House panel OKs big hike in Puget Sound cleanup funds

WASHINGTON -- Federal funding to clean up Puget Sound would jump by 150 percent, to $50 million, under a spending bill approved Wednesday by the House interior appropriations subcommittee.

The money would be provided to the Environmental Protection Agency for use on such projects as monitoring the recovery of the Nisqually River estuary and cleaning up toxic waste in the Duwamish River, Elliot Bay and other sites near Bellingham, Anacortes and Olympia. But the EPA's main emphasis is trying to get a handle on controlling storm-water runoff into the Sound, perhaps the single biggest problem.

The funding is included in a $32.3 billion bill, and subcommittee action is just the first step in a long process. Even so, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chairman of the subcommittee, said he expected the $50 million in Puget Sound spending to survive.

"We desperately need the money," said Dicks. "We have to do this if we want to restore Puget Sound."

Since 2006, Congress has created a special Puget Sound office within EPA and appropriated a total of $47 million in cleanup funding. Last year, Congress provided $20 million.

The $50 million puts the Puget Sound cleanup on a par with the effort in Chesapeake Bay. The White House sought $475 million in the coming year for the effort to clean up the Great Lakes.

"Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the country," Dicks said. "We need to make a significant commitment."

By some estimates it could take $7 billion to $8 billion to restore the Sound, said Tom Eaton, director of Washington operations for the EPA's Northwest regional office. Though Gov. Chris Gregoire has said she wanted the cleanup completed by 2020, Eaton said keeping the Sound healthy will require an ongoing effort.

Every year, roughly 52 million pounds of toxic chemicals are washed into the Sound, Eaton said. The equivalent an Exxon Valdez-size oil spill drips into the Sound every two years from such things cars and boat engines leaking oil.

The problems will be compounded as the region's population is expected to grow by 1.5 million by 2020, Eaton said.

"As we continue to add people, the incremental effects add up," he said. "Storm-water runoff just washes all the urban grime into the Sound."

Eaton said the $50 million in the House bill really steps up the federal contribution to the cleanup.

"I'm thinking of all we can accomplish with this," he said.

Eaton isn't ready to say the cleanup of the Sound has turned the corner.

"We are making progress," he said. "Some areas are in better shape than others. We've cleaned up some hot spots."

As a boy, Dicks said, he could remember signs along Lake Washington warning people not to swim. It took $140 million to clean up that lake, and Dicks said every penny was well spent.

The key to the Sound cleanup came when federal, state and local governments developed a "scientifically credible" plan to guide the effort, Dicks said.

"We still have work to do," Dicks said.

Overall, the interior appropriations bill is $4.7 billion over last year's spending level. Though it was a serious increase, Dicks said that during the Bush administration, funding for the Interior Department was slashed 16 percent, the EPA by 29 percent and non-fire Forest Service accounts by 35 percent.

The latest bill bulks up spending for clean water and drinking water grants, provides nearly $420 million in additional funding for climate change research, $195 million for the National Park Service and $316 million to fight wild fires.