GOV. Jay Inslee’s decision this week on water-quality standards was the right one for a healthy Washington economy.
The governor said no to the federal regulators, environmentalists and tribal interests that had demanded the state adopt water-quality rules so tough nobody could meet them, heedless of cost and despite weak scientific justification.
Inslee’s plan is reasonable by comparison. It won’t force taxpayers to pay billions of dollars for practically no benefit at all, it won’t chase industry out of state and it might achieve greater results. His praiseworthy package deserves open-minded consideration from Washington businesses and lawmakers.
There really never was a scientific case for higher standards — no studies indicated current rules were inadequate. Nor was there reason to believe public health would be better protected if the state further limited pollutants discharged into Washington waters, to concentrations so slight they cannot be measured. The problem was political.
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Washington has been under intense pressure from the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to follow the example of Oregon, which in 2011 adopted the toughest water-quality rules in the country. Oregon’s standards are about five times more stringent than any other state, 25 times more stringent than Washington.
No technology exists to get water that clean, and already Oregon is seeing a molasses-slow permit renewal process that encourages legal challenges and requires the costliest cleanup technologies regardless of benefit. That means big problems for industry, sewage-treatment plants and every business with a parking lot big enough to require a runoff permit.
Inslee instead embraced a suggestion from a coalition of industrial and local government interests. He will propose a rule increasing the state’s estimate of human “fish consumption” to 12 pounds a month, just as Oregon did, demonstrating necessary political sensitivity to Native American tribes that eat more fish than average. But he reduces the multiplier used to estimate “cancer risk” for the levels of permissible pollutants in Washington waters. So standardsfor some pollutants will double or triple, but not 25 times.
Inslee also will seek legislation giving the state Department of Ecology more authority to regulate toxic chemicals that enter the environment. The details will be important, but potential for much greater benefit is clear. There still isn’t much science, but Inslee’s plan is a promising compromise. Anyone who pays a sewer bill in Washington should cheer.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).