Gov. Jay Inslee should stand behind his new more stringent state water quality standards, despite federal dissatisfaction with them.
WASHINGTONIANS are justifiably proud of our scenic waterways. We want them protected, and we want to pass on a clean and healthy aquatic environment for future generations.
In compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology have taken a leadership role in that process by proposing to enact new, more stringent state water-quality standards.
But the federal Environmental Protection Agency might undermine those actions, resulting in unattainable standards that would drive up utility costs for Washington residents and put current and future jobs at risk.
Washington’s draft rule would increase something called the fish-consumption-rate assumption — a key part of the formula used to set the standards — by nearly 30 times, from the current 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day. That’s equivalent to going from eating a small chunk of fish on a cracker to eating a six-ounce portion.
One key assumption of the draft rule is that you would eat that much fish every day for the next 70 years — with every bit of it coming from Washington waters. Another is that you would drink two liters of untreated lake or river water every day over that same period.
But the state’s draft rule also responds to concerns of local governments and employers whose facilities would comply with the new standards. It does this by adjusting the theoretical “risk level” that you could get cancer from trace chemicals found in all that fish and water — but not necessarily die from it. The risk level is adjusted from one in 1 million to one in 100,000. To provide some perspective, the risk of being in an airplane crash is about one in 4 million; being struck by lightning is about one in 700,000; and dying in a car crash is about one in 5,000.
These actions, along with the many other inputs included in the proposed Department of Ecology rule, would provide greater protection, creating new water-quality standards that meet or exceed the EPA’s own guidance.
For more than 70 percent of the chemicals covered by the draft rule, the new standards would be more stringent and provide more protection than Washington’s current standards. For the rest, the rule includes a “no backsliding” provision to keep the current standard rather than accept a lower protection level.
Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met. It would protect consumers from dramatically higher utility costs that far exceed any incremental benefit.
An achievable standard also would reduce the threat of third-party lawsuits and permit challenges diverting money to the courtroom that otherwise could be used for environmental protection. It would help preserve existing jobs and create new ones, providing both a healthy environment and a healthy economy to benefit Washington families.
Yet the EPA’s Region 10 office has already indicated to state officials that they disagree with Washington’s approach. The regional office is instead aligning itself with some who criticize the proposed risk level, saying it wouldn’t adequately protect heavy fish consumers. This simply is not the case.
Given all the other highly protective assumptions embedded in the standard-setting formula, this proposed change in what are already very small risk levels would still yield standards that fully protect heavy consumers of fish from any realistic chance of getting cancer from doing so.
Water quality is a complex subject that will affect the future health of Washington’s environment, economy and citizens for years to come. Many technical, economic and community issues must be resolved if the new standards are to be implemented.
Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground. Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.