Seizing Their Chance, Conservationists Join Forces to Push Bills

Senate Democrats and conservationists gathered on the Willamette River's frigid banks Tuesday to announce the "most important" water quality proposal in 30 years, another in a long line of environmental protections they have championed.

SALEM — Senate Democrats and conservationists gathered on the Willamette River's frigid banks Tuesday to announce the "most important" water quality proposal in 30 years, another in a long line of environmental protections they have championed.

But the riverbank also was the perfect spot to showcase a second role the Democrats, with their new majority in the Senate, see for themselves: deep-sixing legislation that might be considered harmful to the environment.

The Democrats have been waiting since 1993, the last time they held power, to push a variety of environmental issues. They might not be able to push far, because the House is controlled by Republicans, but they're in a position to negotiate -- and have a Democratic governor to help back them up.

"I sense there's a greater amount of interest this session in environmental legislation from all quarters," said Mike Carrier, natural resources policy director for Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats began their campaign for Senate Bill 555, which would prohibit industrial plants, municipal sewage treatment plants and other facilities from discharging toxic concentrations of heavy metals, chemicals and bacteria into waterways. Oregon would be the first Western state to ban "mixing zones," commonly used throughout the country to dilute and disperse pollutants.


"Phasing out mixing zones would show people that, yes, we do have in Oregon an ethic to challenge ourselves," said Travis Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Willamette Riverkeeper.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton, is the centerpiece of a legislative agenda endorsed by a coalition of more than 70 conservation groups.

Conservationists, industry lobbyists and lawmakers agree that the climate for a broad environmental effort is better this session -- and is potentially poisonous for bills the Democrats might view as anti-environment.

"I will not let those bills out of my committee," said Ringo, chairman of the Senate Environment and Land Use Committee.

Oregon conservationists traditionally have lobbied legislators piecemeal on pet issues. This year, for the first time, they have agreed on what they call a "common agenda."

Jessica Hamilton, lobbyist for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said legislators frequently asked environmental groups why they "couldn't all agree and focus on the really important concerns facing Oregon."

The groups have responded with a short list of top priorities.

In addition to SB555, groups are working together to secure money for a statewide system of tracking agricultural and commercial pesticide use and are proposing a network of offshore parks and marine reserves where fishing and other activities would be limited or prohibited. They also are pushing several proposals to encourage the use of ethanol and other nonfossil fuels in Oregon.

Willie Tiffany, who works on water policy issues for the Oregon League of Cities, said the dynamics have changed.

Would a Republican senator in a Republican-controlled Senate have introduced SB555? Probably not, he said. But in Oregon, Tiffany said, "you still have to build broad consensus to get anything passed."

And the measure presents a challenge for environmentalists.

Tiffany said Tuesday that cities are still analyzing the mixing-zone proposal, which would be phased in during roughly five years. But they probably will oppose it, he said.

"These mixing zones, and all discharges in Oregon, comply with the federal Clean Water Act, EPA and locally approved standards," Tiffany said. "If there's something wrong, then we should be addressing the Clean Water Act and how that works."

Associated Oregon Industries, the state's largest business lobby, and the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association also oppose the bill.

"Oregon business would be at a severe economic disadvantage," said Kathryn VanNatta, pulp and paper industry lobbyist.

Despite strong industry opposition, the bill probably will pass the Senate. Democratic leaders said they hope it will have gathered enough political momentum to put pressure on House Republican leaders.

"This is a Legislature where I think negotiation is going to happen at a greater level than in past sessions," said Sen. Frank Shields, D-Portland.

Kulongoski has not decided what he'll do if the measure lands on his desk.

"We recognize that it is a tool that can be used to clean up our rivers," said Anna Richter Taylor, his spokeswoman. "But there's a question about whether it's the best way to target limited resources and whether the time frame outlined in the bill is realistic."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News