Whatcom County's two state senators are political opposites in some ways but are working together to pass two toxic-cleanup bills that could benefit Bellingham's waterfront.
A bill introduced by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, would speed up permitting for toxic cleanups funded through the Model Toxics Control Act. The other bill's main sponsor is Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who wants to ensure that money set aside under the act doesn't get diverted from cleanup projects. Both bills passed out of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 13. Ericksen chairs the committee, and Ranker is the ranking minority member.
The idea for Ranker's bill was hatched by the Port of Bellingham, which is in charge of decontaminating a dozen sites on the waterfront. Investigation, planning and permitting for the port's first cleanup under the toxics control act took nine years, Ranker said.
The Ranker bill would give priority to polluted sites in areas of planned economic redevelopment, such as the Bellingham waterfront. It would give public assistance to private developers who buy a property with an intent to clean it up, as long as there is a public benefit. Ranker's bill would provide more money to the local governments in direct control of the cleanups, and it would create guarantees that major projects will be funded over multiple state budget cycles.
"It doesn't change the standards for cleanup. It's more how (the Department of) Ecology prioritizes its resource to help move cleanups where there's really an economic benefit," said Pete Kmet, an environmental engineer at Ecology. The state agency administers the toxics control act money, which comes from a wholesale tax on hazardous materials, including fuel.
Money builds up in the toxics fund when approvals bog down, and lawmakers are then inclined to raid that fund to patch holes in other parts of the state budget. They've taken $233 million out of the fund since 2009, Ericksen said in a statement.
"Certainly there will be pressure in this session to do that," Kmet said.
This is where Ericksen's bill is intended to work. The latest version says use of the toxics control funds is limited to cleanup, control or prevention of hazardous waste. Priority is given to sites where the planning and investigations prior to cleanup are completed, or where business redevelopment is anticipated.
Ericksen said both bills will work in tandem to accelerate cleanup of the Bellingham waterfront.
"I think it's been slowed down both by the permitting process and by the jump-starts to funding," he said. "We have to get the permitting in line and a steady stream of dollars for cleanup."
That the two bills reinforce each other is no accident. Ranker and Ericksen have been working together on them.
This instance of legislative bipartisanship comes despite tension between Democrats and Republicans that began in December, when two conservative Democrats joined the 23 Republicans in the Senate to create a new majority.
The power shift directly affected the two local senators. Ericksen was elevated to the committee chairmanship, and Ranker lost his chair on last session's version of the committee, called Energy, Natural Resources and Marine Waters.
The week before the Jan. 14 start of session, Ranker criticized the choice of Ericksen as chairman of an environmental committee, given his voting record's low rating from Washington Conservation Voters.
After some initial sparring, the two found ways to work together.
"I never had any thought that there would be areas where we wouldn't work well together," Ranker said. "There's a number of bills that have been introduced by Doug and others that I'm adamantly opposed to, in the renewable energy sector, where we are really on polar opposites. In the areas where we can work together, we owe it to our constituents to do so."
Ericksen's bill made it out of committee even though Ranker voted against it. His vote was only a statement that the bill needs more work, Ranker said.
"The bill as-is was still a little bit too narrowly focused," Ranker said. "He and I both agree that frankly both bills are works in progress, and there'll likely be additional changes. ... I look forward to working with Doug to make sure that all aspects of cleanups are funded."
Ecology is concerned the narrow focus of Ericksen's bill puts other programs funded by the toxics control act in jeopardy. The fund also pays for safe disposal of hazardous waste, stormwater treatment, programs aimed at reducing the wastestream, and cleanup of methamphetamine labs.
"There's some significant concerns on Ecology's part that those programs would not be sufficiently funded," Kmet said.
Officials at the Port of Bellingham and the city are following the two bills, and so far they are supportive. Mayor Kelli Linville said Bellingham has $6.5 million lined up for three waterfront cleanup projects, and she would like to see that money made more secure.
Linville said the community is benefiting from the cooperation between two politically different senators.
"They are putting partisanship aside and doing what is best for the community," she said.
TOXIC CLEANUP BILLS
Information on Sen. Kevin Ranker's SB 5201 and Sen. Doug Ericksen's SB 5296 can be found by searching for the bill number at apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo.