Toxic cleanup projects create jobs, preserve vision

By Bill Clark and Connie Bacon, Special to the Herald

While state lawmakers face painful choices as they attempt to assemble a budget proposal, one item -- with its own dedicated source of money separate from the state's general fund -- could help put people back to work, create long-term economic development opportunities and preserve a long-standing vision of environmental stewardship.

We urge the Legislature to maintain the state's 20-year commitment to funding environmental cleanup grants through the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA).

In 1988, Washington voters chose to tax themselves by passing a ballot measure that created MTCA. The MTCA account funds hazardous waste cleanup through a tax on the wholesale value of hazardous substances imported to Washington.

Preserving the integrity of the account by retaining the state's commitment to fund remedial action grants is important and necessary. To maintain the public's trust it is imperative that MTCA funds be used for the purpose they were intended by the citizens of Washington state.

In the last budget process, dedicated MTCA funds were pulled from active cleanup projects to help balance the general fund.

We recognize the state's current budget instability and the competing environmental needs calling on MTCA as a funding source. We urge lawmakers, however, to resist diverting money that should be used to support grants to clean up toxic sites and return them to productive jobs.

Over the past 20 years through MTCA, according to a 2010 study by the Department of Ecology, the state has matched $290 million in local government funds for 242 cleanup projects.

In addition, the long-term economic benefits of these investments are significant. An estimated 42,560 jobs will be created over the next 10 years if the state fully funds the forecasted need for public environmental cleanup projects.

Every MTCA dollar spent on cleanup grants creates:

* $7 in ongoing payroll value.

* $32 in business revenue.

* $6 in new local and state tax revenues.

These benefits reflect the long-term economic activity stemming from environmental cleanup projects as properties are put back into productive use.

While significant, these statistics tell only part of the story because they do not include short-term employment for remediation work, infrastructure construction or development.

The combination of short- and long-term economic benefits serves as a platform for job and tax growth in communities around the state, particularly in such areas as Pasco, Yakima, Bellingham and Tacoma, transitioning from traditional resource-based industries into more diversified local economies.

While it is important to recognize the economic benefits of cleaning up contamination inherited from previous generations and returning these sites to economic viability, the heart of MTCA has always been environmental protection.

Contamination from long-gone companies is often unconfined, highly concentrated and has the potential to travel throughout the ecosystem, leaching into rivers and lakes, contaminating sensitive areas and fouling habitat.

Historic contamination in many communities around the state remains as threatening today as it was when voters initiated the account more than 20 years ago.

Cleaning up these legacy sites is a joint responsibility, one in which the state must remain a full partner. Historic contamination at many of these sites is from heavy industry that operated under weak environmental laws at a time when the ecological hazards were not understood and when the economic benefits provided were of paramount importance to the state as well as local communities.

These operations created a tax base that benefited the entire state, not simply the local communities now facing the monumental task of cleaning up the contamination. The state, therefore, must continue fulfilling its essential role in funding these projects.

The state Department of Ecology's list of matching grants for 2011-13 includes money for the Port of Pasco to clean up and monitor a former bulk fuel terminal site, the Port of Tacoma to clean up a contaminated former chemical manufacturing site, the Port of Bellingham to clean up former landfill and gas plant sites, as well as sites in Seattle, Everett, Walla Walla, Yakima, Ridgefield and other communities.

Local governments assume tremendous risk when they agree to undertake these projects. They depend on the state's commitment to remain a dedicated, long-term partner that will continue to provide matching funds for cleanup projects that often span several years.

If the integrity of this partnership becomes questionable, local governments are likely to become reluctant to pursue these projects, leaving our environment contaminated and economic growth opportunities stagnant.

* Bill Clark is president of Port of Pasco board and Connie Bacon is president of the Port of Tacoma board.