Cleaning our waters to protect human health today and pass on to future generations tomorrow is too important for political gamesmanship.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently decided to reconsider and withdraw a federal water quality rule that it imposed on our state and instead accept a 2016 rule developed by Washington’s Department of Ecology.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson is challenging the decision in court. Gov. Jay Inslee calls the move politically motivated federal overreach that usurps the state’s authority to regulate clean water.
That’s not the case — and you have a financial stake in the outcome.
This issue began when Washington’s Department of Ecology began updating our water quality standards in 2012. After four years of scientific analysis and work with tribes, environmental advocates, employers and local governments, Ecology adopted new state standards in 2016, and sent them to EPA for approval.
At the time, Gov. Inslee praised the state-adopted standards as locally developed to meet our state’s unique needs. Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon said they would protect the environment and human health while helping local governments and businesses comply.
But when these state-developed standards were submitted to EPA, the agency rejected most of them and arbitrarily imposed even stricter ones. They offered no scientific justification for doing so, despite the fact that the state standards complied with the Obama EPA’s official guidance to the states.
EPA is now undoing that mistake. The agency has recognized that the standards it had imposed on Washington provide no meaningful additional protection to public health compared to the state standards, and that they are unachievable with current or projected wastewater treatment technologies. That means everyone with a wastewater discharge permit — whether local government treatment facility or private manufacturing plant — would soon be unable to comply, meaning they would have great difficulty renewing their discharge permits.
So EPA is backing off and instead accepting the state standards that are among the most stringent in the nation. Under them, someone drinking over a half-gallon of untreated surface water and eating more than six ounces of locally caught fish each and every day for 70 years would face less than a one-in-1 million risk of contracting cancer from any residual chemicals in that diet, according to the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association.
The standard for PCBs, a dangerous substance found in many bodies of water around our state, would be 170 parts per quadrillion. That’s the equivalent of one drop from a standard eyedropper dissolved in 118 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association.
These protections are considered broadly among scientists and public health professional as the equivalent of zero effective risk.
Yet Gov. Inslee and Director Bellon have now decided that this rigorous protection — their own work — isn’t good enough. They want the federally imposed rule to stand, arguing that even unattainable regulations can make sense as “aspirational standards.”
The burden of paying for these aspirations would fall squarely on the shoulders of all local sewer customers. Local governments would be forced to invest hundreds of millions trying to achieve a standard they know can’t be met.
As a local official, I could not in good conscience have asked my constituents to pay millions more for a service, knowing that it wouldn’t provide additional protection to our community or help us meet a legal requirement.
Beyond Inslee and Bellon’s flip-flop, AG Ferguson’s legal action presents a further irony. The official charged with legally defending state laws is instead trying to block EPA from supporting this state rule and force a federal rule on Washington.
Contrary to such political posturing, EPA’s decision reflects a workable balance, paving the way for a protective, science-based, and achievable state standard. It’s one that local governments can support, knowing that prudent public investments can lead to improvements in public health, water quality and compliance with the law.