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State Ecology Department seeks to clear the air about washing cars in driveways

Soaping up your rig at home is still OK in the Evergreen State.

The Washington Department of Ecology fired off three press releases in recent weeks, clarifying that it hasn’t banned residential car washing.

“We’re trying to set the record straight,” said Sandy Howard, an Ecology spokeswoman.

After an article in the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash., referred to a ban on washing vehicles in driveways, “it spun into a larger story,” Howard said. “Before we knew it, it was in USA Today.”

The department’s been swamped with calls since the national newspaper’s Sept. 28 story, which quoted outraged men who regularly wash and buff their trucks in their driveways.

Last week, a Connecticut company claiming to sell environmentally benign car cleansers referred to the state’s purported ban in a national promotion for its product, G-Wash.

The Department of Ecology is trying to halt the flow of soapy water from charity car washes and home automobile scrubs into storm drains, Howard said. The drains often flow directly into lakes and streams, where the detergents are toxic to fish and aquatic insects. “We realize that washing your car in your driveway is right up there with American traditions like apple pie and watching baseball,” Howard said. “But we’re talking about toxicity levels that kill fish.”

Education, not fines

New, tougher storm water permits prohibit the flow of car-wash runoff into public storm drains; the new rules haven’t taken effect in the city of Spokane or in Spokane County, which are several years away from the next renewal of their storm water permits.

Ecology doesn’t expect cities or counties to issue tickets or aggressively enforce the rules, Howard said. Scofflaw residents will get education rather than fines.

Pulling your car or truck onto the grass before you wash it, or diverting the runoff away from storm drains, are easy ways to comply with the new rules, Howard said.

Charity groups can rent bays at local car washes for their fundraising events or sell coupons for professional car washes, she added.

A 2006 study showed that 40 juvenile rainbow trout died after being exposed to runoff from a charity car wash in the Puget Sound region.

“Terrestrial animals can tolerate skin exposure to detergents, but every time that we accidentally get soap or shampoo in our eyes, we are provided with an indication of the hazard for aquatic animals,” said Randall Marshall, an Ecology toxicity expert.

Fish gills and eyes are particularly sensitive. As some soaps break down, they also produce an endocrine disruptor linked to large declines of Atlantic salmon stocks in eastern Canada, Marshall said. High levels of the endocrine disruptor have been detected in urban streams in the Seattle area, he said.

The runoff also contains other pollutants, such as oils, grease and metals. When you get thousands of people washing their cars, the chemicals add up, Howard said: The runoff is more toxic than treated wastewater coming out of pulp mills.

Pollution patrol

Education campaigns to help people understand the link between car washing and water pollution are in the works, Howard said.

But local residents are already pretty savvy about protecting water quality, said Brenda Sims, Spokane County’s storm water utilities manager.

Last summer, she got a call from a woman concerned about a neighbor’s truck that was leaking copious amounts of oil. The truck was frequently parked on the street. Sims’ staff met with the truck’s owners, who agreed to park the vehicle in their driveway and put down an absorbent material to catch the oil.

She’s also received calls from people concerned about their neighbors’ excessive sprinkler runoff.

In unincorporated Spokane County, grassy swales and dry wells are more commonly used to catch and filter water than storm drains that connect to lakes or streams. But soapy water running down the street would still create concerns, Sims said.

Swales need to dry out to be effective filters. If they’re saturated for more than 72 hours, the grass dies.

“If you washed your car every two to three days … it would overwhelm the system,” Sims said. “It becomes less effective for filtering out pollutants and less effective at protecting groundwater.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at

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