OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee proposed new state water-quality standards and a companion legislative package Wednesday that would give new authority to the state Department of Ecology to ban toxic chemicals polluting state waters.
The long-awaited announcement was just the start of what is sure to be a much longer process, as the draft rule is written by the state departments of Health and Ecology, and submitted for public comment and eventual approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) next year.
Meanwhile, the Legislature will be asked in the coming session to pass the companion legislation, a bill granting Ecology authority to ban use of chemicals in Washington such as PCBs, plasticizers, phthalates and toxic flame retardants that pollute state waters. The governor also will request approximately $10 million a year to fund that work at Ecology.
Inslee’s goal is to attack pollution at its source and ban toxic chemicals before they enter the water — rather than forever seeking to clean them up.
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Inslee said in a news conference at the Capitol that he would not submit a finalized water-quality rule for approval to the EPA until the Legislature acts. That, Inslee said, is because he intends to create an integrated approach to attacking water pollution.
The water-quality rule alone does not get at hundreds of chemicals from other sources that escape regulation, nor does the rule attack pollution at its sources, the governor said.
“Right now we have only one little tiny screwdriver, but we have hundreds of bolts,” Inslee said. “We need to have different tools, and that is going to take some legislative activity.”
The standards Inslee proposed involve just two parts of a complex algorithm used to set state limits through administrative rule-making on some 90 chemicals regulated with state discharge permits.
Up for revision are two numeric inputs in the algorithm: the amount of fish it is assumed people eat, and the cancer risk that eating that much fish from state waters would theoretically create — assuming many other factors in the algorithm.
The daily fish-consumption standard under Inslee’s proposal would be raised from today’s 6.5 grams per day of fish consumed — a snack that would fit on a cracker — to 175 grams, or nearly a dinner-sized serving of 8 ounces. The numerical input of the cancer risk in the algorithm was increased, but Inslee promised that in no case would actual cancer risks increase. That, he said, was because the rule will allow no “backsliding” — no level of chemical output to state waters would be permitted to be higher under the new rule than it is today.
The proposed rule also would include new flexibility for dischargers, such as industry and municipal wastewater-treatment plants. Dischargers would be allowed to negotiate variances even if their discharge was too polluted, as long as they were making progress toward reducing it. Variances would be determined case by case, with approval by the EPA, including time limits and compliance schedules, backed by enforcement through fines.
Inslee’s proposal was greeted with mixed reaction by tribes, environmentalists and industry.
“This is a big compromise for us,” said Russell Hepfer, vice chairman of the tribal council for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose members, he said, eat at least 500 grams of fish and shellfish every day, not 175.
But at least Inslee got the ball rolling by proposing standards for discussion — unlike the previous two governors, Hepfer said. “We have been dealing with this for so many years.”
The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, with other environmental groups and fishing advocates, filed suit against the EPA last October to force the state to issue updated standards.
“I think some pieces [of Inslee’s proposal] are really exciting,” said Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance executive director. “Going farther upstream to get at sources, to products that contain these toxic chemicals, is long overdue.”
He didn’t like setting levels for some pollutants through the water-quality standard that would be no more protective than today for some chemicals. “We need to do better,” Wilke said.
Industry was cautious.
“We have repeatedly expressed our support for a standard that protects human health and the environment, while at the same time allowing for the growth of our business and the state’s economy as a whole,” Tim Keating, Boeing’s senior vice president for government operations, said.
“However, we are concerned that the standards put forth by the governor today could result in little to no improvement to water quality, and be a substantial detriment to Washington jobs and economic health.”
State Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, ranking minority member of the House Environment Committee, said she is intrigued by the legislative package. “The way he laid that out is potentially a good start,” Short said. “I am anxious to see what the details show us.
“The legislative angle was frankly quite new; I have not seen that. Where I have had trouble in the past is giving (Ecology) that automatic authority. I don’t know that I am supportive of that; it depends on what that language might look like. I am willing to look at ideas that are brought forward, but I want to be sure that these are reasonable and achievable.”
The Senate Republican leader, Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, Adams County, said he is leery of giving unelected officials the ability to ban anything. But he liked the concept of taking pollution control back to the source.
“Prevention is obviously best policy. But we haven’t seen any details,” Schoesler said. “Let’s see the package, governor, then we’ll have the discussion.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com