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Originally published Monday, August 30, 2010 at 3:57 PM

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Guest columnist

Puget Sound Partnership should prioritize environmental benefit, not politics

Politics, rather than environmental benefit, seems to be a factor in Puget Sound Partnership decisions about funding projects, argues guest columnist Todd Myers.

Special to The Times

NATURE abhors a vacuum and sound environmental policy abhors politics.

The politics pouring into the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) are as damaging as pollution, wasting money on ineffective projects while neglecting the Sound's most serious pollution.

The PSP was created to develop science-based priorities to improve the Sound's health. Politics, however, is steering funding toward projects favored by politicians instead of projects prioritized by environmental benefit.

The best example is one dock.

The Legislature allocated $15 million from the Asarco cleanup fund toward buying a Maury Island dock and the adjacent gravel mine, whose total cost could go above $100 million. Neighbors are fighting dock construction, offering studies of other projects asserting they apply to this dock as well.

Scientists specifically studying this dock, however, disagreed. The state departments of Ecology, and Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and King County all granted environmental permits. The PSP's own scientists did not list the dock as a concern.

Politics, however, intruded on PSP's position.

On April 20, PSP director David Dicks told one newspaper that buying the dock made sense despite its absence on PSP's priority list. Just two weeks later, however, he told a business group in Bellevue, which included Washington Policy Center analyst Brandon Houskeeper, that the dock was not a concern scientifically, but the PSP supported the funding because it offered a "political win." Politics trumped science.

This isn't just a failure to care for tax dollars. It is a failure to be a good environmental steward. Across Puget Sound, there are numerous projects that would improve water quality. The EPA announced $30 million for 36 projects. The PSP itself praised the $92 million allocated by the Legislature for Puget Sound cleanup this year.

Unfortunately, many important projects are still underfunded.

One PSP priority is just miles from the disputed dock. Vashon's Quartermaster Harbor has been identified as a priority for cleanup. Failing septic tanks have seriously impacted water quality, but cleanup is stagnating due to lack of funding.

Homeowners, facing high repair costs, aren't fixing their septic systems. A program that has had success elsewhere, providing low-cost loans to homeowners, is not funded on Vashon. The frustration of those working to clean up the harbor is palpable.

The program's manager says: "Despite strong proposals and the clear need to remedy Quartermaster Harbor conditions, King County staff has been unable to convince federal and state authorities of the need to provide funding assistance to Vashon Island system owners." Instead, millions are sent to political projects with questionable environmental benefit.

Advocates of spending millions to stop one dock respond by saying all Puget Sound projects should be funded, including theirs. This is remarkably tone deaf. Funding is limited and the failure to prioritize spending means important projects go unfunded. The Partnership's very purpose is to set scientific and funding priorities. Failure to prioritize is wasteful and misses opportunities to improve environmental sustainability.

Dock opponents argue Asarco cleanup funding can't be spent on other Puget Sound projects. This assumes the mine is the only available Asarco-related project, which is clearly false since advocates of the spending themselves denied the mine was an Asarco site just two years ago.

The fundamental question is why spending $100 million, or even half that amount, to stop this one dock is worth as much as every Puget Sound cleanup project in 2010 combined. Is it three times as valuable as the 36 projects funded by the EPA? Is it worth taking funding from priorities like Quartermaster Harbor?

The Puget Sound Partnership was created to ensure that science, not politics, guides restoration of the Sound. That is one reason we at the Policy Center highlighted the creation of the PSP as an environmental success.

If we aren't careful, however, that mission will be washed away by the politics being discharged into PSP's process.

Todd Myers is the environmental director for the Washington Policy Center.

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