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Salmon, Forests, Waste on Agenda

by Robert McClure & Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 2004

Environmentalists and federal and state governments
prepare to stake out positions on variety of issues

Deciding how much of Washington can be logged, cracking down on leaking septic tanks and figuring out what to do with radioactive waste are some of the key environmental issues on tap this year.

Salmon and dams:
2004 will also see a controversy over how much the federal government should do in running the Northwest's hydropower system to aid salmon.

The Bush administration has signaled its intention to reconsider the practice of putting extra water through the Snake and Columbia rivers' dam system to keep water flowing fast enough to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.

The National Marine Fisheries Service says it doubts that the practice helps salmon much. And it comes at a cost: Water flowed past the dams is not available later to produce electricity. In drought years in particular, this results in the dams producing less juice than they otherwise could.

But environmentalists, who successfully challenged the federal government's salmon-recovery plan in court, say adding the extra water is one of the few things in the federal plan that actually helps salmon.

This will be part of a larger debate in which the Bush administration and proponents of keeping dams on the Snake River face off against a renewed push by dam opponents. Conservation groups will get another shot in court at the federal government's salmon-recovery plan, which kept the Snake River dams in place but promised other aggressive actions to help the fish.

-- Robert McClure

Protecting Puget Sound:
Septic tanks might be out of sight, but their sewage is not staying out of the water.

This year, the state Board of Health will update regulations to try to keep the waste from harming the environment and people.

The new rules will cover issues of where septic systems are located and set design requirements. They will address monitoring, operations and maintenance of the underground systems. And the rules direct counties to devise a plan assuring that owners are taking care of their sewage systems.

A committee of stakeholders already has drafted recommended rule changes. In March, the board will consider these changes, and the public will have a chance to comment in spring. The goal is to finalize the rules by the end of 2004.

Leaking septic systems are believed to have contributed to the pollution that has closed some Puget Sound shellfish beds. They also are suspected to have helped fuel algae blooms in Hood Canal that contributed to a lack of oxygen in the fjord. The low oxygen levels killed thousands of fish and marine animals last year.

-- Lisa Stiffler

Timber harvest decision: The amount of timber logged on state land over the coming decade will be set this year. The Department of Natural Resources has proposed six alternatives for how much timber is cut and how older trees, wetlands and spotted owls will be protected.

The DNR sells timber primarily to provide funding for public schools, but it also helps pay for county services, hospitals, libraries and other government-funded programs. The six options are expected to generate $109 million to $188 million of net revenue annually.

On Feb. 17, the Natural Resources Board is scheduled to select its preferred alternative. The public can comment on the alternatives at board meetings this month and next or at public meetings planned after the board makes its choice. A final environmental impact statement on how the land is logged is expected next summer.

The board also is considering whether to participate in a program that certifies timber that's logged in an environmentally sensitive manner. Environmentalists are pushing for certification, which they say will bring in more money from consumers willing to pay a higher price for "green" lumber.

-- Lisa Stiffler

Hanford waste cleanup:
There are two cleanup issues that Hanford watchers are going to monitor closely this year: the fate of millions of gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, and plans for shipping nuclear waste to the Eastern Washington site.

This month, a draft environmental impact statement will be released outlining different ways to treat radioactive material created as a byproduct of A-bomb production at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Initially, the plan was to trap the tank waste -- some of which will be dangerous for thousands of years -- in a glasslike substance. Now the U.S. Energy Department is considering other forms of treatment that it says will be cheaper and faster, but still safe.

More research into whether the treatments will work will also be conducted this year.

Hanford watchdog groups are concerned that while progress is being made to deal with the deadly waste already there, the government plan wants to import more waste and bury it in a dangerous manner.

The groups are trying to get Initiative 297 on the November ballot. The measure would prohibit disposal of radioactive and chemical waste at Hanford in unsafe burial grounds and would require that waste already dumped in an unsafe manner be dug up and treated.

-- Lisa Stiffler

Hatchery-bred and wild fish:
To what degree can salmon and steelhead bred in hatcheries be counted toward restoring fish runs protected under the Endangered Species Act?

That's the controversial question that will drive a debate this year between environmentalists and private property-rights advocates.

The Libertarian-leaning Pacific Legal Foundation won a ruling from a federal judge that attacked the National Marine Fisheries Service's handling of the question. By March, the agency must issue a new policy.

Hatchery-bred fish make up the majority of most salmon runs. The foundation wants to see hatchery fish counted just like wild fish.

But environmentalists, citing scientific studies that show that genetic diversity is much lower among hatchery-bred fish, argue that the Endangered Species Act was meant to rescue wild fish. More genetically robust, wild fish are most likely to survive an array of threats in the long run, they argue.

The fisheries service in March will say how it intends to count hatchery fish in recovery of 27 West Coast salmon and steelhead runs protected by the law. A wholesale reduction of protections is not expected, an agency spokesman said.

-- Robert McClure

Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler
Salmon, Forests, Waste on Agenda
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 3, 2004

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