Facing pressure from federal regulators, Gov. Jay Inslee is taking another stab at updating clean-water rules partly tied to how much fish people eat.
Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday directed state officials take another stab at updating clean-water rules, as the state races to finalize a plan before the federal government intervenes.
Inslee told the state Department of Ecology to come up with new standards that determine how clean Washington’s waters should be, as he tries to balance the interests of tribes, environmental groups with those of businesses, cities and others.
The rules set limits on pollutants that factories, wastewater treatment plants and other industrial facilities can discharge into state waters.
Inslee’s latest proposal includes some elements in line with what federal regulators have suggested.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve any plan, is currently writing a rule for Washington in case the state doesn’t come up with its own.
Washington has between eight to 11 months to submit a plan to the EPA if it wants to write its own rule. That’s the estimated time it will take the EPA to finalize a rule for the state.
In July, Inslee scrapped clean-water rules just days before they would have been adopted. The governor had earlier tied those rules to legislation he wanted that would reduce toxic pollution, saying the state needed to address the source of chemicals, not just what comes out of pipes. When those bills didn’t pass in the most recent session, Inslee tabled those rules.
Thursday’s announcement means Ecology is starting over after several years of debate, public input and missed deadlines.
The EPA has said it prefers the state do its own rule and that it would stop its process if Washington submits a plan for review.
Ecology officials now say they’ll file a draft rule by early next year and finalize one within the EPA’s time frame.
“It’s a timeline we can meet,” Rob Duff, a senior policy adviser to the governor.
The issue has been a fractious one. Tribes and environmental groups want tougher rules to reduce water pollution and protect the people who eat the most fish. Cities, counties and businesses say the technology isn’t available to meet stricter rules and it could cost billions with little or no benefit to the environment.
Under federal law, rivers and other water bodies must be clean enough so people can safely eat fish from those waters. Since 1992, the state has assumed that people consume about 6.5 grams of fish a day, roughly one small fillet a month. A higher rate theoretically would mean tougher water-pollution rules for pulp and paper mills, food processors and others.
On Thursday, Inslee proposed dramatically raising the fish consumption rate to 175 grams a day; that means pollutants discharged into waters are low enough to protect people who eat that amount. That’s what he proposed last year and what the EPA proposed. Some businesses such as Boeing Co. have called that level unreasonable.
Inslee also left alone the cancer-risk rate, one of many factors in a complicated formula to determine how clean state waters should be. Tribes and environmental groups had pushed to retain the state’s current protections; the EPA argued for the same. Businesses wanted a less stringent rate.
But the state’s latest proposal also gives businesses and others more time and flexibility to meet the standards, including eliminating any cap on the compliance schedule, Ecology’s Kelly Susewind said. Some facilities would have years if not decades to comply with the new rules.
The state also breaks with EPA on other matters. It decided to leave the standard for mercury and PCBs as is, while making standards for arsenic less stringent.
“We want to do a rule that makes sense,” Duff said, noting that it doesn’t make sense to require a lower level than what is found in the environment.