SEATTLE (AP) - 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. Megan White, director of the DOT's environmental services office, said it set out ambitious new requirements for controlling runoff, including monitoring stormwater discharges.
"All of our new projects are built to higher standards than have been used in the past," she said. "It's important for us to be good environmental stewards."
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. The Transportation Department will determine which roadways are top priorities, either because of the amount of runoff they generate or because they are near waters already impaired by pollution, and fix those first.
Federal fisheries scientists will also play a greater role in making sure new projects sufficiently protect salmon.
"Would I have preferred a flat commitment or a bigger number? Yes," Hasselman said. "But under the permit that was issued there was no requirement at all. This was a way of making sure there would be some funding."
Last fall, the state of Oregon committed $10 million over the next five years to cleaning up stormwater runoff before it pollutes salmon streams.
Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard called the result of the settlement "minimal," because the vast majority of the permit issued to the Transportation Department remains unchanged.
But, she added, "It will make it a little stronger environmentally."
"It's a first step - a modest step - but it's the first time we've tried to address these issues," said Bob Beckman, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.