New SEPA Rules and More on the Horizon

Infill Project

Infill projects, like this new commercial property, will benefit from relaxed permitting requirements under the revised SEPA rules.

At 42 years old, Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) needed a little makeover. It’s had nips and tucks (okay, amendments) before, but the most recent changes became effective on January 28. A little background: SEPA was put in place to help get agencies, applicants, and the public through a formal review of development projects—and the effects they might have—before government actions happen. Actions like construction permits, or adoption of regulations, plans, or policies.

Some highlights:

  • Streamlined regulatory processes make the program more efficient, while continuing to protect the state’s natural resources.
  • Process and documentation changes are better aligned with current technology.
  • Changes in the list of actions (and respective thresholds) that are categorically exempt from certain compliance requirements.
  • A useful table that better defines flexible thresholds for certain types of minor new construction in and outside of counties that use the Growth Management Act.
  • An electronic version of the environmental checklist form for disclosing and characterizing a proposal’s key features and for describing anticipated impacts and mitigation commitments.

What effect will these changes have on developers and communities? The elevated exemption thresholds will tend to increase the number of urban projects. For developers, this should mean less of a regulatory process, more predictability for project planning, reduced development costs, and shorter project timelines. Ultimately, this could make more affordable housing available, subject to market forces and demand.

While such benefits are encouraging, it’s important that the exemption thresholds don’t compromise key objectives of SEPA that ensure meaningful public review, project disclosure, informed decision-making, and protection of the natural and built environments. Existing regulations and reviews by various levels of government involving land use approvals, construction permit authorizations, and resource oversight and protection should continue to ensure that project-related impacts are properly considered and mitigated, and that meaningful public disclosure and input opportunities are maintained.

More comprehensive changes are scheduled to happen by December 31, 2013.

Details of the January 28 changes here.

Ecology’s New Freshwater Sediment Criteria

Sediment Sampling

The Washington State Department of Ecology has released Revised Sediment Management Standards that will become effective in September 2013. Differences from the existing Marine Sediment Criteria include:

  • Shorter list of compounds
  • Criteria are based on dry weight rather than organic carbon normalized
  • Total DDT (pesticide) and its degradation products are included. The compounds included in the totals are different from those used for marine sediment and soil criteria.
  • Criteria for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are based on totals rather than individual compounds. The compounds included in the totals are different from those used for marine sediment and soil criteria.
  • Total petroleum hydrocarbon (TPH) criteria have been established. Additional sample extraction and cleanup or alternative laboratory methods may be required to remove false positive results from naturally occurring organic matter.

Laboratory detection limits must be lower than criteria and, for non-detected results, both the method detection limit and the practical quantitation limit must be reported.

Ecology may require toxicity testing in the following instances where criteria may not predict sediment impacts:

  • Sediment with unusual geochemical or biochemical characteristics influencing toxicity (release or bioavailability of contaminants) including total organic carbon in environments such as bogs and alpine wetlands.
  • Sediment with pore water or overlying water that has unusual geochemical or biochemical characteristics influencing toxicity (release or bioavailability of contaminants) including pH or hardness.
  • Sediment impacted by metals mining, metals milling, or metals smelting.
  • Sediment impacted by other toxic, radioactive, biological, or deleterious substances.

More information is on the Ecology website.

Ocean Acidification—What’s Being Done?

Ogasawara National Park

Our world’s oceans are becoming acidic nearly ten times faster than any time in the past 50 million years. This is because they absorb a percentage of the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; certain types of runoff can also contribute to the problem. Acidic oceans endanger marine life in many ways. For example, low pH seawater dissolves calcium carbonate, which is used to make shells.

The situation is especially dire for Puget Sound because of the way ocean currents work in our region. Since 2005, billions of oyster larvae in Puget Sound hatcheries have been decimated, resulting in significant loss in production and signaling profound impacts to Washington’s marine environment.

What’s being done about it? Over the last few years, a number of studies have been initiated both locally and around the world to understand the impacts and mitigate ocean acidification. A quick summary:

Washington State is a leader in taking action on ocean acidification. Former Governor Christine Gregoire created the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, which convened February 2012. The panel created a report: Ocean Acidification: From Knowledge to Action (November 2012) and recommended 42 separate actions.

United States. The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring (FOARAM) Act was enacted in 2009. Its purpose was to monitor and conduct research, establish an interagency research and monitoring program, establish a program in NOAA, assess impacts, and research adaptation strategies and techniques.

NOAA established its Ocean Acidification Program May 2011. The Interagency Working Group, which is chaired by NOAA, put out the Initial Report on Federally Funded Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Activities and Progress in Developing a Strategic Plan in March 2011. This report has a comprehensive outline for a Strategic Research Plan for Ocean Acidification.

World. The European Project on OCean Acidification was founded in 2008 and lasted four years. It had a consortium of 160 researchers from 32 institutes and 10 European countries. Although the project is over now, the website has a number of documents that may be downloaded.

While some important research has been done on the topic of ocean acidification, and some stopgap measures have been put in place (for example, to protect local oyster farms), we are a long way from solving this complex issue. The work has only just begun.

More information: Washington State Department of Ecology and NOAA.

Increase Your Points Toward LEED Certification

Federal Center South

Federal Center South, the most energy-efficient office building in the Pacific Northwest, may achieve LEED Platinum. Energy Piles, recycled wood and construction debris, and stormwater infiltration galleries contributed LEED points.

Most LEED points come from efficiency in design and construction areas such as energy, water, materials, and indoor environmental quality. That’s why it may not be obvious how geotechnical engineers and environmental scientists contribute to LEED certification. Since LEED Silver is a requirement for most new public buildings, with LEED Gold the new normal, owners need every possible point. Here are several avenues to gain more:

Sustainable Sites – Several credits are available, including Brownfield Redevelopment (Credit 3); Protect and Restore Habitat, including green roofs (Credit 5.1); and Stormwater Design, including infiltration, reuse, pervious paving, swales, and other LID solutions (Credits 6.1 and 6.2).

Water Efficiency – Credits are typically based on the percentage of reduction in the use of potable water for the new development. Water-efficient landscaping, reuse of rainwater, and capture and reuse of groundwater in the irrigation or building systems can cut water use by 20% or more. Designing efficient filters for graywater recycling can lead to additional points.

Energy and Atmosphere – Credit 2 (On-Site Renewable Energy) allows as many as 3 credits for generating up to 7.5% of the building’s power usage on site. Properly designed ground source heat pump geothermal systems will achieve this goal and these points.

Materials and Resources – Again, several credits are available: Credit 2.1 Construction Waste Management (diverting demolition debris from landfills or incinerators), Credit 3.2 Materials Reuse (reusing salvaged building materials like foundation piles), Credit 4 Recycled Content (using materials such as ground down tires or recycled glass for backfill).

Innovation & Design Process – New or innovative energy saving solutions that have been applied to a site development can be described, justified, and submitted for potential extra points.

Geotechnical and environmental professionals can work with design and construction teams to gain as many as 5 or 6 additional points – and that might be the difference between Silver and Gold, or Gold and Platinum.

From Right-to-Know to Right-to-Understand

GHS pictograms webghs1049

OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) has been revised. If you haven’t already seen changes to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and labels on chemical products, you will soon. OSHA is requiring that employers train employees on the changes by December 1, 2013.

A little background: in 1983 OSHA established the HCS. The HCS requires employers to ensure that employees know about the chemical products used or stored in their workplace and the hazards associated with those chemicals so that employees can use and handle the chemicals safely. Also referred to as the Right-To-Know Law, the HCS requires that information be provided to all employees who have the potential of being exposed to a hazardous chemical through normal use or in an emergency situation. Required information includes: a hazardous chemical inventory; MSDS for each chemical on the inventory; labels, tags, or signs on primary and secondary containers holding chemicals; and a written hazard communication program. The HCS did not specify a common or coherent approach to classifying chemicals and communicating the information to employees.

To improve safety and health of workers through more effective communications on chemical hazards, OSHA recently revised the HCS to adopt the Globally Harmonized System (GHS). The GHS, also known as the Right-to-Understand System, is an international approach for providing easily understandable information to employees. The adoption of the GHS includes three major changes to the HCS:

• Hazard classification: The definitions of hazard have been changed to provide specific criteria for classification of health and physical hazards, as well as classification of mixtures.
• Labels: Chemical manufacturers and importers will be required to provide a label that includes a common worldwide signal word, pictogram, and hazard statement for each hazard class and category.
• Material Safety Data Sheets: The nine-section MSDS will now be called a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and will have a specified sixteen-section format.

Many American and foreign chemical manufacturers have already begun to produce HazCom 2012/GHS-compliant labels and SDS. That’s why many workplaces have already begun to receive labels and SDSs that are consistent with the GHS. It is important to ensure that when employees begin to see the new labels and SDSs in their workplaces, they are familiar with them, understand how to use them, and access the information effectively.