Findings prove what many suspected, and may change priorities in cleanup
Runoff from streets, roofs and even forests is the largest source of most of the worst pollutants plaguing Puget Sound, according to a study released Friday. Air pollution is the prime culprit for a few of the toxic chemicals. Oil spills and sewage treatment plants contribute smaller fractions of the waste.
Some of the findings were surprising -- and highlight the need to complete a more thorough analysis, possibly resulting in a refocusing of cleanup priorities.
"We're trying to sort of move away from random acts of kindness to prioritize actions based on the analysis and substance of what we find to be out there," said David Dicks, director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the government agency responsible for the health of the Sound.
The report is the first attempt to chase down and quantify all the sources of pollution that sicken orcas and make fish and shellfish unsafe for human consumption. It cost $135,000, paid for by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Millions of dollars have been spent trying to clean up historical contamination in Puget Sound and to stem ongoing sources. Many hope the investments will increase as the state and Gov. Chris Gregoire try to restore the Sound by 2020.
The report is the first part of a three-phase effort to tally the flow of toxics to the Sound. It comes with the warning that the numbers are preliminary and incomplete.
The report was vindicating for Rich Berkowitz, director of Pacific Coast Operations Transportation Institute, a non-profit representing the maritime shipping industry.
It found that oil spills accounted for only 4 percent of the petroleum pollution in the Sound; runoff from land accounted for nearly all the rest. The runoff -- according to back-of-the-envelope calculations by federal scientists -- could carry the equivalent of about half an Exxon Valdez spill a year in oil and grease.
"We are winning the battle on preventing oil spills from commercial vessels," Berkowitz said. "We've been losing the battle for far too long on runoff."
The study carried a different message for Josh Baldi, the Department of Ecology's special assistant for Puget Sound.
"What that shows is we're being diligent in terms of prevention," Baldi said. "That means we should not rest on that. We need to be as diligent about other types of pollution."
In recent years, the state's oil spill prevention program has been strengthened. Beginning this fall, vessels transferring oil to large oil facilities must be ringed with floating booms to contain spilled fuel should an accident occur. A 2003 spill during a fuel transfer near Edmonds dumped about 4,800 gallons into the Sound. A catastrophic spill could wipe out the local orca population.
While runoff has been singled out for years as a serious and growing pollution threat, the study made clear it's the front-runner.
Runoff picks up pollutants from across the landscape -- oil and grease from vehicles, pesticides applied to landscaping and roofs, pet waste and even naturally occurring -- but toxic -- elements.
The state has issued stormwater permits requiring city and county governments to reduce the torrent of water that flows untreated into streams and the Sound. Strategies include building ponds to hold the water so it can sink slowly into the ground. Environmentalists prefer "low-impact development" using rain barrels, porous cement and water-absorbing landscaping to absorb the rain where it falls.
Governments and developers often criticize the permits as too costly to comply with; environmentalists and scientists say they don't do enough -- and Baldi agreed.
The current permits "are going to be insufficient to tackle this problem," he said, and the study affirms the need to do more.
The study was a great first step, said Heather Trim of the non-profit People for Puget Sound. But it greatly underestimated the amount of pollution coming from sewage plants, industrial polluters and small, unreported oil spills.
The analysis also didn't include pollution from ocean water mixing with the Sound and contaminants in marine life and mud.
The phase two analysis, which will address many of these omissions, will cost $600,000 and is due next summer.
The Puget Sound Partnership is supposed to complete an action plan for saving the Sound by September.
Read the report "Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound" at: ecy.wa.gov/pubs/0710079.pdf.
Read "The Sound of Broken Promises," a six-part Seattle P-I special report that chronicles the long life of Granny, the respected elder in her Northwest orca pod, and examines the weak regulations, spotty enforcement and political foot-dragging that have plagued efforts to clean the Sound: