Washington Highways Polluting Puget Sound and Endangering Salmon

Puget Sound advocates seek stronger stormwater permit to meet clean water standards


Sue Joerger, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, (206) 297-7002
Jan Hasselman, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 25 

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance today challenged a permit allowing stormwater runoff from Washington state highways to pollute bays, harbors, rivers, lakes and streams. Highway runoff typically carries heavy loads of contaminants including dissolved metals, combustion byproducts, pesticides, and nutrients. Stormwater runoff from cities, roads and developed areas is the most significant source of pollution threatening Puget Sound and the rivers, streams, estuaries, and bays in western Washington.

Much of the stormwater runs off state highways into storm drains where it is piped into nearby rivers and streams that flow to the sound.  A better solution allows runoff to soak into the ground where it can be cleansed by soil and added to underground water supplies. 

“The highway system pours toxic contaminants into our rivers, streams, and Puget Sound,” said Jan Hasselman an attorney for Earthjustice who is representing Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “A new, stronger 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, and bring the state into compliance with its obligations under the Clean Water Act.”

The challenged permit was issued by the Washington State Department of Ecology on February 4, 2009, almost nine years after the expiration of the previous permit. The challenge will be heard by the state Pollution Control Hearings Board. Last year this board invalidated the stormwater permit for the largest Puget Sound cities and counties as insufficiently protective of Puget Sound. 

“Government agencies, businesses, and citizens are all working together to protect and restore Puget Sound, but the state’s department of transportation isn’t carrying its share of the weight,” said Sue Joerger of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “It is past time for Department of Transportation to focus seriously on retrofitting the existing system to reduce toxic runoff.”

Washington state’s Department of Transportation operates and maintains a highway system of over 7,000 miles which 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.

It is technically and financially feasible for the state department of transportation to exercise greater control over polluted stormwater runoff. Existing roads and facilities need to be retrofitted to meet updated standards and eliminate ongoing degradation of water quality, but the permit requires virtually none.

“Industries shoulder a heavy burden to comply with the Clean Water Act, and now municipalities are working toward more low impact development,” said Joerger. “The economic burdens of polluted water affect all Washingtonians, and everyone must do their part to clean it up.”  

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