Enforcing environmental laws is key to salmon recovery

For many years we have said that enforcing existing state and federal pollution laws is one of the most effective actions we can take to recover salmon in western Washington and protect tribal treaty rights. It sounds like maybe we are finally being heard.

The owner of a Pierce County construction company pled guilty recently to the first criminal charges for stormwater pollution ever filed in western Washington. Under a plea bargain, the owner agreed to pay $750,000 in fines and other costs for violating the federal Clean Water Act under charges brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Between 2007 and 2011 the construction company ignored state and federal environmental protection laws and seriously damaged salmon habitat at a project site near Sumner, said Tyler Amon of the EPA Criminal Investigations Division. “This rogue developer knowingly, and repeatedly, chose profit over protection,” he said. “This plea serves as notice to our regional developers … these are serious environmental crimes that will be vigorously pursued.”

Polluted stormwater runoff is one of the biggest obstacles to salmon recovery and the cleanup of Puget Sound. Runoff from parking lots, construction sites, roads and other sources flushes many pollutants into wetlands, streams and rivers that feed Puget Sound, the second largest estuary in the United States.

We are losing salmon habitat throughout western Washington faster than we can restore it. Protecting existing habitat is much less costly than paying to restore it after the damage is done. Habitat protection is the most important action needed in the short term, according to the Puget Sound Chinook Salmon Recovery Plan developed by the state and tribal salmon co-managers and adopted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). However, NMFS’ 2010 review of the recovery plan found that habitat is still declining and protection efforts need improvement.

We have reached similar conclusions through the 2012 State of Our Watersheds report that will be released next month. Almost three years in the making, it is the most comprehensive report to date on the status of salmon habitat in the region.

The report brings together decades of data collected by tribes, and state and federal agencies to help paint a picture of watersheds across western Washington. We tracked key habitat indicators in watersheds across the region to help gauge just how we’re doing when it comes to habitat protection and restoration, and what we need to do fix the main habitat barriers to salmon recovery.

We hope the EPA means what it says and that this is the beginning of a broader effort to finally truly enforce environmental laws to protect salmon habitat. That’s a key recommendation in our Treaty Rights at Risk initiative aimed at encouraging the federal government to lead a more effective and coordinated salmon recovery effort. You can learn more at our web site: www.treatyrightsatrisk.org.

Salmon recovery begins and ends with habitat – good, plentiful habitat that can produce an abundance of fish for all of us. Our watersheds are living things, and we must stop their bleeding – the loss and damage of salmon habitat – if we ever hope to gain ground on salmon recovery. Aggressive enforcement of existing environmental laws to protect salmon is a good place to start.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, (360) 438-1181.