Two oil companies with refineries in Washington—ConacoPhillips and Tesoro Corporation—count among the highest donors backing Tim Eyman's 2/3 tax initiative, which would reimpose a two-thirds majority vote in Olympia in order to raise taxes and fees. It may seem like an odd move, but environmentalists say refineries are throwing their weight behind Eyman's initiative—to the tune of $25,000 each—because they want don't want to be held accountable for oil-related environmental cleanup in the state.

Puget Sound
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  • Puget Sound
"There's no question in my mind that they’re trying to block our next move," says Brendon Cechovic, political director for Washington Conservation Voters. For the last two years, 25 environmental groups have been fighting to put oil refineries on the hook for cleaning up stormwater run-off.


Here's why: Each year, millions of gallons of toxins wash from roads, driveways, and parking lots into waterways like Puget Sound and the Columbia River. "This is the state's biggest water pollution problem," says Cechovic, and the majority of comes from oil.

So what needs to be done? "We need to invest in infrastructure," says Cechovic. He says building better storm-water drains and retention ponds would more efficiently trap pollutants before they entered our waterways. The problem is, there’s no money to pay for them. Still, the federal Clean Water Act mandates that local governments clean waterways up.

That's why environmental groups have introduced measures for years to hold refineries accountable for those cleanup costs. Last year, their measure would've raised an existing tax on hazardous materials in the state from .7 percent to 2 percent (I touched on this yesterday). The hazardous materials tax applies to 8,000 toxic materials, including petroleum, and the revenue it generates is dedicated to toxic cleanup. The tax increase would've generated an additional $100 million for cleanup, according to Cechovic. It passed the House by one vote but never made it though the Senate.

"There's millions of dollars worth of work out there," Cechovic says. "But oil refineries don't pay a penny towards cleanup. The little we do pay comes from property taxes and utility rates. Local governments are at the point where they can't keep raising property taxes."

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Now, Cechovic says, environmentalists are gearing up for a third try. But if Eyman's initiative is passed by voters, any measure they introduce is dead in the water. Passing a tax hike is hard enough; passing one by a 2/3 majority vote is nearly impossible. "Instead of fighting us in the legislature, they're blocking us before we can get our measure off the ground," says Cechvic. "These guys know what they're doing."

Representatives from ConacoPhillips and Tesoro Co. haven't returned calls for comment.