The state of Washington has a new round of proposed regulations on water pollution intended to ensure safety of human consumption of fish from local waters.
The state’s latest effort to create new standards governing water pollution has run into a buzz saw of criticism.
The new rules don’t do enough to dial back pollution levels and give polluters too many avenues to delay implementation, critics said.
Kelly Susewind, water-quality program manager for the state Department of Ecology, said the proposed rules, released Wednesday, strike the right balance between the state’s earlier proposed standards and a rule issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year after the state failed to meet deadlines to act.
How versions of the rules compare: state’s original version, new version, and federal version at www.ecy.wa.gov/toxics/testing.html
Source: Washington state Department of Ecology
“We like our rule better, it provides tools for dischargers to be in compliance that EPA’s rule does not have,” Susewind said. Some of the state restrictions on pollutants also were loosened in this round of drafting because new science indicates they are not as toxic as previously thought. “We followed the science,” Susewind said.
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The limits on PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) and mercury would remain the same as existing law. Many carcinogens would see tighter limits. Arsenic limits would be more lenient.
The EPA’s version regulates more pollutants more tightly and does not provide the same tools for permit holders that could in some cases provide more time to implement the rules or variances from them.
“You could draw some Orwellian references to say these implementation tools are for nonimplementation,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper, a nonprofit in Seattle dedicated to cleaning up Puget Sound.
Wilke said he has given up on the state writing rules that are tough enough and at this point would rather see the EPA’s proposed rule go into effect. His group has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue to speed up its implementation.
Tribes also were critical of the state’s proposed standards. The rule is based on 175 grams of fish consumption — up from the present level of 6 grams — which tribes emphasize is already a big compromise for some communities. Surveys show many Indian people eat far more: At Lummi Nation, some tribal members surveyed in 2013 said they were eating 918 grams — or a little over 2 pounds of fish and shellfish a day.
That makes it even more important that levels of pollutants the state will allow are set lower, tribal leaders said.
“I have to hide the smoked salmon in our house or the kids will eat it all,” said Jim Peters, council member at the Squaxin Island Tribe, near Olympia. Setting tighter pollution levels benefits not only tribal members, but everyone who enjoys harvesting fresh fish from local waters, Peters said.
The state has been working for several years to update the standards — so long the EPA in the meantime moved in 2015 to make federal requirements more strict.
“They have delayed so long the EPA has moved the bar,” said Paul Lumley of the Yakama Nation and executive director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission. “They have recommended stricter standards and Washington knows the new rules and that their proposed rule is not good enough for EPA’s updated criteria.”
In a prepared statement issued Wednesday, the EPA’s northwest regional office noted managers are still hopeful the state will draft its own rules that the agency can accept, rather than doing it for them.
Fran Wilshusen, director of habitat services for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the state still has a long way to go.
“You are talking about eliminating toxics from the environment and that requires that strong regulatory piece,” Wilshusen said. “That is where tribes are, and we have said it over and over again.”
Information in this article, originally published Feb. 3, 2016, was corrected Feb. 4, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that arsenic levels would stay the same under proposed state rules. They would become more lenient.