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Slamming the Brakes on Stormwater Pollution: Q&A with Earthjustice Attorney Jan Hasselman

In this interview, attorney Jan Hasselman of the Northwest regional office talks about why cleaning up stormwater pollution in Washington State is crucial to preserving the livelihood of the Pacific Northwest.

Q. Why did Earthjustice focus on stormwater pollution?

Stormwater is by far the number one water pollution problem in Puget Sound. It dwarfs pollution from industrial facilities. 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.

Q. How does stormwater pollution affect the waterways of the Pacific Northwest?

Stormwater is full of toxic metals, oil, grease, pesticides, herbicides, bacteria and nutrients. It’s the number one problem for salmon in this area, most of which are already listed as threatened or endangered. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that stormwater is the leading cause of toxic pollution in the Columbia Basin. It’s also one of the main sources of the 52 million pounds of toxic chemicals that end up in Puget Sound each year.

"I don’t think we will ‘solve’ the stormwater problem any more than we will solve the ‘doing-the-dishes’ problem. We will always have to be moving forward on this issue."

Copper contamination is particularly troubling for young salmon because it destroys their sense of smell, which is crucial in avoiding predators and finding food. I saw an absolutely compelling video of juvenile salmon where one was in a clean tank and another was in a tank with three or four parts per billion of copper. When someone put their hand over the water to simulate a bird coming in to eat the salmon, the salmon in the clean bowl immediately dropped down to the bottom and held rock still while the salmon in the contaminated bowl just kept swimming along. He was not able to recognize that cue of danger and so would have been promptly gobbled up.

During the fall in Seattle when salmon are returning from the ocean to their natal streams to spawn, the water quality in some urban streams is so bad and the level of contamination is so high that these pregnant salmon, their bellies full of eggs ready to spawn, die within minutes of entering the stream. The collapse of the salmon population has led directly to a collapse of the orca population because salmon is their primary food source. Right now, orcas are so heavily contaminated with toxins from the food that legally they’re considered toxic waste. Their fat would be illegal to place it in the normal waste stream.

Orcas are an iconic species in the Pacific Northwest. People come from all around to this part of the country to see them. We don’t know whether they will be with us in another 10 or 20 years and unless we can turn around the pollution problems in Puget Sound they probably won’t be.

Q. What sources of stormwater pollution is Earthjustice targeting?

We’re focusing on two strategies: first, we need to set the most protective standards possible for new development and re-development. Every time someone builds a new subdivision or redevelops an existing lot represents an opportunity to get this right by using techniques that avoid the pollution in the first place. Over time those more protective standards will result in a better protection of our water resources. Second, we need to focus on the existing landscape through retrofitting: in some cases, that means tearing up the concrete and replacing it with vegetation that naturally filters and stores the stormwater. Both strategies are going to take a lot of time and a lot of attention.

Our goal is to require the state to shift from conventional stormwater management, which primarily uses engineered facilities like detention ponds where the water is diverted to a central pipe that then discharges the pollution into the nearest stream. We seek a more holistic and land use-orientated strategy, which preserves the vegetation, shrinks the amount of impervious surface in development projects and maintains as much stormwater on-site as possible. Many states are moving in this direction, and the EPA is proposing new national standards that will shift our development paradigm in this direction. It’s a very exciting time.

"Retrofitting our urban infrastructure is a win-win not only because it cleans up the environment and allows salmon and orcas to recover, but it puts people to work."

We’re also targeting stormwater pollution from highway runoff, which is an unusually toxic and dangerous brew full of combustion byproducts and heavy metals like copper and zinc that are acutely toxic to salmon at very low levels. In early 2010 we settled a case against the state that will reduce stormwater pollution by directing more funding to retrofitting the existing highway network, which is about 20,000 miles long and contains virtually zero stormwater control. We’re not building that many new highways these days, so we need to retrofit old highways so that they don’t discharge this highly contaminated material into salmon streams.

Retrofitting our urban infrastructure is a win-win not only because it cleans up the environment and allows salmon and orcas to recover, but it puts people to work. Tearing up useless parking lots and unneeded concrete is a green job just like putting up solar panels, and it will help recover our fishing jobs and provide the other economic benefits of a restored Puget Sound.

Q. How will Earthjustice continue to combat stormwater pollution in the Pacific Northwest?

We’re working to ensure that the most protective standards for stormwater pollution are employed everywhere. I don’t think we will “solve” the stormwater problem any more than we will solve the “doing-the-dishes” problem. We will always have to be moving forward on this issue.

Earthjustice has invested a lot in Puget Sound to get this right and we will continue to make those investments. This area was built on salmon, and a healthy environment is a critical economic driver. The Indian tribes here gave up their land in exchange for a promise that they would be able to fish forever. We have broken that promise—there’s not that many fish left.

It’s very important that we change the way we’re doing things to allow these species to recover.

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