Holding Polluters Accountable

We monitor sources of pollution to protect our communities and the waters we depend on.

The Salish Sea suffers from decades of pollution and habitat loss. Big polluters cause big harm, and our communities must continually work to protect local waters. At RE Sources, we play a vital role in making this happen. We sound the alarm on water pollution, equip community members with the tools to document and report potential pollution violations, advocate for stronger laws and regulations to safeguard our waters, public health and economy, and when necessary, take polluters to court.

It’s time our region stepped up efforts to fight pollution. The cost of cleaning up pollution far exceeds the cost of preventing it in the first place. That means moving towards a preventative approach to Salish Sea pollution in the coming years is critical, as human health and well-being, marine life, and vital sectors of Washington’s economy rely on clean water.

The problem

Pollution from industrial activity does not disappear — toxic substances and heavy metals persist, putting exposed marine life or people in harm’s way. Clean water is essential for economies across the planet, for drinking, for fishing, for just about everything.

Polluters continue to push the limits of their permits. Despite the Clean Water Act, industries can still legally discharge millions of pounds of pollution into the sound every year — which makes any illegal discharges all the more concerning.

With the federal government planning to make dramatic cuts to environmental programs, we need state and local leaders to keep Washington on track to reduce harmful toxic pollution in all communities across the state. Unfortunately, core state programs are already under tremendous pressure, are rarely funded permanently, and are at risk of continued budget cuts. Furthermore, our state agencies often do not have the personnel to monitor and enforce illegal discharges.

Industrial-scale livestock farming is also one of the leading causes of pollution to waterways nationwide, and a major cause of shellfish bed and beach closures in Washington state. Disease-causing bacteria and nitrates found in livestock manure have contaminated well water in Sumas and polluted the Nooksack River, Portage Bay, and other water bodies we depend on for food, drinking water, recreation, and our livelihoods. There are also several other sources of fecal coliform bacteria that pollute our waters including pet waste, smaller livestock farms, and leaking septic tanks.

Wastewater treatment plants are one of the biggest sources of oxygen-depleting nutrients to the Salish Sea; so much so that the Department of Ecology is in the process of developing a General Permit to regulate nutrients that come from these facilities. Excess nutrients have been linked to the decline of sea grasses and seaweed that are critical rearing habitat and food sources for many of our marine organisms. Stay tuned for how to improve treatment plant pollution and water contamination, no matter its source!

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We work to clean up historic pollution sources as well as current ones. If we find pollution, we start with reaching out to the source if it’s clear what and where it is. 

Our North Sound Baykeeper team identify issues via regular pollution patrols. We also check up on the status of pollution (discharge) permits, and we notify the polluting entity and well as the Department of Ecology that they’re violating their permit (polluting more than they’re allowed to, or failing to report).

Our staff doesn’t take legal action lightly. Whenever possible, we try working with a polluter and state agencies to improve their operations. If they’re unresponsive or the violation is egregious and willful, we may file a suit under the Clean Water Act and hope to come to a settlement agreement that results in them cleaning up their act and paying for the damages they’ve caused. RE Sources does not get funding from these settlements.

Nearly 50 years ago, many rivers and lakes were fouled by decades of pollution. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted it caught on fire. The 1972 Clean Water Act helped turn the page, ushering in a new era of healthier waters for fishing, swimming and boating nationwide. Here in Washington State, the Department of Ecology is charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act.

One ​of ​the ​most ​important ​provisions ​of ​the ​Act ​allows ​private citizens the ​ability ​to ​hold polluters accountable ​when ​government ​is ​unwilling ​or ​unable ​to ​do ​so. ​Like ​many ​clean ​water advocates, ​RE ​Sources’ North Sound Baykeeper team ​uses ​this ​provision ​to ​take ​legal ​action to ​protect ​the ​waters ​of ​Whatcom ​and ​Skagit ​Counties ​and ​the ​larger Salish ​Sea ​from ​pollution ​that state ​and ​federal ​agencies ​fail ​to ​stop.

The Clean Water Act represented a huge step forward by requiring states to set clean water standards to protect uses such as swimming, fishing, and drinking, and for the regulation of pollution discharges.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act:

  • Billions of pounds of pollution have been kept out of rivers. 
  • The number of waters that meet clean water goals nationwide has doubled — with direct benefits for drinking water, public health, recreation, and wildlife. 
  • Healthier rivers support an outdoor recreation industry worth billions, delivering jobs and economic benefits to our communities.
  • Our families have safer places to enjoy the outdoors, from urban riverfront parks to fishing and boating in lakes and bays.

First and foremost, we don’t take Clean Water Act legal cases lightly. Legal action against polluters is an expensive, time-consuming process for us that we view as a last resort. When education, cooperation, and policy enforcement fail to protect our water resources, the North Sound Baykeeper turns to the Clean Water Act as a last resort for polluter accountability. And when we win a Clean Water Act suit against a polluter, we never see any money from that case. All the fines pay for restoration projects agreed upon by all litigants. 

See some recent examples of Clean Water Act settlements and where they went.

Take Action

Be a part of changing the world

One key way you can fight pollution

Potential sources of pollution aren’t always obvious. Is something on the ground near water that seems like it shouldn’t be? Is something other than water making its way down a storm drain? Even if you aren’t sure, you can post a photo of anything that seems like it shouldn’t be going into our waterways! Learn more about how the Water Reporter app works and download our guide for spotting pollution — anytime, anywhere. Download the Water Reporter app on Android or iOS.

Download the guide

Get in touch with our North Sound Baykeeper team!

Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper
Phone: (360) 733-8307 ext. 213 
Email: EleanorH@re-sources.org

Kirsten McDade, Pollution Prevention Specialist
Phone: (360) 220-0556
Email: KirstenM@re-sources.org

We keep eyes on the water

Protecting the Salish Sea begins with catching pollution before it gets there. Our Pollution Prevention Specialist (and intrepid volunteers!) take to the water on weekly pollution patrols in Bellingham Bay, the streams that feed it, and our freshwater lakes. We also keep an eye on Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay, and Skagit County fresh and marine waters. 

There are numerous construction sites and industrial facilities in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, and regulatory agencies rely almost entirely on quarterly reports submitted by the facilities. RE Sources’ pollution patrols helps close the gap by actually visiting industrial and construction sites, and reporting concerns to the appropriate agencies. Pollution patrols are mostly about catching pollution before damage is done.

Frequently Asked Questions

Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade goes once a week and patrols run from 2-4 hours. They are by kayak, canoe, NuCanoe, bike, foot, and car.

Any places that are at risk of pollution. We stay on public land and waterways, such as Bellingham Bay and the streams that feed into it, Whatcom’s freshwater lakes like Lake Whatcom and Lake Padden. We are branching out to Drayton Harbor, Birch Bay and waters that feed them in northern Whatcom County, as well as fresh and marine waterways in Skagit County.

On a good day, we find nothing! However, we often find fossil fuel contamination, excess sediment clouding water, and regular ol’ trash all things that harm marine life. Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade once found a pile of abrasive sandblasting debris, likely containing antifouling agents such as copper, which is toxic to land and marine organisms at very small concentrations. Read more about her experience and see how you can become a pollution watchdog using your smartphone!

I want to fight pollution too. How can I help?

We’re so glad! Here are a few ways:

  • Download the Water Reporter app, make an account, and join the North Sound Baykeeper group. Here, you can post anything you think may be a source of pollution — when in doubt, report! The Baykeeper team monitors the app during business hours (and sometimes beyond) and will get back to you quickly. If you don’t have the app, call or text our Pollution Hotline at (360) 220-0556
  • Check out our Events page for upcoming beach cleanups, helping keep plastic pollution out of our waterways.