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Oil fee would fund pollution cleanup

Environmentalists hail Spokane lawmaker’s bill

SEATTLE – Storm water runoff is a leading source of water pollution in the state, but who should pay to keep rivers, lakes and waters clean?

Some lawmakers and environmentalists think oil companies should.

They’re pushing a bill that would levy a pollution fee of $1.50 per barrel of petroleum product to pay for projects that help curb the flow of pollutants into Puget Sound and other waters.

Petroleum products are “the single largest contributor to water contamination,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, prime sponsor of HB1614, which passed the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources on Thursday.

Ormsby said there is a direct connection linking water quality, storm water runoff and petroleum.

The Senate Committee on Environment, Water and Energy heard a similar bill this week but referred it to the Senate Ways and Means Committee without making a recommendation.

Oil companies, which oppose the bills, say the pollution fee isn’t a fee but a gasoline tax and they say it’s not allowed under state law.

“It’s a tax on a product that has no association with the function,” said Frank Holmes, Northwest region manager for the Western States Petroleum Association.

When rain falls on roofs, parking lots and driveways, it washes oil, grease, dirt, heavy metals and other pollutants into rivers, lakes and bays.

Surface runoff is the primary source of water pollution in Puget Sound, according to recent state Ecology Department studies looking at toxic chemicals that go into the Sound. But it’s not just a problem for Puget Sound.

“It is definitely a statewide problem,” said Josh Baldi, special assistant to Ecology Director Jay Manning.

“Petroleum products make up a significant portion of storm water pollution,” he added.

The Ecology Department and the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency charged with cleaning up the Sound by 2020, is neutral on the bills. Gov. Chris Gregoire has said fees would not be a part of her budget.

A coalition of environmental groups has made this proposal one of four key priorities this legislative session.

“It’s our hope that this will jump-start water quality programs statewide,” said Bruce Wishart, policy director for People for Puget Sound.

The pollution fee would raise about $100 million a year to help local government retrofit curb storm water runoff.

Dave Williams of the Association of Washington Cities, which supports the measure, said local governments are struggling to meet federal standards to manage storm water.

“Jurisdictions large and small are facing huge challenges, and most importantly how to pay for it,” he told lawmakers at a recent public hearing.

Municipalities currently rely on property-based storm water utility fees to pay for projects.

Under the bill, local governments would compete for a portion of the money to use for retrofits and to help them manage storm water to meet federal guidelines.

The fee would be levied on petroleum products, including gasoline, diesel, asphalt and road oil and lubricants, at the point of first possession.

Crude oil, aviation gasoline, jet fuel, home heating oil and red-dyed diesel used for agricultural purposes are excluded.

Holmes contended the fee is really a gasoline tax and that the bill violates state law that requires all gasoline tax revenues be applied to roads.

He added that many sources contribute to pollution and “it’s inappropriate to single out one piece of the equation and tax that one separately.”

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