The ‘Big Oil’ Problem That Wasn’t

By Erik Smith

Staff writer/ Washington State Wire


OLYMPIA, April 29.—Not so long ago everyone knew oil was flooding Puget Sound. It was like one Exxon Valdez every two years, but it came one drop at a time. You could read about it in state-agency press releases and newspaper stories. You could hear about it on the TV news and in a slick official video produced by the Puget Sound Partnership. Every year the rain washed millions of gallons of oil from roadways and parking lots, and it trickled into the sound and killed the fish.

Green groups stormed the Legislature and demanded a big new tax on oil refiners. Labor unions and local governments lined up right behind them, and alarmed legislators rushed to sign the bill. They said oil needed to pay its fair share, even if it meant the bill would actually go to every Washington resident who drives a car and buys gasoline. It was the right thing to do. Right?

Wrong. Turns out the Department of Ecology made an embarrassing mistake in a study in 2007, wildly overestimating the amount of oil that reaches the sound in stormwater. The biggest environmental cause of the last decade had only a nodding relationship to fact. And when you consider all the political hoopla over the issue, all the frantic lobbying in the hallways of the Capitol, all the angry phone calls and emails that poured into legislators’ offices over the last couple of years – it becomes an astounding story. Ecology started owning up to the problems two years ago, but the Legislature never knew and the debate went on.

April 30, 2011