Polluted stormwater runoff is the number one source of toxic pollution to Puget Sound and surrounding waterways. Development in urban areas can cover as much as ninety percent of land with pavement. When it rains, the water doesn’t soak into the ground but runs over the surface, collecting anything deposited there and dumping it directly into our waterways. Studies have shown that the pollutants in stormwater runoff can kill coho salmon in as little as three hours, and although many solutions exist, implementation is often a struggle. Soundkeeper works to enforce pollution permits for local businesses and influence the limits imposed by those permits to keep waterways clean and protected, as well as providing resources and support for citizens intent on improving their individual footprint.
It’s far more effective to prevent pollution than to deal with the aftermath. Low-impact development has been a focus of Soundkeeper’s advocacy efforts for a long time. Low-impact development means using green infrastructure techniques that allow stormwater to filter into the ground, rather than running over impermeable surfaces. This mimics nature’s ability to store rainfall where it lands, which slows the rate of runoff and can be hugely effective at removing pollutants. Permeable concrete, rain gardens, and vegetated buffers along waterways and roadways are proven ways of accomplishing this goal.
Over the past ten years Soundkeeper has challenged highway stormwater permits, pushing for retrofits that would reduce polluted runoff from Washington State roads, and fought hard for low-impact development to be required by the Department of Ecology’s municipal stormwater permits, which are the main regulatory tool statewide for preventing polluted runoff from damaging water quality and public health.
On July 31, 2019, Puget Soundkeeper appealed the Phase I and Phase II Municipal Stormwater Permits issued by WA Dept of Ecology. These permits regulate stormwater from developed or built-out environments in cities and counties in western Washington.
The appeal is to the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB), an administrative board providing judicial oversight of clean water permits issued by Washington State agencies.
Our goal is an order from the PCHB requiring Ecology to rewrite the permits to comply with legal requirements and correct the defects which make parts of the permit ineffectual. Puget Soundkeeper is represented by Earthjustice in this appeal. Read more about why we appealed and the specific changes we’d like to see in these permits.
Our legal challenges succeeded, making LID a mandatory part of new development and redevelopment in urban areas around Puget Sound. But this is a huge shift in how we approach development, and it requires that local leaders stand strong and that Ecology enforces violations of the new development codes once they are in place. If the new requirements are taken seriously, Puget Sound health will benefit.
In 2017 Soundkeeper helped to develop Nature’s Scorecard, a tool for measuring how well municipalities throughout Puget Sound are meeting new LID requirements. You can see the full report online at naturesscorecard.com.
Because industrial sites often handle materials that pose a toxic threat to waterways, such as petroleum products and harmful chemicals, good industrial stormwater management is critical to protect water quality and human health. Over 1,000 facilities across Washington have industrial stormwater permits that regulate what they can discharge to local waterways. The permits are regulated by the Department of Ecology, but enforcement is spotty, and many sites bypass best practices that could greatly reduce the toxic burden on Puget Sound waters.
Soundkeeper works to keep industrial stormwater pollution out of the Sound by advocating for strong industrial stormwater regulations and pursuing Clean Water Act litigation against facilities that are in violation of their stormwater discharge permit, focusing on the worst offenders. Since 1984, Soundkeeper has taken action against over a hundred facilities and won every case. On average, our settlements control 124 million gallons of stormwater per year.
What most often happens is that facilities reach a cooperative agreement with Soundkeeper and our legal team. They must come into compliance with their permit, monitor their discharge appropriately, and pay a sum determined by the court. That money goes to the Puget Sound Restoration and Mitigation Fund, a grant program administered by the Rose Foundation that fuels restoration projects in the Puget Sound region to repair the damage done by pollution.
We also track the progress of the permits that set pollutant discharge limits for different types of facilities. Permits are reviewed and updated every five years. Soundkeeper reviews and comments on proposed changes to the permits whenever they are renewed, aiming for the strongest possible protections to Puget Sound waterways.
At any given time, Soundkeeper has around ten active Clean Water Act cases to bring industrial polluters into compliance. Our field director and legal team work closely to identify high priority sites and determine where our work could make the most impact. In 2015 we settled cases against SSA Terminals, ABF Freight, and Rainier Petroleum involving violations of their stormwater permits, resulting in a total of $496,250 paid to the Puget Sound Restoration Fund. We also won a permit appeal that resulted in stronger regulation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are persistent, bioaccumulative and highly toxic.
Education and Prevention
There’s much that individual citizens can do to help mitigate the problem of stormwater runoff. Much of the contamination that washes into Puget Sound comes from our everyday activities—lawn fertilizer, pet poop, oil and grease from vehicles, improperly handled home chemicals, pharmaceuticals and even cosmetics show up in our waters.
Soundkeeper works with key partners like EnviroStars and ECOSS to get the word out about the problem of stormwater and how individuals can help. Over the years, we’ve promoted the RainWise program, which offers rebates for homeowners who install rain gardens in targeted areas and talked to thousands of volunteers and concerned citizens about stormwater issues.
Soundkeeper currently monitors water quality with the Mussel Watch program and conducts surveys of salmon in Longfellow Creek, which is heavily impacted by stormwater pollution. These activities engage local residents who care about the health of the Sound and provide information to scientists trying to quantify the magnitude of the stormwater problem and come up with solutions. Soundkeeper also participated in Don’t Drip and Drive, an award-winning regional campaign to tackle the problem of automobile leaks, which send over seven million quarts of oil and other fluids onto Puget Sound roadways each year.