Hard-won toxic-cleanup bill wins praise in Bellingham


A bill shepherded into law by Whatcom County's two state senators has local officials optimistic that the cleanup of Bellingham's derelict industrial waterfront may happen sooner rather than later.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who sponsored the bill, sees it as a victory for Republicans in an arena where they don't usually fare well - the environment. The legislation reforms how Model Toxics Control Act money is spent on toxic cleanups, with the intent of broadening the scope of eligible projects and putting the money to use more quickly.

Although the bill was championed at times by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, he and environmentalists came away partly dissatisfied. Ranker said on Friday, June 21, that the legislation was just introduced in the House to correct some defects in the bill.

In the rush on June 13 to finish the toxics bill and pass it in tandem with a separate bill to fix the estate tax, some discrepancies in language resulted. Democrats don't like all aspects of the final version, Ranker said.

Two issues that still need work are how money for stormwater projects can be used, and who has access to the cleanup funds, Ranker said. He described the remaining issues as "very small."

"We're 90 percent there," he said Friday.

Clifford Traisman, who lobbies on behalf of Washington Conservation Voters and other environmental groups, gave a similar criticism of the bill on Monday, June 17. He agreed with Ranker that the bill allows too broad a range of stormwater projects to qualify.

"No. 2, we are still concerned, as we always have been, that this bill will make funding available to liable private parties in a way never seen before," Traisman said.

Ericksen indicated that the "trailer" bill to adjust the toxics legislation likely won't get a hearing in the Senate. Besides, Democrats' concerns are overstated, he said.

"Nothing in the current legislation allows private companies that are currently liable for contamination to get off the hook," he said. "That's a nonstory."

"Any concerns, real or imaginary, that are being brought up can be dealt with when the Legislature reconvenes in January," Ericksen said.

None of the issues being raised would affect how the bill is implemented in the meantime, he said.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix said the bill should make it easier to address contamination on the city's waterfront. The port and the city are partners in plans to redevelop 237 acres, much of it the site of a former Georgia Pacific mill.

Linville singled out a couple elements in the bill for praise, including a guarantee that large cleanup projects will be funded over multiple budget cycles, and a provision that streamlined requirements for more familiar cleanup tasks.

The legislation's new Environmental Stewardship Legacy Account, or "ELSA," is intended to funnel toxics money to projects more quickly - to accelerate the pace of cleanups and keep the toxics funds from being raided by the general fund.

Lawmakers have done just that in the past, taking $233 million from the cleanup funds since 2009, according to Ericksen.

While a fund can't be blocked from the kinds of transfers the Legislature has used to balance the broader state budget, the ELSA money should be spent more consistently, rather than piling up, because greater accountability is written into the new law, Ericksen said. Programs that aren't making progress will be stripped of funding in favor of more successful efforts.

Even though the legislation was "based upon the downtown Bellingham Georgia Pacific site," as Ericksen put it, Fix at the port said the benefits to his agency weren't immediately known. Port commissioners will need to apply for funds.

On Friday, Ericksen said he had to be careful what he said about future funding, because the budget wasn't finished.

"I think that account is going to drive out a lot of money to environmental projects in Washington," he said. "I can't give you a number, but it will be a lot of money."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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