Orcas, plastic, oil, and clean energy: 2019 in Washington’s legislature.

Our communities’ priorities for the health of the environment and Washington residents depend heavily on lawmakers’ choices this year — from a dwindling southern resident orca population to devastating wildfires exacerbated by a changing climate. The Washington State Legislature convenes for a four-month session on January 14th for lawmaking and budgeting, and elected officials need to hear from you before, during, and after the session in order to take bold action.

April 17th update: Nearly all Environmental Priorities passed the legislature, and will soon head to the Governor's desk to become law.

The 2019 legislative session ends late April. Over one thousand bills have been introduced since January, but only a handful are close to becoming law. The last step is for amendments to be approved once more by the opposite chamber, and then bills head to Governor Inslee to be signed into law.

Here's what priorities have passed both sides of the legislature as of April 17th:
  •  100% Clean Electricity mandate, making WA the fourth state to commit to a 100% carbon-free electrical grid by 2045, with milestones between now and then (SB 5116)
  • Orca recovery: Vessel disturbance reduction (SB 5577)
  • Orca recovery: Increase Chinook salmon abundance (HB 1579)
  • Orca recovery: Toxic pollution prevention (SB 5135)
  • Oil spill prevention (HB 1578)
  • Volatile oil transport safety (SB 5579)
  • Clean Building Standards for energy-efficient buildings (SB 1257)
  • Ban on hydraulic fracking (SB 5145)
  • Responsible management of plastic packaging (SB 5397)
  • Improved oversight of the H2-a agricultural guest worker program (SB 5438)
  • HEAL Act: Protecting vulnerable communities from pollution and climate change impacts (SB 5489 and HB 2009)

Some of our priorities have been significantly amended in the legislative process. Read on below to get the scoop. The last step is for amendments to be approved once more by the opposite chamber, and then bills head to Governor Inslee to be signed into law. 

In collaboration with the Environmental Priorities Coalition, we are advocating for and tracking the following issues of significance to the people and ecosystems of the North Puget Sound:

Orca Recovery

Southern resident orcas are at their lowest population since the days of orca capture in the 1970s; however, this time their decline is due to lack of salmon to eat, pollution, and vessel noise and traffic. Governor Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force submitted 34 recommendations that address these three issues, which are wrapped into his 2019 budget and legislative package. All recommendations that RE Sources and supporters like you urged the Task Force to include made it into this final package. The ball is now in the legislature’s court and we will be advocating for full adoption of the recommendations - the list may be long, but the need is great in order to see the recovery of southern resident orcas.

Chinook Abundance: HB 1579 has not been significantly amended.

Vessel Noise & Disturbance: Both companion bills (HB 1580/SB 5577) are currently alive. These bills have been amended to remove the whale watch moratorium; however, vessels are prohibited from getting within 350 yards from the sides and 400 yards from the front/back of Southern Resident orcas.

Toxic Pollution Prevention: SB 5135 is moving and has not been significantly amended.

Reducing Plastic Pollution

Bellingham is one of over 26 jurisdictions to eliminate plastic bags given out at grocery stores, yet many towns and cities across the state continue to distribute plastic bags.  Thin plastic bags tear apart into plastic bits quickly, adding to the growing concern about plastic particles (microplastics) in waterways, drinking water, and in the stomachs of animals. The time is now for Washington State to eliminate plastic bags altogether. Brown paper bags will be available for purchase at 8 cents each and free for individuals on fixed incomes and/or food assistance programs. The pass-through fee is essential for grocers, especially smaller ones. Read our blog here about why we support the Reusable Bag Act.

Reusable Bag Act: SB 5323 is alive. The bill has been amended to require an 8 cent (as opposed to 10 cent) pass-through fee if customers do not bring their own bag to retail establishments and the bag thickness has been reduced down to 2.5 millimeters (from 4 millimeters).

Plastic Packaging Stewardship: SB 5397 is moving. This bill has turned into a study bill. Department of Ecology will hire a third-party consultant to study the amount and types of plastic, the management and disposal of plastic packaging in the state, identify alternatives to achieve certain goals for recycled packaging, and provide a report with findings to the legislature by October 1, 2020. Ecology will develop options to reduce plastic packaging in the waste stream by January 1, 2022.

Plastic food serviceware on-demand: Unfortunately, HB 1632 is no longer moving. This bill would have required food service retailers to provide plastic food serviceware (knives, forks, spoons, and straws) to only provide them to customers upon request or provide containers for people to grab what they need.

Oil Spill Prevention

The threat of an oil spill in the Salish Sea increases with expanded oil production and transportation. Think of the orcas, salmon, and other wildlife that would be devastated if there was an oil spill near the San Juan Islands — not to mention economically crucial fishing sectors. Unfortunately, the state’s protections for reducing the risk of oil spills apply only to large tankers, and not to smaller barges and other vessels that transport large volumes of crude oil. This loophole must be closed. We also have a chance to station a response tug in the San Juan Islands and prohibit exploratory drilling off the state’s coasts. 

Current bill: HB 1578 (reducing threats to southern resident killer whales by improving the safety of oil transportation) is alive, but has been amended to remove the emergency response tug vessel for the San Juans and is instead requiring a study on its efficacy. The escort tug requirement through Rosario Strait is intact.

100% Clean Electricity

Washington can (and should) join forces with other states like California and Hawaii that are moving toward 100% clean electricity. Dwindling streamflows in our creeks and rivers, more intense and longer wildfires, degraded shellfish harvests, and rising sea levels are all signs of a changing climate and underscore the need to act to reduce and eliminate our use of fossil fuels as soon as humanly possible. Reaching 100% clean electricity is doable – nearly 70% of our electric power in the state is already clean and fossil-free. However, Puget Sound Energy sells electricity that is nearly 60% fossil-fuel powered, and currently plans to expand fracked gas-fire power to replace coal. Legislative action is needed to change our course! The proposed legislation would 1) phase out coal power in our electricity fully by 2025, 2) require utilities to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 through renewable energy credits, 3) set interim emissions targets along the way to 2045 4) provide assistance and investments for low-income Washingtonians burdened by utility bills, and 5) mandate 100% fossil-free electricity statewide in 2045.

Current bills: SB 5116.

In addition to the above four priorities, we are keeping our eye on the following issues:
  • Clarifying water rights: the Department of Ecology and the Governor are budgeting $600,000 over two years to address water rights uncertainties. The Nooksack River System in Whatcom County is a candidate basin that could benefit from this work, since many water users are operating with insufficient water rights or without any at all.
  • Water conservation: HB 1444 is alive, which would establish new efficiency standards for water and energy use for certain appliances, has not been significantly amended..
  • Stabilizing funding for toxic cleanups, such as Bellingham’s waterfront: ever since the Great Recession, the state’s Model Toxic Control Act accounts have been used for programs not strictly related to cleaning up areas contaminated with toxic materials. Some funding was instead used for Air Quality, Environmental Assessment, Shorelands, Water Quality and Administration programs. The Governor and Ecology are proposing to shift funding for the mentioned programs to the General Fund. This will free up more funding to expedite toxic cleanups like those on the Bellingham Waterfront.
  • Environmental Justice priorities: We stand ready to support environmental justice priorities of organizations such as Front and Centered and Community to Community Development. 
    • SB 5489: HEAL Act, Establishing a healthy environment for all by creating a definition of environmental justice, directing agencies to address environmental health disparities. 
    • Creating a task force and Broadly Shared Benefits from Clean Energy Fund IV. 
    • SB 5438 Improved oversight of the H-2A Agricultural Guest Worker program. The bill has received some amendments, but maintains the creation of the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services with the Employment Security Department to provide oversight, training, field checks and so on for employers that utilize the H-2A agricultural guestworker program.
  • Suction Dredge Mining: SB 5322 has not been significantly amended. This bill prohibits the use of motorized mining in rivers below the ordinary high water mark in order to protect spawning salmon and their habitat.
  • Fracking Prohibition: SB 5145 has not been significantly amended. This would ban the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas extraction.
  • Crude Oil Volatility Protections: SB 5579 has not been significantly amended. This bill would prohibit a facility from loading, unloading, or storing crude oil with a vapor pressure above 9 pounds per square inch (PSI). The 2013 Lac Megantic oil train disaster found that the only tank cars that did not explode were at 9 PSI.


Questions? Contact Karlee Deatherage, Policy Analyst at karleed@re-sources.org.