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Originally published Friday, May 20, 2011 at 3:15 PM

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Revising oil-pollution levels in Puget Sound

The state Department of Ecology has a new study that updates years of bad pollution data for Puget Sound. The challenge is better defined but not diminished.

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PUGET Sound is not being polluted by hyperbole. Toxic runoff and stormwater present environmental hazards for the waterway that are real, even if contamination levels have been overstated in the past.

The state Department of Ecology issued a new study that dramatically reduces its estimate of oil-pollution levels in the Sound. Petroleum remains the biggest single contaminant, but the study found the mass, or weight, to be smaller than old numbers that fueled dramatic analogies.

Times reporter Craig Welch explained how DOE was held accountable by Lincoln Loehr, an oceanographer and Seattle attorney, who raised persistent challenges to state figures.

Eventually the state acknowledged Loehr was right and set about revising the numbers. The pollution problems did not go away with better data and math.

Puget Sound covers 14 major rivers, 2,500 miles of shoreline, 4 million people and another 1.5 million on the way. How we manage our forests and farmland, and develop the land where we live, work and play makes a vital difference. That includes being mindful of difficult lessons about treating waste.

The Sound is also put at risk by nutrients, bacteria, sediment and the scouring effect of stormwater runoff, as well as toxic contaminants.

The genuine hazard of getting the numbers wrong and having to retract and restate data is the impact on credibility. Past opinion polling has found the public willing to support and pay for cleanup activities if it believed it would do some good.

Careless statistics raise doubts and give critics the opening they want to downplay the whole issue.

The case for cleaning up Puget Sound was oversimplified, but not undone.

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