A thousand points of pollution

Small businesses, toxic waste and the health of Puget Sound

It happens all the time.

An uncovered bucket of used motor oil or a can of paint gets left outside and, as always, it begins to rain. The bucket slowly fills and eventually seeps over the edge to be washed into the local waterway, which, in most areas of Western Washington, leads directly to Puget Sound.

According to a November 2007 Washington State Department of Ecology report, runoff from the land surface is how the bulk of toxic chemicals are deposited into Puget Sound.

With more than 70 percent of the Washington businesses that produce toxic waste located in the Puget Sound region, it is no surprise the health of Puget Sound is in such decline.

Bri Silbaugh and Mindy Collins, the City of Bellingham’s new source control specialists, are working with small businesses in Bellingham to help reverse that trend, however. Their mission is not to discipline a company — in fact, they have no power to do so.

Instead, their charge is to educate owners and managers about pollution regulations and permits, advise them about pollution prevention measures and conduct technical assistance visits.

Silbaugh and Collins have worked since July to create educational handouts and begin to contact businesses that could be small-quantity generators of toxic waste, such as boatyards, marinas, dentists, printers, photo shops — just about anybody who uses small amounts of solvents or any kind of hazardous material that could generate a waste in small amounts.

Silbaugh said they have had a decent rapport with owners and managers so far.

“Anytime you say that you are from the City of Bellingham, there is a slight annoyance just because it’s the government coming in,” Silbaugh said. “Then immediately when we say we are here to help and it’s just technical assistance and we are not here to slap you with violations — we typically get a lot of good feedback.”

The two specialists will focus on smaller businesses that are not required to receive a permit by state agencies and have therefore not received technical assistance to help with best management practices and/or clarification of applicable regulations.

“We don’t know that any of these businesses are contributing,” Collins said. “They are businesses that have not really been looked at as possible contributors to small amounts of pollution.”

Silbaugh said that on their own, these small amounts of pollution don’t seem like much, but together they present a problem.

“It’s a lot of small quantities, but all together that’s a huge source,” Silbaugh said.

‘A clean environment is crucial to our quality of life’

In 2007, Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Washington state Legislature started the Puget Sound Initiative to jumpstart efforts to clean up Puget Sound.

As a part of that effort, municipalities around Puget Sound were able to apply for funding to hire local source control specialists who would work with local businesses that might be small-quantity generators of toxic pollution. Currently, there are 23 local source control specialists working in 14 different jurisdictions, including Bellingham and Whatcom County.

“Small businesses play a critical role in the overall economic vitality of our state and local communities,” Gregoire said in a press release. “A clean environment is crucial to our quality of life and Washington’s competitive position in a global economy. Thousands of small businesses will benefit from the guidance that these local, on-the-ground specialists provide.”

Jay Manning, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, expanded on this and said proactive approaches are better than a reactive course.

“It is better to prevent pollution than to clean up wastes after they are formed. Technical assistance will save businesses money by helping them control the amount of waste they generate, hopefully preventing the need for expensive cleanups later on,” Manning said in a release.

Chemical cleaners

Lori Burton, general manager for Bellingham Cleaning Center, has been in the dry cleaning business for nearly 30 years.

Recently, she received a letter from Silbaugh and Collins that said they had some suggestions and information regarding some of the toxic risk factors within the dry cleaning business.

Most dry cleaners use a solvent called perchloroethylene, often referred to simply as “perc,” which is a probable cancer-causing agent in humans and is known to cause cancer in animals.

“A lot of people would not think of dry cleaners as working with hazardous chemicals, but that chemical is pretty hazardous and needs to be disposed of in the correct facility,” Silbaugh said.

Burton said the specialists had some good advice for extra precautions the business could take, such as spill kits and placing trays under barrels for secondary containment in the event of a spill. However, Burton said her extensive experience has left her quite knowledgeable.

“For us, their suggestions are good, but it’s nothing we didn’t know already,” Burton said.

Collins said a positive step in assessing a business’s toxicity is to assess exactly how much waste it has and of what kind. Then the business can determine where that waste falls within state regulations.

“There could be instances where the business is accumulating a substance that they think is a hazardous waste and it’s not, such as used motor oil, which can be taken to the airport recycling facility,” Collins said.

Silbaugh said a business could also determine what waste is going where.

“Maybe they are putting something in the trash that they shouldn’t,” Silbaugh said. “Sometimes they just don’t know what to do with it.”

Burton said she is glad the specialists are talking with small businesses and working on Puget Sound’s pollution problems.

“It’s a great idea. I have lived here all my life and I hate what is happening to the waters,” Burton said.

Tips to tackle toxicity

  • Move chemical drums inside or cover with a lid
  • Place a tray or some other type of secondary containment under the waste container
  • Read up on industry-specific pollution regulations
  • Assess quantity and type of waste and determine proper disposal method
  • Have spill kits with absorbent materials on hand
  • Train employees how to respond to a chemical spill to minimize impacts on business, employees and the environment
  • Regularly check equipment and piping for leaks, worn parts and proper temperature


Businesses to receive visits

The following vocations and industries are some that will receive technical assistance visits (list not comprehensive):

Laboratories, veterinarian clinics, dentists, building contractors, electrical contractors, photo processing, printers, golf courses, restaurant and grocery businesses, e-waste generators, painters, sawmills and logging industries, wood working, septic tank services, fleet maintenance, marinas and boatyards, landscapers/ gardeners, plant nurseries, recycling facilities, schools, automotive businesses.


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