Whatcom legislators work together to keep toxic-cleanup funds for port

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 15, 2013 

This was a tough state budget session. Not only was the state slowly recovering from the recession, but legislators also were faced with finding an additional $1 billion to better fund K-12 education. That was a tall order.

Thanks to a unified partnership among our 40th and 42nd district legislators, the adopted state budget allows the Port of Bellingham to move ahead on all of our cleanup projects in Blaine and Bellingham. The state reappropriated $32.5 million for projects that are underway and provided an additional $2.5 million to fund stormwater improvements to support our working waterfront and ensure the long-term sustainability of our cleanup activities in the Whatcom Waterway.

Although our Blaine industrial cleanups did not get the additional funding we requested, we are able to keep those projects moving forward, and we already are working with our legislators for funding in the next session. The $3.3 million in Blaine cleanup projects were on the state's priority list, but fell just below the available funding level.

The port started the session focused on trying to retain the state environmental cleanup funds we already had in place and on gaining additional funds for other environmental projects. We worked with the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County on an agenda of shared legislative priorities. For the port, continued cleanup funding was our No. 1 goal.

The countywide port is in both the 40th and 42nd legislative districts. Voters elected Republicans in all of the 42nd District positions and Democrats in all of the 40th District positions. Meanwhile, the port and its commissioners work to keep our organization out of any party politics. Our main roles are straightforward - promote countywide economic development and operate transportation terminals.

From the beginning of the session, all of our House and Senate members from the 40th and 42nd districts voiced their clear understanding of the importance of moving forward on the Whatcom County environmental cleanup projects and pledged their support for continued funding. During our trips to Olympia, we found their in-depth knowledge of and support for these projects unwavering.

While they certainly had differing political party agendas, cleaning up our old industrial sites was a place of consensus. These are not small projects by any measure. They include nine along the shorelines of Bellingham Bay and two more in Blaine. Together these projects represent about $150 million in future cleanup costs. Once completed these projects will improve marine habitat, protect the environment and, in some cases, bring idled property back into safe and productive use.

Senators Doug Ericksen, R., 42nd, and Kevin Ranker, D., 40th, got the most attention for their shared support for our local environmental cleanup projects and for their differing strategies to get the work done. Both championed innovative reform of the cleanup approval and implementation process and argued for strategies that could result in more efficiency.

Most importantly both fought hard to protect the dedicated cleanup money generated by the voter-approved Model Toxic Control Act funds. The toxic control fund is a tax on hazardous materials (primarily fuel) that are brought into the state. The voters wanted the money raised to be spent on environmental cleanups and environmental protection. The Model Toxic Control Act fund is kind of like a state version of the federal Superfund and the money is typically used to provide 50 percent matching funds for local public cleanups of contaminated sites.

Because of the toxic control account is traditionally well financed, sometimes a large portion of these dedicated funds are swept into the General Fund to help balance the budget. In a large part because of the effort of the 40th and 42nd district legislators -- including Representatives Jeff Morris, D., 40th; Kris Lytton, D., 40th; Vincent Buys, R., 42nd; and Jason Overstreet, R. 42nd --- the diversion of Model Toxic Control Act money into the General Fund was limited, allowing us to keep moving forward with our priority cleanup projects.

During these times when partisan politics gain most of the headlines, we believe it is important to recognize and celebrate the collaborative work that our legislators did to ensure that our contaminated industrial sites will soon become healthy places where all of us can live, work and play.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jim Jorgensen is the president of the Port of Bellingham commission.

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