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EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe gave a speech about new federal funding for the environment while visiting the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Event celebrates the anniversary of the Clean Water Act and new funding for Puget Sound

It could have been mistaken for a foggy morning along the waterfront, but the occasional coughs and burning eyes among the crowd of 60 or so people gathered here last Wednesday told a different story. Like much of the Northwest, Tacoma was shrouded in a haze of smoke from a spate of forest fires giving it and its neighbor Seattle the dubious distinction of having some of the worst air quality in the world, topping places like Delhi and Beijing.

Smoke from wildfires shrouds the Foss Waterway.
Smoke from wildfires shrouds the Foss Waterway. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Against this smoky backdrop, a group of policymakers, tribal leaders and elected officials were giving speeches outside the Center for Urban Waters along the Foss Waterway. They were here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and an influx of new federal funding that many hope will have a transformative effect on Puget Sound.

The passage of the Clean Water Act fifty years ago this month changed the way the U.S. government approached water pollution. It codified many of the basic environmental regulations that we now take for granted, from the prohibition of the direct discharge of pollutants into waterways to the establishment of water quality standards that influence cleanup efforts to this day. Now, some hope the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act addressing climate change, and last year’s massive infrastructure funding will have their own lasting impacts.

One of the speakers, Deputy EPA Administrator Janet McCabe, who was visiting from Washington, D.C., gestured toward the electric charging stations dotting the nearby parking lot. These were not just charging stations, she pointed out, they were “infrastructure” the likes of which the Biden administration hopes to see more of to battle “the impacts that we are all feeling from climate change.” She eyed the smoke-filled haze, an entirely predictable consequence of warming temperatures that is only expected to get worse. “The climate change which we are experiencing in the skies right here today,” she added.

McCabe called the incoming billions for national projects a “game changer.” New funding will “focus on clean technologies like solar, wind and carbon capture,” she said, among a list of conservation priorities including an increasing commitment to environmental justice.

“This is once in a lifetime — actually it’s more than once in a lifetime,” McCabe said, “if you think about the periods of history where this kind of investment has been made in the country’s infrastructure. Think about the railroad system. The canal system. The interstate highway system…. Billions of dollars going into our communities, our environment, and our future.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe (far left), Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland and Congressman Derek Kilmer watch Dr. Ed Kolodziej as he explains ongoing research at the Center for Urban Waters.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe (far left), Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland and Congressman Derek Kilmer watch Dr. Ed Kolodziej as he explains ongoing research at the Center for Urban Waters. Photo by Jeff Rice.

On the local level, the EPA also used the event to announce more than $36 million dollars for Puget Sound recovery that will be distributed through a series of grants issued over the next five years. Those grants will go toward research and restoration in support of a series of ecosystem-wide strategies focusing on habitat recovery, the removal of toxics and the recovery of shellfish beds. Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an additional $89 million dollars for Puget Sound projects.

Others speaking at the event included U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor and Rep. Marylin Strickland, D-Olympia. “This is a big deal,” said Kilmer who advocated for the funding as one of the co-chairs, along with Strickland, of the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus. “It will support some of the coordinated efforts to implement projects on the ground that will protect jobs and protect local economies by improving our water quality, by advancing and enhancing fish passage [and] by increasing salmon habitat” and protecting shorelines, he said.

The combined influx of funding is even more notable, Kilmer added, because it comes after years of cuts to environmental programs by the earlier Trump administration. “Some of these critical programs have been on the chopping block,” he said. “But not only did we not see cuts, today we are celebrating new funding.”

In addition to speeches highlighting federal funding and EPA grants, the group joined a tour of our labs at the Center for Urban Waters. On the tour, Puget Sound Institute-affiliated chemist Ed Kolodziej described some of the research behind his team’s discovery of 6PPD-Q, a chemical compound from tire wear particles that has been killing thousands of Coho salmon in Puget Sound. The discovery was made in part with support from EPA funding in collaboration with researchers at Washington State University, NOAA, the Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife, and numerous other organizations. The chemical has been identified as one of the most toxic chemicals known to affect aquatic life, Kolodziej said, and has sparked research around the world to identify the compound’s potential health effects on other species, including humans.

The EPA announced at the event that it was inspired by the research to establish an internal working group “across all of our national programs,” according to EPA Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller, “to really focus in on what we’re learning from the work that was discovered here.”