state will consider impacts of train transport of coal from the Midwest and the impact of shipping on the Pacific, not to mention the impact of coal-burning on the other side of the world. One interesting tidbit emerged from Bellon’s testimony: Ecology has made much of the fact that it receieved 125,000 public comments on the coal proposal, an unusually high number, and the responses were unusually weighted toward Ecology’s position favoring an expansive scoping review. But during the hearing, Bellon observed that 14,000 are what the agency considers “unique responses.” In other words, some 111,000 were generated by computer, or were form letters, or were otherwise sent with a mere keystroke or checkbox worth of effort.

Exactly how the state plans to evaluate coal emissions has not been decided, Bellon said, but Ecology’s silence has left many wondering whether the evaluation will be fair. If Washington state says no and China gets coal anyway from other sources, the potential C02 pollution from Washington exports has no impact – it is what high school debaters might call a “non-unique disadvantage.” But if it is considered in isolation, C02 pollution might appear a unique disadvantage and therefore it might give regulators a reason to say no. “Some experts have stated that the facility has the potential to increase the world market for coal and lead to much greater coal use and greater greenhouse emissions than would occur without the facility,” Bellon said. “Others vehemently disagree.”

Ericksen, in whose district the port would be located, calls the lack of a decision on this point intellectually dishonest and says it ought to be taken as a warning sign. The very fact that Ecology is considering things on what it calls a “case by case” basis demonstrates that it is picking and choosing criteria with an outcome in mind. “The Department of Ecology is saying they can apply different standards to different corporations based on political pressure,” he says. “That is a terrible way to run a state. It is more like running a Third World dictatorship, to apply different standards based upon how an individual feeds about a particular industry.”

Asked Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, “So are you setting up the Department of Ecology as the world’s greenhouse-gas police?”

Third-Party Views

Also for the first time at a legislative hearing, third parties were asked to weigh in on the EIS issue. Ryan Mello, a Tacoma city councilman, said he was glad to see the state Department of Ecology consider the broader impacts of the project. Of particular concern to cities is the impact of additional train traffic along the coal-shipping corridors, he said. But Jerry O’Keefe of the Washington State Public Ports Association said there is something a bit screwy about it all. Imagine if someone was trying to develop a shopping center, and regulators decided they had to consider the impact of all the trucks carrying goods across the country? It’s the sort of thing that might make anyone think twice about a major infrastructure development project. And think of the message to other countries. “It sounds a bit arrogant to say to people, you know, you really ought to not use coal,” he said. “In the United States we produce one heck of a lot of greenhouse gases, and so the ramifications of those kinds of messages with our trade partners, I don’t think are well understood by the Department of Ecology, and should be very well considered in the Gov.’s office before decisions like this are made.”

Meanwhile, in a different hearing last week, third parties were asked for the first time to offer their views on the water-quality issue. Known around the statehouse as the “fish consumption” issue, because it hinges on a dramatic increase in an estimate of how much fish Washington residents eat, the increased water-quality standards could drive a 25-fold increase in the requirements for cleanliness Ecology requires for discharges into lakes and streams. Trouble is, in many cases, the technology doesn’t exist to get water that clean, and pollution levels that low can’t even be measured. In many cases it means discharges would have to be cleaner than the body of water into which they go. And the rule affects more than just those factories and sewer plants that discharge directly into the water — it also affects anyone with a building or parking lot large enough to require a discharge permit for stormwater runoff. In those cases, property owners would be required to clean up rainwater cleaner than when it hits the ground. Driving its effort, Ecology says, is a preference – not a requirement – from regional officials of the Environmental Protection Agency that Washington increase its standards. Third-party environmental groups have taken the arugment further in court, asking that the EPA be compelled to order higher standards in Washington.

Officials of city, county and business organizations presented a study they released last month indicating that the typical wastewater treatment plant with a 5 million gallon daily capability, big enough to serve 50,000 people, would face additional costs ranging from $75 million to $388 million, depending on whether a new plant would have to be built. Still its output would not meet the new standards. Estimates from local government groups are dire. The city of Bellingham has estimated sewer bills might increase more than $200 a month.  Carl Schroeder of the Association of Washington Cities said that if wastewater treatment plants on Puget Sound installed the best available technology to remove PCBs, the cost would be $7.4 billion. Yet it would only remove 6 percent of contaminants over 25 years because PCBs find their way into the water supply by other means.

“This is not an issue that is going to go away, and we are going to continue to do work on it on the legislative front,” Ericksen said. “Bankruptcy is not an option for our cities, and $200-a-month fees for sewer facilities are not going to work in Bellingham, Washntucna or Spokane.”

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  • GuyFawkesIsAlive

    Overwhelming negative public response to the Coal trains are a fact. Why is this fact over-looked in this article?

  • SenEricksen

    The issue is not coal trains or one export facility. These items were not the focus on the hearing. The hearing was about the ability of the DOE to apply different standards to different projects, what their thresh hold would be for applying the new “end use doctrine”, and what impact these decisions will have on the most trade dependent state in the nation.

    Sen. Ericksen

  • seriously!

    I find it strange that they are looking at Co2 emmissions from end users of the coal, that coal will be used whether it goes through washington,oregon,california, etc, its gonna be used. So that should not even be on the table as a reason for not doing this. Nor should traffic in the Pacific!!

    I agree that coal trains in town isnt something that I like, but there are work arounds (smaller trains, alt routes etc). Now this I could understand as an actual reason for not allowing the facility, just dont BS with all the other garbage.

  • Mindful living

    I fully 100% support DOE in their efforts to preserve and protect all beings from contaminants. Yes, it will be painful and challenging. But in the long run, we all need to be making bold attempts to not further foul our nest…and some will need regulations to do so. History shows us time after time that this has been the end of many great civilizations.

  • Noitall

    An impact assessment is to assess impact that an activity will have on all aspects of our communities. If those of you who owe allegiance to your benefactors don’t agree with the findings that is too bad. If you are doing the job that you are elected to do, you would not be arguing with the findings but letting your folks know the bad news. It isn’t about what happens in China, although China’s use of coal impacts our air quality as well, its about the impact of coal dust that definitely gets strewn across the country (read the data). This gets into our lungs, builds daily, gets into our waterways, gets into our homes, our foods, our life. At Cherry Point or other target ports, it uses 7 million gallons of fresh water daily to keep the dust down and to keep the coal from burning. Clean water is scarce now. Where does that tainted water go? Into the waters, into the ground, into our systems and our lives. Cherry Point was once pristine or near so in my lifetime. We smelt fished, herring fished, Salmon fished, we swam there, we picnicked there, we had school parties there it was beautiful, now nobody is there because it stinks from Arco, Intalco, and whatever Mobile became. Forget about it. Give your funders the bad news. We don’t want that crap in “Washington, we don’t want your kind of “leadership”. Shove the TPP by the way.

  • sandy robson

    This is an opinion piece by the author.
    I listed some things below which are editorial and not news, and some are just general vague terms and not specific. I continue to believe that that the Washington State Wire is simply a mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry because on articles about coal and oil the author is pro-coal and pro-oil. I wouldn’t care if this publication put this article in an opinion column, but to attempt to call it news is ridiculous, and it’s insulting to real news reporters out there.

    Editorial terms:
    –”seemingly lumps in the the sun, the moon and the stars”
    –”rules are likely to be so stringent no technology is available to meet them”

    Then the author uses generalities like below, not giving specific examples.

    –”industry and local-government associations say they will cost billions”
    –”growing fear from some quarters” —”skeptical lawmakers”
    –”Suspicious folk”

    Oh, and by the way Senator Ericksen, you posted a comment under the article and wrote, “The hearing was about the ability of the DOE to apply different standards to different projects. . .”

    News flash, Senator Ericksen. The proposed 48 million ton coal terminal is a different project– like nothing the US has ever seen before in scope and size. It seems not only reasonable, but prudent to have a broad environmental review in line with the huge unprecedented scope of the proposed huge coal terminal.

    I still can’t believe you support the proposed coal terminal and you live in Ferndale which is where it would be located. The majority of people in our county do not want it, and the Lummi Nation which is also part of the Ferndale community does not want it. Your friends at SSA and BNSF want it. But while they may contribute to election campaigns, they don’t mark the ballots. We do, and we will not be marking a yes by your name any time soon. Sorry, but that’s the coal hard truth, Senator.

    • Erik Smith

      Hi Sandy,

      There are certain basic precepts of the newswriting format that are probably worth mentioning here. If a story makes a factual statement with which some might disagree, it needs to be supported. The issues you raise are all ones with which I have dealt at great length in previous stories, and this reduces the need to deal with them here in detail, but a careful reader ought to be able to discern that they, are, indeed, supported within the story. The point of a news story is to write about what is ‘new,’ rather than rehashing material that has been dealt with before, and so it is not necessary, nor is it desirable, to repeat everything every time an issue comes up. Secondly, when one writes a news story, one “introduces” the issues that will be discussed in the story in the opening paragraphs, and then comes back later and fleshes out the details. This is called a “lead” — sometimes it is a single paragraph, but I, like many others, prefer to introduce the main themes over three or four paragraphs. This is a convention of newswriting that might be confusing to those who are more familiar with linear forms of writing.

      First, let me address your concern about the phrase ‘seemingly lumps in the sun, the moon and the stars.’ This is a common figure of speech that generally means ‘broad and expansive.’ Inasmuch as one of the key points of the story is Ecology’s defense of the unusually broad and expansive environmental review process it is employing with regard to the Gateway Pacific Terminal, there should be no question about its appropriateness. You will note in the story that even Ecology acknowledges that its review is unusually broad and expansive. And while you might rightly quibble here with standard journalistic practice, the phrase also employs one of those standard reporterish weasel-words, “seemingly.”

      Next, you object to the phrase, “rules are likely to be so stringent that no technology is available to meet them.” You will notice that this point is supported later in the story by testimony from the city and county government officials and by the consultants who produced the report that is being discussed. I should mention that I covered the report in much greater detail earlier. The phrase “industry and local-government associations say they will cost billions” is fact — the associations did say that at the hearing, and they said it at greater length in the earlier story.

      The phrases “growing fear from some quarters,” “skeptical lawmakers” and “suspicious folk” are supported in this story and in previous ones — I wrote five stories about the low-carbon fuel standards issue during the previous 10 days. Perhaps the best support for these statements comes from the stories I wrote last Thursday and Friday about the written exchanges between Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. A reporter can’t rewrite the same story every single day — that’s not the purpose of a news story.

      Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the conventions of the newswriting format. — Erik Smith

  • Djinn

    17 years ago I used “Superbugs” to treat an oil contaminated patch of Forest Service land. The area involved was .023 of an acre. The “Superbugs” worked as advertised and the background level for petroleum contaminates was below the natural level that could be expected. The cost for the “Superbugs” $19,000, which worked out to $18.96/sqft. To treat an entire acre would have cost $825,988.Time in involved for treatment was 6 weeks.

    I used the entire supply of bugs available in Puget Sound at that time. We were looking at using them to treat Forest Service compounds on 99 Ranger Districts in WA and OR. All of them had multiple fuel tanks and most compounds over the decades found that their tanks leaked. Most of the leaks were not found till the tanks were re-placed.

    I did a survey of ten different compounds and found that the number of acres that needed treatment was running about 3.15 acres/compound. The money needed, $26 million and change, was deemed to high and the project was dropped.

    The point is that at some time, treatment cost vs the benefit needs to be addressed and evaluated. Sure we want clean water but just how much are we willing to fork over for it and where is the money going to come from.

  • yaki534

    I would not trust the department of ecology to tell the truth about anything.