Washington State governor Chris Gregoire recently signed into law Senate Bill 6557 which will protect the Puget Sound marine environment from toxic chemicals due to waste water runoff.

Puget Sound is the Pacific Northwest’s most expansive and utilized marine system. Named for explorer George Vancouver’s lieutenant Peter Puget, the sound was originally defined by  Vancouver as consisting solely of the waters  south of the Tacoma Narrows (south of present day Seattle and flowing from Elliot Bay). Depending on whom you speak with, Puget Sound is nowadays defined as beginning south of Admiralty Inlet (just north of the Olympic Peninsula), or, according to NOAA, the Sound extends as far north as the Canadian border, and west to include large parts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.

But of course, all such boundaries are mostly arbitrary when you’re talking about water.

Like so many expansive waterways that come into contact with urban and industrial centers , Puget Sound has seen many challenges to its health and vitality, not least of which comes from industrial pollution (typically in the form of waste water runoff) from a variety of sources. Seattle, being the region’s largest urban center, is a major contributor to this problem. One of the more insidious and long-term chemical threats to this region’s marine ecosystems comes from a seemingly innocuous source: automobile break pads. More specifically, it is the copper in the pads which, over time, grinds down into a fine dust, then gets deposited on our roads, and, thanks to all the rain here, eventually gets washed into the region’s water systems (both artificial an natural), and from there, it spreads further throughout the marine ecosystem.

Copper, an electrochemically active element, is toxic to most forms of marine plankton as well as larger fish like salmon–Pugets Sound’s most commercially important fish species.

Senate Bill 6557 sets limits of copper and other chemical substances used in break pads with a limit of 5% (of total construction material) to be achieved by 2021. The just-signed legislation was brought to fruition through a collaboration between the Puget Sound Partnership, the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, break pad manufacturers and distributors, the automobile industry, and several environmental groups and local businesses.

This collaborative approach to environmental protection—while seemingly on a relaxed time table (a 2021 total phase out)—gives manufacturers time to develop and integrate new technological solutions, and gives the expert advisory committee (advising the DOE) time to explore alternative “marine spatial planning” solutions before they impose more stringent limits (although, it’s difficult to imagine what the alternative to limiting copper dust from brake pad washout could be, other than an outright ban).

With this legislation, the State of Washington hopes to send a signal to the Federal government that it is serious about its commitment to protecting its marine resources from continuous industrial pollution.