Environmental concerns rise to the top at Kilmer roundtable

Congressman Derek Kilmer jots down notes during an environmental roundtable last week at IslandWood.  - Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review
Congressman Derek Kilmer jots down notes during an environmental roundtable last week at IslandWood.
— image credit: Brian Kelly | Bainbridge Island Review

At one of the first meetings during his “State of the District” tour, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer promised to cover the good, the bad and the ugly of recent happenings in Congress.

For a group comprised of mostly environmental activists late last week at a roundtable meeting at IslandWood, however, there was precious little good news to celebrate.

Kilmer, a 6th District Democrat from Gig Harbor, recalled his minority position in the U.S. House and the bevy of bad bills that had cleared the chamber, which included attempts to undercut regulations for mining and fracking to slashing staff at the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I feel like the bluebird of happiness here,” Kilmer quipped after recounting attempts to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as the federal program that provides for food stamps, during discussion of a new five-year farm bill.

Kilmer started his “State of the District” tour last week, and the congressman has plans to visit every county in the 6th District during Congress’ work period, where most lawmakers are in their home state through Jan. 24. Kilmer came to Bainbridge Island Jan. 17 for two events, the environmental roundtable and a later meeting with American Legion members on the island.

The audience at the IslandWood roundtable included a wide range of environmental interests, from Bainbridge and beyond: Kitsap Audubon, Bainbridge Island Land Trust, Friends of the Farms, Sustainable Bainbridge, Kitsap Citizens for Responsible Planning, Citizens Climate Lobby, Hansville Greenway Association and the Kitsap Forest & Bay Project, Stillwaters Environmental Center, and Sage, the Bainbridge-based maker of fly rods.

Kilmer began on a positive note, and announced “the big news of the day” — his introduction, along with Sen. Patty Murray, of the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 2014. The proposed legislation would designate more than 126,000 acres of federal land as wilderness in the Olympic National Forest and dub some stretches of waterways on the Olympic Peninsula as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

“I think those national treasures are part of our DNA here in this area and I think we need to protect them,” Kilmer told those at the roundtable.

“There wasn’t a summer of my childhood that didn’t involve hiking in the Olympics or going fishing out on the peninsula,” he said. “Protecting those assets for my little girls and for future generations is really important.”

Still, he acknowledged that getting the bill passed through Congress would be a challenge.

“It won’t be an easy lift, to be candid with you,” Kilmer said.

“Congress isn’t really passing much legislation at all, let alone wilderness legislation,” Kilmer said.

There were other bright spots to note, as well. Kilmer noted that $25 million for Puget Sound salmon recovery had been included in the appropriations bill recently passed, which was $8 million more than what was in the president’s budget.

Even so, Kilmer said much of his time during the 113th Congress has been spent playing defense, not offense.

One example was the debate on climate change.

“Most of the conversations in Congress on that subject right now, quite frankly, are heading in the wrong direction,” Kilmer said.

A member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Kilmer joked that he sometimes has to put air quotes around the word “science” when referring to the committee.

He also recalled a recent meeting with Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Ernest Moniz, secretary of the Department of Energy, to talk about the threat of climate change, and recalled Moniz’s recent appearance before the committee, where two thirds of the hearing was spent with Moniz addressing questions on whether climate change is real.

Kilmer recalled the words of a colleague: “‘I tell my constituents back home that this is the dynamic, and they don’t believe me.’ He looked into the little CSPAN camera and said, ‘I hope you people are watching.’”

There have been some really ugly bills, Kilmer said, such as one in the past month that undermines clean-ups of Superfund hazardous waste sites.

Another bill would dramatically expand drilling on public lands while circumventing permit processes.

Other bills have been introduced to expand mining, including an effort to relabel domestic mining operations so they could bypass permitting processes and environmental safeguards.

Yet another bill would expand fracking and limit the federal government’s ability to regulate or enforce rules to protect air and water, instead deferring those duties to the states.

Another bill included a 15 percent workforce cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, “just because,” Kilmer said.

“I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time voting no on really bad bills,” he said.

“As you get a sense, a lot of the legislative time has been spent, I think, more with folks trying to make a statement rather than make a law,” Kilmer added. “You don’t pass bills that have already been threatened with a veto that aren’t going to go anywhere in the Senate.”

Another part of the problem; members of Congress aren’t at work for two-thirds of the year.

Congress is only in session 97 days between Jan. 1 and Election Day.

“You have to be there to legislate,” he said, adding that another 30 percent of Congress’ time has been spent on inconsequential matters such as renaming post offices or allowing soap box derby races on the grounds of the Capitol.

“About 60 percent [of time] is spent on stuff like this, that is primarily political,” he said.

“And 10 percent is spent on real stuff, like trying to get a budget passed and trying to avert financial calamity,” he said.

Kilmer fielded a wide range of constituent concerns, including a call for increased funding for the Forest Legacy Program, taxing carbon fuel exports, internet sales taxes, talk of living wages rather than minimum wages for workers, and troublesome stormwater rules for cities.

Despite the sometimes sour discussion, Kilmer ended on a positive note.

“I don’t spend a lot of my time wringing my hands and cursing,” he said.

“Keep the faith,” he said at the end of the nearly two-hour-long meeting.

“I think we can right the ship, but we need a lot of oars in the water,” he said.

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