Highway retrofits aim to protect fish
SEATTLE – Washington state will do more to prevent polluted stormwater from running off state highways into rivers, lakes and Puget Sound, where it poses a serious threat to salmon and other aquatic life.
In a legal settlement filed Tuesday, the state Department of Transportation agreed that whenever it builds new highways in Western Washington, it will also spend a little bit of money to retrofit old ones – thousands of miles of which were constructed without sediment ponds or other pollution controls.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice and the group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance challenged the DOT’s stormwater discharge permit before the state Pollution Control Hearings Board last year, saying it didn’t meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.
“This is a 7,000-mile highway system that generates enormous amounts of pollutants, most of which are discharged directly into waters without any treatment or storage whatsoever,” Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman said. “The amount of copper coming off a highway is staggering compared to the levels that we know affect salmon.”
The state Ecology Department said stormwater runoff is one of the main sources of the 52 million pounds of toxic chemicals, such as oil, PCBs and heavy metals, that end up in Puget Sound each year. Copper is particularly troubling for young salmon because it destroys their sense of smell and prevents them from avoiding predators.
Under federal law, Ecology grants permits outlining how stormwater runoff should be managed. Environmental groups have been pressing the state to get a handle on runoff, not just from highways, but from cities and businesses as well.
Since mid-2008, when the pollution board determined that Ecology’s permit governing runoff from cities and counties was too lax, the department has been rewriting its standards for low-impact development. And last fall, it placed new limits on stormwater runoff at 1,200 industrial facilities across Washington.
Ecology issued the permit governing stormwater runoff from Washington highways early last year.
But the permit as issued would have required few, if any, upgrades to existing roads, which was a key reason the environmental groups appealed to the pollution board.
Given Washington’s severe budget woes, the state would not commit a specific amount of money to retrofitting highways by digging retention ponds or swales or taking other steps to filter out pollutants before they reach fish-bearing waters, Hasselman said.
Instead, the state promised that whenever it builds new highway lanes in the Puget Sound basin, it will spend up to 20 percent of the project’s stormwater control costs to upgrade existing roads.