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Pollution rules delayed after Boeing balks

Meeting with Gregoire precedes halt to new fish-consumption regulations

Robert Mcclure And Olivia Henry InvestigateWest

Entering her final year in office, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire found herself in a difficult spot.

Indian tribes, powerful supporters of the governor, wanted stricter water pollution rules.

Meanwhile, her powerful supporters in the aerospace industry – spearheaded by Boeing Co. – were dead set against tightening the rules.

Aerospace won.

According to newly released government records, plans supported by the tribes and backed by the Washington Department of Ecology to strengthen pollution limits before Gregoire left office were dashed one day after the governor met with Jim Albaugh, Boeing’s executive vice president.

“It was my expectation that this was not going to be a top-tier political issue,” said Ted Sturdevant, the former Ecology director who tried unsuccessfully to shepherd through the changes.

Documents obtained this month by InvestigateWest detail a controversy that continues to simmer: Indian tribes this week plan to skip the state this time and bring their protests directly to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The heart of the tribes’ complaint is how the state sets water pollution standards. A key part of that process is estimating how much fish people eat; the fewer fish consumed by residents, the more pollution can be dumped into waterways.

Yet Washington’s estimate is decades out of date, as the EPA has repeatedly warned Ecology.

Boeing and other businesses argue they don’t have the technology required to meet expected new pollution limits.

“There’s no evidence as to what those (rules) would be, and (no) certainty that those things are economically viable and are going to allow us to stay competitive in this state,” said Terry Mutter, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy.

Boeing asked to delay the process of revising the fish consumption numbers last year to allow more discussion. “We want to make sure that not only the environment is protected, but also that the economy is viable for aerospace,” Mutter said.

About 128,000 Washington jobs are tied to aerospace, according to the Aerospace Pipeline Advisory Committee. Boeing is the biggest with 85,000 workers. Its suppliers employ thousands more.

In the runup to the decision to delay updating the fish consumption numbers, as InvestigateWest reported two weeks ago, Boeing said the change would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars” and hamper its ability to expand.

Oregon updated its fish consumption estimate in 2011 as recommended by EPA to account for the fact that Americans are eating more fish and to reflect that some groups such as Native Americans eat significantly more fish than others.

By contrast, Washington’s numbers are based on Americans who filled out three-day food diaries in 1973 and 1974.

If the numbers used by the two states are compared, the findings show that Oregon residents eat 27 times more fish than people in Washington.

‘It’s the right thing to do’

Sturdevant, the Ecology official, knew the state was going to face opposition.

Months before the controversy erupted, Sturdevant huddled with insistent tribal leaders. Meeting notes captured his resolve: “The state knows that industry will push back, but we should not worry about the political winds because it’s the right thing to do.”

That was in September 2011. Opposition began to build, and by December 2011 industry was set for a fight, said Catherine O’Neill, a Seattle University expert in tribal law.

Gregoire didn’t get the memo. Once the 2012 legislative session started, she was surprised to hear complaints from Republican legislative leaders. She dashed off a two-sentence email on January 18 to Sturdevant: “Republicans are very concerned about this issue and brought it up at a leadership meeting. What is it?”

Lobbyists and lawmakers continued to press, and two weeks later Sturdevant sent what he characterized as a “calm-down” letter, saying that the rulemaking to adjust the fish consumption numbers would be slowed down. It didn’t work, and three days later, proclaiming himself “ breathless” at the level of opposition, he confided to Gregoire adviser Keith Phillips: “In pursuit of finding that line between bold and stupid, I’m wondering if I misjudged.”

Soon a provision found its way into the Senate version of the state’s annual budget that would have put up roadblocks to Ecology moving forward.

It’s unclear who drafted the provision; tribal attorneys blamed the pulp and paper industry, their internal correspondence shows, while Sturdevant said in a February 27 memo to the governor that it originated with the Association of Washington Business.

In any case, the tribes launched their own lobbying campaign and within a week they’d beaten back the draft provision.

But Boeing was keeping a close eye on the issue, and a Boeing representative complained about a week later in a note to a Gregoire aide that the fish consumption rule changes were “still on a fast track,” and due to be adopted by year’s end. The Association of Washington Business followed with a formal letter of complaint to Gregoire, and a day later, on April 20, Boeing representative Susan Champlain asked to meet with Sturdevant and Gregoire’s chief of staff.

By then, the legislative session was over and Sturdevant thought he still had time to get the changes adopted before Gregoire’s exit from office, he told InvestigateWest.

The issue was far from dead, though. When a Renton city official asked Gregoire aerospace aide Alex Pietsch in early June if the issue was still on his radar, Pietsch replied, “Oh yeah.”

He added: “I’m eating less fish now that I know about this issue.”

Gregoire wants “pivot”

The nightly television news on June 20 last year broadcast images of Gregoire on a visit to Renton, Wash., site of a Boeing factory and a big win for the governor. It’s where Boeing, in November 2011, agreed to build a new jetliner after long negotiations with the company’s biggest union.

What didn’t make the news was that Gregoire also held a long-planned meeting with Jim Albaugh, the Boeing vice president. A flurry of emails the day before among Gregoire aides and others shows Ecology still was poised to go forward with the rule changes on fish consumption by the end of the year.

The plan was for those changes to be incorporated into rules for cleaning up toxic waste sites. Meanwhile, Ecology would get together the tribes, Boeing, other businesses, the EPA and anyone else concerned about the issue to hash out how to move forward. A second rule would follow, to assure industry that it would not be too adversely affected. Only then would a third rule change happen, based on the new fish consumption rate, to govern toxics in industrial water-pollution discharges, such as stormwater runoff from Boeing’s plant operations and uphill properties in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

Coming out of the meeting with Albaugh, though, the governor thought differently, records indicate.

The most telling sentence in the post-meeting emails is from Gregoire environmental adviser Phillips to Pietsch, her aerospace aide, using government jargon that means the process would be delayed: “The Gov wants the ‘process now/102 later’ option included in the mix of options. Ted (Sturdevant) is rallying his folks to develop the options, and he’s assuming the Gov will want to pivot to some amended direction on this.”

The “102” shorthand refers to CR 102, the point in rulemaking at which an agency formally proposes the rule and solicits public comments. The “pivot” is what happened. The change to the pollution rules that Ecology had been working on for at least nine months was stopped, delayed to at least 2014.

Attempts to reach Gregoire and Albaugh for comment were unsuccessful.

Sturdevant said he wasn’t at the meeting between Gregoire and Boeing’s Albaugh, but that he was hearing from opponents other than Boeing at the time. They included the Association of Washington Business, the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association and the Association of Washington Cities, the latter because most towns operated sewage treatment plants subject to water pollution rules. The opponents included the Inland Empire Paper Co., which is owned by Cowles Co., the parent company of The Spokesman-Review.

Even though Gregoire aides had described Sturdevant in internal emails as being “on the sharp point of the spear since last year” because of his advocacy for updating the fish consumption number, Sturdevant said the decision to slow down adoption was his.

Another blowup could delay a decision into the term of the next governor – and maybe that governor would just walk away, he said. Significantly, Ecology’s new director, Maia Bellon, will attend Thursday’s meeting with the tribes. She and the new governor, Jay Inslee, both issued noncommittal statements in response to comment for this article.

Jason Alcorn contributed to this report. InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit investigative journalism center. Find out more online at
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