In Our View: Puget Sound Problem

Recent report defines pollutants and where they come from

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Puget Sound and the surrounding area are home to 4.3 million people in 90 cities and towns in a dozen counties, busily churning out $20 billion of economic activity. You can imagine what kind of impact all of that has on the quality of water in Puget Sound, where forests, farms families and commerce touch the sea.

But what does all of that have to do with Clark County? Plenty, because how successful people and businesses become in reducing Puget Sound pollution will resonate here. We’re equally concerned about water quality in the Columbia River and other waterways. So, it comes as good news that state officials are making significant progress in determining which chemicals pollute Puget Sound and in identifying where they come from. A report last week from the Department of Ecology casts a wide net over culprits. “Most toxic chemicals are used in some way by all of us,” said Ecology Director Ted Sturdevant. “They are in our homes and gardens. They’re produced when we develop land without adequate runoff controls, when we burn wood, when we drive and park our cars. If we want to protect Puget Sound, we need to find and use less-toxic alternatives.”

Although countless chemicals contaminate Puget Sound, the recent report focused on 17, and among the most prevalent pollutants are copper, zinc, creosote, flame retardants and petroleum-based compounds.

Many people might be surprised to learn that surface water runoff (also known as stormwater) is fouled by many of our most common products and practices. Roofing materials contain numerous pollutants. Brake pads, pesticides and boat paint contain copper, which scientists have discovered interferes with the ability of salmon to smell. Deprived of that ability, salmon lose their powers to avoid predators, navigate on their amazingly instinctive migratory journeys, find mates and spawn. More explanation is provided by Jay Davis, environmental toxicologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “We’ve learned that adult coho salmon are dying prematurely in large proportions when they return from the ocean to spawn in Puget Sound urban streams. Although we don’t know the precise cause of these die-offs, the most likely explanation is toxic chemicals in stormwater runoff.”

Many solutions are easy to adopt: reducing drips and leaks from motor vehicles and boats; removing creosote-treated wood pilings from waterways and nearby; extending proven successful efforts to keep copper out of Puget Sound.

But many solutions are more controversial: banning or reducing the allowable use of pollutants such as lead weights used in balancing tires, bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and phosphorus in lawn fertilizers; tougher restrictions and permits for low-impact development; and tighter regulations on surface water runoff, groundwater releases and wastewater treatment plant discharges.

Many of these controversies are being addressed and argued by legislators from all parts of the state. How they resolve the disputes is undetermined, but already we know that polluted surface water that flows from residential, commercial and industrial areas threatens our waterways.

Last week’s announced toxic chemical assessment culminates a five-year effort to understand how the Puget Sound is polluted, and how it can be cleaned up. The most trusted source for meeting the challenge must always be the scientists, whose independent statistical findings cannot be ignored.