Whatcom View: State needs surcharge to fund efforts to prevent pollution

Right now, state budget writers are working hard to write and pass changes to the state budget. All this happens in the span of eight weeks — so big decisions are made quickly, and now is the time to ensure that our community’s views are reflected in the end results.

Recently, Mayor Linville and Port Commissioner McAuley wrote in The Bellingham Herald about the need for the state to step up and fund cleanup projects — essential work for the future of Bellingham and Whatcom County.

We are in full agreement with Mayor Linville and Commissioner McAuley, and we want to expand on their piece, so that the full extent of the problem is clear, as well as the potential solutions.

Revenues have declined by nearly $100 million, leaving a large gap that jeopardizes important projects in our community.

Our state Model Toxics Control Act has three focused areas of work — cleaning up toxic sites, preventing and controlling harmful pollution, and supporting the public through participation grants that help address urgent toxic pollution problems.

As Mayor Linville and Commissioner McAuley rightfully point out, cleaning up toxic sites provides far-reaching benefits for the health of our economy and environment. But to ensure these investments provide reliable value over the long term, we must also eliminate known sources of pollution like toxic stormwater runoff and harmful diesel emissions.

Projects that prevent and reduce pollution conducted at the same time as cleaning up a toxic site maximizes results by creating jobs, improving public health and quality of life, increasing our tax base, and making redevelopment projects a smart and predictable investment. Moreover, preventing pollution is always cheaper and more effective than cleaning up a toxic site, so the money we spend today will pay dividends in the near and long term.

While low oil prices are good news at the gas pump, one downside is that we have the largest funding shortfall for toxic cleanups and pollution prevention since the Model Toxics Control Act was adopted by voters in 1988. Since the state adopted its budget last summer, revenues have declined by nearly $100 million, leaving a large gap that jeopardizes important projects in our community.

Right now, budget writers are grappling with this unprecedented crisis. In addition to the significant cleanup needs facing our communities, we also rely on Model Toxics Control Act to prevent harmful pollution. For example, Bellingham is a leader in using green infrastructure to reduce toxic runoff, and it is estimated that eight stormwater projects totaling $3.7 million are at risk of being defunded in the face of this budget crisis.

The value of projects like these are clear — taking water that was previously discharging without treatment into nearby waterways and filtering it naturally, so clean water instead runs into streams and the Salish Sea. Not to mention the jobs created by these types of projects, the improved aesthetics and walkability of our neighborhoods, and the reduced impact to iconic species like salmon.

Some members of the Legislature have advocated for delaying important investments in prevention, without a plan for when funding will return. In addition, some support cutting critical programs like reducing diesel emissions, replacing woodstoves, and pollution oversight and enforcement. These funding cuts will not guarantee that cleanup projects move forward in a timely way, but they are likely to increase the risk of health problems like asthma attacks and contaminated drinking water. That’s a disservice to residents in Bellingham and Whatcom County as well as other communities across the state.

Gov. Inslee’s proposed budget provided some of the funding needed to keep cleanup projects on track and maintain funding for pollution prevention projects like stormwater and reducing air pollution. The Legislature should follow this example by adopting budgets with a temporary surcharge to stabilize the accounts or providing other types of funding solutions to keep cleanup and prevention projects moving forward together. Following a cuts-only approach or eliminating funding for prevention is short-sighted and makes dealing with pollution more expensive in the long run.

Please take a moment to contact our legislators and ask them to provide needed funding to keep toxic cleanup and prevention on track.

Pinky Vargas, president of the Bellingham City Council, represents the 4th ward. Barry Buchanan represents District 1 on the Whatcom County Council.