The Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund was created by a record legal settlement between the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance (Soundkeeper) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, and has since been supplemented by several other pollution mitigation payments including SSA Terminals, Whitley Evergreen, Rainier Petroleum Corporation and Louis Dreyfus Company Washington LLC. The Fund’s goal is to mitigate past pollution runoff by supporting community-based efforts to protect or improve the water quality of Puget Sound. Since inception in 2012, more than $3 million in grants have been awarded.
The $1.5 million BNSF settlement is one of the largest ever in a citizen enforcement action involving stormwater discharges. According to the Department of Ecology, polluted stormwater runoff is the number-one source of toxic loading in the Sound. Heavy metals, especially copper, are particularly dangerous to the survival of salmon species, which are highly valued culturally and economically by the people of the Puget Sound Region.
Industrial stormwater is a serious threat to Puget Sound and other water bodies because it can contain toxic levels of heavy metals, such as copper, zinc, and lead, as well as oils and suspended solids. Elliott Bay is identified by state and federal agencies as providing critical habitat for threatened Chinook salmon, and is home or a migration route to other species including coho salmon, sixgill shark, octopus, lingcod, marbled murrelet, harbor seals, harbor porpoise and orca whales.
Soundkeeper sued BNSF as part of its Clean Water Act enforcement program, which enforces federal water quality laws against serious violators. In bringing pollution-related lawsuits, Soundkeeper’s goal is to achieve negotiated settlements that bring polluters into compliance with the law and the permitting system. Settlement funds are then donated to local environmental groups to help them repair damage done to the Sound. Soundkeeper receives no money from these settlements; however, the lawyers on the cases receive repayment of attorneys’ fees and expenses, which are paid separately from the mitigation fund. Due to the size of the BNSF settlement, Soundkeeper asked Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment to set up and administer a grant program to award the funds back to the community as grants to protect Elliott Bay and Puget Sound.
Rose Foundation is a grantmaking public charity that specializes in handling restitution payments and class-action settlement awards. Over the past 25 years, Rose has received approximately 400 settlements, helping to enable more than $40 million in community grants in California, Washington and other states. To ensure that the Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund is grounded in the values and knowledge of the local community, the fund is guided by a Puget Sound-based funding advisory board.