State officials and conservation advocates agreed to a plan expected to reduce stormwater pollution threatening Puget Sound and the rivers, streams, estuaries, and bays in western Washington. The agreement settles a legal challenge to the state's highway stormwater permit brought by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance against the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and the Washington Department of Ecology.
Highway runoff typically carries heavy loads of contaminants including dissolved metals, combustion byproducts, pesticides, and nutrients. Stormwater runoff from cities, highways, roads and developed areas is the most significant source of pollution threatening the Sound and other waterways.
Earthjustice, a public interest law firm representing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, appealed the state's stormwater permit in March 2009. This action was necessary because the permit failed to require the most aggressive approaches to new projects and because it did little to address the impact of stormwater runoff from the existing highway network. The permit was issued by the Department of Ecology, which governs the state transportation department management of the 7,000-mile state highway system. Because of the settlement, a hearing before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board scheduled for this April has been cancelled.
"The highway system pours toxic contaminants into our rivers, streams, and Puget Sound," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for Earthjustice who represented Puget Soundkeeper Alliance in the appeal. "Strengthening this permit can be an opportunity to put people back to work by retrofitting our highways to eliminate this problem. This will help our economy today and our quality of life tomorrow by cleaning up salmon spawning streams. It also brings the state into compliance with its obligations under the federal Clean Water Act."
The settlement includes a number of provisions which reduce the impacts of stormwater runoff from the state highway system and which provide the public with greater oversight over WSDOT's construction practices. First, under the agreement, WSDOT will be required to devote greater resources to retrofitting old highways when it builds new ones. Much of the existing network has no stormwater controls at all, meaning that pollutants and dangerous high flows are discharged directly into streams and Puget Sound. Second, WSDOT agreed to give federal fisheries scientists an expanded role in overseeing new construction projects to ensure that they are sufficiently protective of salmon and steelhead already at risk of extinction.
WSDOT and Ecology also agreed to revise the permit to ensure that WSDOT complies with local stream protection plans (known as "total maximum daily loads" under the Clean Water Act), and take more robust steps to ensure that illicit discharges are located and eliminated.
"Government agencies, businesses, and citizens are all working together to protect and restore Puget Sound, but the state's department of transportation wasn't carrying its share of the weight," said Bob Beckman, the executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "There is a lot more work to be done but we feel that this is a step in the right direction. The state highway system should not be held to a weaker standard than industries, local governments and the public."
Washington State's Department of Transportation highway system carries approximately 60 percent of the traffic in the state. The state's highways typically are built adjacent to streams, bays and rivers, many of which support sensitive species like salmon. Most highway facilities in western Washington were constructed decades ago with the goal of quickly removing stormwater from road surfaces for safety -- they were not engineered to reduce the environmental impacts of stormwater.