Last week, Washington state's Department of Ecology announced it had made a deal with Kaiser Aluminum to clean up pollution around the company's Trentwood aluminum sheet and plate rolling mill.
That's good news for Ecology, purely for environmental reasons. The plant, created in 1942 by the U.S. government to produce aluminum for World War II, has been one of the region's most notorious polluters for decades. In its early years, it used PCB oil, petroleum fuels, solvents and chromium in its production. Then and now, it's generated waste filled with chrome sludge, paint and solvent wastes and black dross. And a lot of this stuff -- along with iron, manganese, arsenic, you name it -- has seeped into the surrounding soil and groundwater (read: aquifer).
To its credit, Kaiser has been voluntarily monitoring its own pollution release for over 25 years, but the new deal, which involves a series of tests to determine the extent of that pollution and a study to identify a game plan for getting rid of it, will be the first and largest major cleanup effort in the company's history.
And that's good news for Ecology's PR department, too. Because last Friday, the Washington Public Interest Research Group (WashPIRG) released a 20-page indictment of Ecology and the state called "Take Back Washington's Waters: The Failure of the Clean Water Act in Washington and What We Can Do About It." The report's authors accuse Ecology of failing to wield the authority granted to it by the Clean Water Act of 1972, saying, "in many cases, the laws have not been aggressively implemented or enforced."
The report applauds Washington for its past aggressiveness in enforcing the act's standards but adds that "over the last decade, lack of adequate funding and political pressure from the polluting industries has left [the] Department of Ecology overworked and without the resources necessary to manage [its] mandate."
That boils down, the report indicates, to a weakening of water standards in three key areas:
Standards and Permitting
The report's authors say that almost 20 percent of permitted facilities in the state "are operating under outdated, expired permits," and that Ecology lacks the data necessary for setting appropriate permit limits. They point to the state's slowness in responding to a 1985 EPA ruling requiring the state to determine the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollutants its waterways could handle before the waterway could no longer support its designated uses (recreation, fishing, drinking water, etc.). It took a lawsuit by citizens and environmental groups to get the state to start complying with TMDL requirements, which spurred, among other things, the recent negotiations between Ecology and the major polluters on the Spokane River.
Ecology spokesperson Glenn Kuper says that he generally agrees with the statistics cited by the WashPIRG report, but he adds that some of them are outdated and that Ecology is making "significant progress." The number of permitted facilities running on outdated permits in Washington, he says, has dropped down from 20 percent to 9 percent, judging from a report his department ran last week. (The WashPIRG report insists that its figure is recent as of last month.)
The report also claims that Ecology inspected only 30 percent of its permitted facilities in the last two years. "That number is pretty accurate," says Kuper, adding, "What's important to recognize is that our inspections are designed to occur when there's a problem with a facility, or when a facility is new." The report's criticism of Ecology for relying on industry to monitor and report its own policy infractions, instead of actively seeking out infractions, is, he says, simply a tenet of the Clean Water Act, which is based on self-reporting.
"Washington State Patrol doesn't just randomly pull cars over," he muses. "We don't have the staff to go every facility all the time and randomly inspect them."
Perhaps the most controversial of the report's claims is that, of the 78 Washington facilities with the most violations, nearly 40 percent "did not face any form of documented compliance action or enforcement." The report attributes this phenomenon to a lack of money and staff, a lack of accountability and political pressure from polluting industries. It accuses Ecology of going soft on polluters by offering them "compliance assistance" rather than strict enforcement. "Clearly, one prerequisite for adequately enforcing the laws is having the will to see that they are actually enforced. In some instances, Ecology has appeared to lack this desire," the report reads.
Kuper thinks those claims are taken out of context. "I think that it's not that we're being soft on them; we're trying to find the best solution to stop the pollution," he says. "That's our goal. It's not to be beating up on industry. It's to get them to comply and not pollute. We'll use the best method we can, whether it's a carrot approach or a stick approach."
Still, most anyone in Ecology (as in any state department) would agree that they could use more money and resources. Many finger Initiative 601, which passed in 2000 and put significant restrictions on state spending. That, combined with a tight state budget, has put the pinch on Ecology's environmental enforcement.
"We could certainly do better with more resources," Kuper says. "We're working on trying to streamline, being more efficient, focusing attention on the areas that are more significant. We've been doing a better job with what we have."