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Science, Law & the Environment Emerging Topics in Environmental Law

Washington’s 2014 Legislative Session: Early Developments on Fish Consumption, Nuclear Power and More

Posted in Climate Change, Emerging Policy, Energy Policy, Fish Consumption, Uncategorized, Water Quality

We’re just over a week into the 2014 legislative session, and there are already some interesting developments. In no particular order, here is what is catching my eye:

First, the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee held a work session on the fish consumption issue last week. The Association of Washington Business just posted an interesting summary of an exchange that occurred between one of the members of the committee and two industry representatives as part of that work session. The session covered much of the ground that the AWB’s study on the futility of achieving the water quality standards that come with high fish consumption rates covered. AWB’s post highlights the evolving understanding of the issue by elected officials–Senator John McCoy rightly notes that the Tulalip’s plant (a four million gallon per day facility) does a great job of treating water–so his conclusion was that such technology would be sufficient to meet the impending revised water quality standards. Senator Sheldon goes on to bring up the issue of Brightwater, noting that it didn’t seem to make sense to have to add on to that technology right after you finished building the plant. But, the reality is even that technology wouldn’t get close to meeting the possible water quality criteria revisions to account for high fish consumption rates.

To me, the take-away here is that I hope elected officials continue to educate themselves on how dramatic the potential economic impacts of these stringent water quality standards can be. I think part of the problem with this issue is that people are used to the idea that technology can filter water to a “pristine” condition–but what we’re talking about in terms of where the water quality criteria may be going is something like “pristine plus” or “ultra pristine.” And, from a practical standpoint, I’d hope that we seriously consider whether it may be time to step back and rethink how we address the low levels of toxic compounds at issue–something along the “holistic approach” alluded to in AWB’s blog post and in Gerry O’Keefe’s testimony to the committee.

Second, John Stang at Crosscut has a great piece out on the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee’s bipartisan approval of a bill that would create a task force to study whether the state should host more nuclear power. The bill itself can be accessed here. In short, this will authorize the study of the use of modular reactors that can be dropped into place and that generate tens to hundreds of megawatts instead of the thousand megawatt-scale nuclear power facilities most people think of when nuclear power is mentioned. This next generation of nuclear reactors holds considerable promise in terms of being able to provide power to remote areas traditionally served by diesel powered facilities. And, as I’ve stated before, I believe that we have to consider nuclear power as an option if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’ll be tracking this bill to see how it progresses.

Third, there is an interesting environmental justice bill before the House Committee on the Environment, HB 2311-2013-14. We’ll see if this gets out of committee. It appears to direct the Department of Ecology to act in a manner consistent with Federal Executive Order 12898. More significantly, it would give Ecology the explicit authority in resolving certain permit violations to require remedial projects specifically designed to address environmental justice issues through projects required as part of resolving such violations. The concept of protection of human health and the environment runs through almost all of our current environmental statutes, but what makes this unique is the explicit calling out of disadvantaged communities and targeting remedial work that benefits such communities. I think this is a laudable goal, but am worried that it may be difficult to implement–particularly because teasing out impacts at the community level can be very difficult because of many confounding variables. One other part of the bill that caught my eye is the requirement that Ecology must recover a monetary penalty when it settles liability and includes such environmental justice projects–it seems to me that the mandate of doing so reduces Ecology’s flexibility in crafting pragmatic, workable, settlements.

Finally, there is a significant legislative effort to respond to the perceived threats associated with the increased transport of oil in the state. My partner Diane Meyers composed a separate blog post on the subject yesterday. I encourage you to read that.