Group says officials lagging in water cleanup plans

SEATTLE (AP) — State and federal officials are moving too slowly to implement cleanup plans for Washington waters, according to an environmental group that alleges some of the work is years behind.

A 1998 lawsuit settlement between the group, Northwest Environmental Advocates, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for the state Department of Ecology to develop cleanup plans for almost 1,600 bodies of water under EPA oversight, reported the Seattle Times.

In a recent court filing, the environmental group said plans for more than 540 water bodies that were supposed to be done by 2013 remain incomplete. The group also is suing to force EPA to set a timetable for completing plans for other stretches of state waters identified as polluted.

State officials said such plans may not always be the best way, noting lawsuits can delay implementation, and in recent years have tried other approaches.

"The end game is the same. How we get there is different," said Heather Bartlett, water-quality manager for the Ecology department.

An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the filings.

Mindy Roberts, a former Ecology environmental engineer now with the Washington Environmental Council, said the 1998 settlement sometimes prompted focus on easy-to-identify sources of pollution and postponement of work to identify and reduce other pollutants.

A point of contention between Northwest Environmental Advocates and the state has been the regulation of sewage-treatment plants that discharge nutrients into Puget Sound.

"What's missing in Washington state is the political will to do something more constructive than continuing studies and having meetings," said Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates.

State officials say they needed modeling information to better understand the impacts and earlier this year, the Ecology Department proposed crafting an overarching general permit to regulate nitrogen and other nutrients released by wastewater treatment plants that discharge into Puget Sound. It would first cap nutrient discharges at current levels and later call for further restrictions.

State officials say a general permit has been used elsewhere, including Virginia, where sewage-treatment plants have cut nitrogen discharges into Chesapeake Bay. But Bell said Virginia already had a law to reduce nitrogen in Chesapeake Bay.

The Ecology proposal would not begin reducing nitrogen discharges at some plants for at least another 15 years.

"This is very wishy-washy," Bell said.

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Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com