Clean Water Advocates File Legal Appeal to Protect Streams, Rivers and Sound from Toxic Impacts

Posted August 6, 2019
Image:  Community Salmon Investigation – Miller Walker Stewardship Program

Washington State’s polluted stormwater permits have fallen far short of needed protections for clean water and healthy watersheds, further endangering orca and the salmon runs they need to thrive. Citing stormwater runoff from roads, rooftops, and other developed areas as the number one water quality problem in Puget Sound, clean water advocates have filed an appeal with the Pollution Control Hearings Board, demanding stronger protections for the state’s streams, rivers and bays.

“State and federal clean water laws require the Department of Ecology to protect Puget Sound and our communities from toxic stormwater,” said Katelyn Kinn, acting co-director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “This appeal is simply asking Washington State’s Department Ecology to comply with the law and take the steps needed to protect our waterways and everyone who lives in the region.”

Kinn added that stormwater contamination continues to pour into Puget Sound and surrounding watersheds, proving to be among the greatest threats to protecting clean water and ecosystems that rely on healthy water resources and that permits must be strengthened to address this problem.

“The overall magnitude of the municipal stormwater pollution problem in Puget Sound dwarfs other sources,” said Janette Brimmer, attorney with Earthjustice’s Northwest regional office. “The development that lies at the heart of the stormwater problem is profoundly damaging to salmon habitat and the ability of salmon and orcas to recover from their endangered status in western Washington.”

In urban, suburban and urbanizing areas, stormwater is generally dumped through municipal storm sewer systems directly into nearby streams, lakes or bays without treatment. It contains heavy loads of toxic pollutants like dissolved metals, pesticides, oil and grease, pathogens from pet waste, and other chemicals such as petroleum byproducts from car engines and tires. The runoff is so toxic to salmon that the adults die before they have a chance to release their eggs. Through yearly salmon surveys, Soundkeeper has documented as many as 90 percent of fish dying before they spawn due to toxic stormwater runoff.

Under the federal Clean Water Act and state pollution laws, Washington State’s Department of Ecology is required to regulate this pollution to the maximum extent possible and to ensure that water quality is protected. Numerous coho salmon die-offs documented in the region’s streams, as well as the flood of pollutants into the Sound during increasing extreme weather events, demonstrate that Ecology and area municipalities are not doing enough to control stormwater pollution.

“The toxic contamination of Puget Sound waters has brought this treasured waterway to the edge of an ecological disaster,” Brimmer added, “This permit maintains the status quo, which utterly fails to address the scale of a growing challenge.”

In 2008, the Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that the Department of Ecology was unlawfully relying on expensive, ineffective engineering methods to treat or slow stormwater, rather than adopting methods that eliminate stormwater runoff altogether by infiltrating the water before it runs off. Such “green development” standards—known as Low Impact Development, or LID—have been adopted in other jurisdictions and represent Puget Sound’s best hope to move towards recovery. Experience using these techniques has demonstrated that runoff can be partially or completely eliminated. More than ten years after that ruling, the stormwater permits still are not pushing to implement those standards.

Brimmer pointed to permeable concretes, increased forest cover, and rain gardens as important green development approaches to take as a part of a viable effort to save salmon and orcas and the other species that rely on a healthy Puget Sound. High levels of toxins have been discovered in the orca’s blubber and can poison and kill calves through their mother’s milk. They can also poison adults because they metabolize these chemicals from their fat reserves when they’re unable to obtain enough food, salmon. This can cause immune system depression, reproductive impairment, and developmental problems in whales.

The permits present other key problems: they don’t require adequate retrofits to existing built-up areas that are contributing to major water quality problems and salmon die-offs.

The appeal was filed with the Pollution Control Hearings Board in Olympia. Attorneys at Earthjustice filed the appeal on behalf of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.