The water-quality protections that Washingtonians fought hard to win are now under attack by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Washington’s water-quality standards include what’s called human-health criteria — specified limits on the amounts of toxic chemicals and other compounds in our waterways — to ensure that seafood caught here is safe for everyone to eat, and surface water is safe to drink. These standards were finalized in 2016 and are among the most protective in the nation.

Under the Clean Water Act, tribes and states — not the federal government — are responsible for setting water-quality standards. However, the EPA has decided to step in to support the agenda of a small group of industrial polluters to roll back those protections and weaken our human-health criteria.

Those industries participated in developing the 2016 standards, which are being implemented now. Nothing has changed since then. Not the science, nor the need to protect our water and our health from toxic chemicals. The only thing that’s changed is the politics in Washington, D.C. The EPA even tried to roll back the rules without consulting the tribes or state. Only after an outcry from our state’s congressional delegation did the EPA agree to a single hearing on Sept. 25 in Seattle.

Puget Sound and its ecosystems contribute up to $83 billion to the regional economy each year. If we were to treat the Puget Sound basin as an economic asset, its value would be a minimum of $243 billion, according to Earth Economics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. Framed in this way, assets extend far beyond the fishing industry and include natural assets, such as wetlands, rivers and forests, and goods such as timber and water.

EPA is right to withdraw stringent water-quality rule

The Clean Water Act was crafted to ensure that all waters meet quality and health standards, and are drinkable, swimmable and fishable. This promise is especially critical for our most vulnerable communities. It is well documented that tribal communities and certain fishing communities of color catch and consume fish from Washington’s waters at a higher-than-average rate.


Should the EPA roll back Washington’s water-quality standards, these communities will be most susceptible to increased levels of toxic pollution in our water, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), mercury from heavy metals and dioxin — chemicals that can cause cancer, reproductive and cognitive dysfunction, and immune disorders, among other serious health problems. The EPA’s proposed standards explicitly and intentionally ignore the needs of tribes and people of color — populations that already disproportionately bear the weight of environmental injustice.

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And let’s not forget our marine communities and their most iconic members. Sadly, our endangered Puget Sound chinook salmon are impacted by toxic pollution, and our endangered southern resident orcas are some of the most toxic animals on the planet due to PCB contamination. In fact, because PCBs become more concentrated as they move up the food chain, orcas accumulate PCBs at a more dangerous rate than other animals. Orcas are susceptible to the same cancers and health problems as humans. In addition, nursing orca mothers transfer PCBs to their young, which affect their metabolism, growth rates and ultimately, their survival — as they are poisoned by their mother’s milk.

More than ever, we must invest in clean water while we still have it. Keeping Washington’s water-quality standards strong plays a critical role in safeguarding the Puget Sound and Washington’s waters for everyone — from the communities and businesses that depend on a healthy environment, to the marine life that call it home. We cannot continue banking on the short-term gains of a pollution-based economy. Instead, let us focus on the long-term growth of our ecosystems, the long-term health of our neighborhoods, and the long-term well-being of our children. Let us remind the EPA that clean water is priceless and that Washington waters belong to Washingtonians — not a small group of industrial polluters who think otherwise.

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