Senate Republicans scored a little-noticed but significant victory in the recent legislative session against grass-roots environmental and community groups, zeroing out funding for the groups to help citizens monitor toxic-waste cleanups and prevent future pollution.
Now, community-based organizations working on environmental issues are scrambling to figure out how they can continue to assist the public.
The state’s biggest toxic-waste cleanups are affected, including those at Commencement Bay, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Duwamish River in Seattle.
Lake Roosevelt, Puget Sound, the Columbia River are affected, and in some cases the public-participation programs will be crippled, the community groups say.
“If the goal of the people who advocated for this was to keep (community groups) from advocating for effective cleanups, it worked,” said Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma, “because I need to spend a lot of time fundraising right now.”
From early in the legislative session, Republicans, led by Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, sought to help balance the books of the state’s Model Toxics Control Act accounts by eliminating $3.8 million in “public participation grants” authorized by a citizens’ initiative nearly 30 years ago.
Ericksen, chairman of the Senate Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Committee, argued that cleanup of toxic materials should take precedence over public participation grants.
The community groups and their Democratic legislative allies, along with Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration, respond that the groups, getting just 1 percent of the money generated for toxic cleanups under the Model Toxics Control Act, have made a big difference and kept the government from making mistakes.
Democrats agreed they had to cut the grant program, because the money comes mostly from a percentage tax on oil brought into the state. The price of oil price has plunged over the last year.
Inslee and the Democratic House leadership proposed to trim $1.3 million, proportional to the drop in tax collections. That was a small part of cuts to make up a $92 million shortfall expected in the toxic-cleanup program from the oil price drop.
But when the Legislature voted to approve a supplemental 2016-17 budget, the $3.8 million for public-participation grants was gone, as Republicans advocated. In closed-door budget negotiations, the Inslee administration and House Democrats acquiesced.
Ericksen, the senator leading the charge to defund the groups, said early in the session that the money should be used for toxic site cleanup, “what many consider the prime goal” of Initiative 97, approved by voters in 1988.
He said the money was being used as “a slush fund” for purposes as varied as getting rid of Christmas trees and building a trail out of recycled plastic.
Bruce Wishart, a lobbyist for Puget Soundkeeper and the Sierra Club, among other environmental groups, took issue with that view.
It was always part of the plan to fund public participation in cleaning up toxic waste sites and providing citizens with assistance, said Wishart, who helped to draft the 1988 initiative that authorized taxing chemicals to clean up toxic sites.
He called this year’s cuts “a policy consideration masquerading as a fiscal decision.”
“The Senate has been very hostile to the idea of public involvement in the cleanups,” Wishart said.
“We’re trying to do good work here on a shoestring,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a group watching the cleanup of the nation’s largest toxic-waste site, “but we can’t do it without the shoestring. “
The cuts the Senate Republicans won amounted to less than 0.012 percent of the state’s two-year, $32.8-billion budget.
Ericksen did not respond to email and telephone messages seeking comment. House budget chief Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, was unavailable, a spokesman said.
The community groups’ grants come from the state Department of Ecology. Department officials are disappointed by the cut, said Laurie Davies, manager of the agency’s waste-to-resources program, who has helped administer the program for more than quarter-century.
“Ecology feels very strongly about the importance of this program,” Davies said in an interview. “The whole idea is to provide citizen groups an independent voice and the ability to hire their own technical experts who look into both the extent of the contamination and the quality and depth of the cleanup.
“It’s not an easy thing to watch the Legislature cut these funds because they are important to these citizen groups.”
The cuts to the community groups are not unprecedented — just the zeroing out. The Legislature reduced the program in the face of the Great Recession as well, cutting it from $3.6 million in 2007-09 to $1.8 million in the next biennium and $1.1 million in the biennium after that, Davies said.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition in Seattle launched a fundraising drive that has helped make up the shortfall, said James Rasmussen, coordinator of the coalition.
The Legislature’s decision means taking time away from helping citizens to raising money, Rasmussen said.
As the budget reality hit home, the Ecology Department came under fire from the environmental groups.
The agency had authorized some groups to begin spending money after the Legislature passed the 2015-17 budget early last summer — and then reneged. Groups that authorized work and cut paychecks based on the promise of state dollars now will not get that money.
Davies said that situation traces in part to the action of one of the groups being cut.
The grants are awarded competitively through a process in which the Ecology Department analyzes and ranks the value of the groups’ proposals.
After the Legislature approved a budget in June 2015, the Ecology Department ranked the requests. That was challenged by Heart of America Northwest, the group that works on the cleanup of Hanford.
The Ecology Department decided to reconsider the rankings, a lengthy process. In December, with the analysis done, the department again authorized groups to continue spending money, several groups said.
But the contracts still had to be put together and signed. This left them vulnerable to cuts when, in February, legislative staff members came looking for ways to make up the shortfall because the contracts hadn’t been signed.
Legislative staffers specifically sought out cuts in areas where contracts had not been finalized, Davies said.
Carpenter of Hanford Challenge blamed the Democrats for not protecting the grants in the face of Republicans’ attacks.
“We were all shocked that the Democrats would actually accede to such a cut,” Carpenter said. “This was supposed to be the environmental governor, the green governor — not so much.”
Ths story is part of InvestigateWest's Statehouse News Project, a crowdfunded effort in partnership with local newspapers to provide independent reporting on the Legislature. More information is available at invw.org/environment.
Where the cuts are falling
Eliminating $3.8 million in “public participation grants” will affect a variety of programs. A few examples:
▪ In Olympia, the Thurston County Climate Action Team is losing $81,535 that was to fund a program to help renters reduce their energy use.
▪ At the Puget Soundkeeper organization, the cuts affect a proposed new $87,500 public-education program to keep cigarette butts out of the stormwater pollution that is the Sound’s largest source of toxics.
And an existing program was zeroed out, the $60,000-a-year Clean Marinas program that is part of the state’s Puget Sound Partnership-approved restoration agenda.
▪ In Port Angeles, the eliminated funding has paid for a technical expert to advise citizens about cleanup of the harbor, and public-education efforts by the Olympic Environmental Council.
▪ At Hanford, the cuts hit several groups handling different aspects of the cleanup, including a $120,000 chunk for Hanford Challenge.
▪ In Spokane, the Lands Council is losing $56,600 to improve human health and protect the Spokane River.
▪ In Bellingham, RE Sources For Sustainable Communities will do without $117,423 targeted at educating the public about contaminated sites. A major cleanup of Bellingham harbor is being undertaken.