Over Greens’ Objections, State Senate Overhauls Toxics Act

By John Stang, April 23, 2013, Crosscut

The Washington Senate approved revamping the Model Toxics Control Act on Monday.

Most of the Republican-oriented Majority Coalition Caucus supported the overhaul while most of the minority Democrats did not. Actually, the vote was 25-23 with Sens. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond supporting the measure, plus Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, crossing party lines to oppose it. The bill now goes to the Democratic-controlled House.

“I think this will be the greatest jobs creation bill in the state,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, and author of the bill’s version that passed. He said the overhaul would boost cleanup work that will cause more people to be hired.

The Model Toxics Control Act — commonly referred to as MTCA or “Motka” — provides the state Ecology Department with $200 million to $300 million annually to study and clean up sites contaminated by hazardous substances. A hazardous substances tax plus other fines and fees fund the account. The MTCA fund has $283 million for 2013-2015.

The MCTA account has been routinely raided to provide money for the state’s general fund when legislators put together biennial operating budgets. Sen. Kevin Ranker, an Orcas Island Democrat and author of the version of the bill that lost on the Senate floor, contended that thebill passed by the Senate still raids the MTCA account for projects not related to hazardous substances cleanup. Ericksen disagreed.

On Monday, the Majority Coalition Caucusstance was that the MTCA should be used for its originally intended purposes of cleaning up hazardous substances, and not to be used as a fund to be raided for other programs. The Democratic position was that the majority coalition’s bill expands the definition of hazardous substance cleanup beyond the MTCA’s original intent, effectively using the money for new purposes. Ranker argued that at least $55.5 million has been routed to non-cleanup work in the transportation, ecology, natural resources, and fish and wildlife departments.

Ranker contended MTCA money has been allocated to some new programs that could be considered hazardous substances cleanup, while some MTCA funds would end up in a gray area. Ranker views as gray areas some flood control projects; dealing with livestock-impacted streams; and tackling high nutrient concentrations coming out of sewage treatment plants, which lead to algae and other aquatic plants spreading in bodies of water.

Stormwater-related cleanup efforts usually involved streams, rivers, Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Ranker criticized Ericksen’s bill for expanding cleanup on contaminated stormwater to include fairs and ballfields. He said that diverts money from higher-priority stormwater problems.

Ranker also criticized Ericksen’s version for cutting some contamination-prevention efforts, and for allowing private companies to set their own cleanup priorities in some cases. “It gives more authority to polluters than to the ports and cities,” Ranker said.

Ericksen countered that Ranker significantly mischaracterized the approved version of the bill. “We don’t let any potential liable parties off the hook,” Ericksen said.

The Senate’s Environment Committee and its Ways and Means Committee both took testimony on the bill. The Western States Petroleum Association and the Association of Washington Business supported the bill. The state ecology and health departments, the Washington State Environmental Health Directors organization, the Thurston County Public Health Department, the Washington Environmental Council, and the Washington Federation of State Employees opposed the bill.

Ericksen said the bill brings greater transparency and accountability to managing the MTCA funds. Ranker contended the revamped MTCA fund does not include safeguards to prevent future raiding for the general fund.

Ranker and Ericksen did agree on several portions of the bill that tackle the mechanics on certain types of cleanup projects —including measures that would allow cities, ports and counties to plan their cleanup and redevelopment efforts several years ahead without worrying about losing state appropriations.

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