The Environmental Protection Agency proposes to ease Washington water-quality standards for chemicals discharged into state waterways, a move embraced by industry groups that sought the change and denounced as “illegal” by Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The action, disclosed Friday, reverses a 2016 decision by the EPA under the Obama administration that required the state to toughen the water-quality standard.

Chris Hladick, the EPA’s Seattle-based regional administrator, said his agency had “inherent authority” to reconsider the 2016 decision, according to a letter Hladick sent Friday to Maia Bellon, the director of the state Ecology Department.

Ferguson and Inslee, in a joint statement, said “by taking this unilateral action, the EPA will risk almost certain litigation and cause uncertainty for Washington businesses.”

A major point of contention is the water-quality standard for PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a group of chemicals considered to be probable carcinogens. PCBs can be found in dyes, paint, building materials, coolants and other products. In trace amounts, they often are present in industry wastewater discharges as well as municipal utility plants that treat stormwater runoff. Once in Puget Sound and freshwater drainage, they accumulate in fish and shellfish, so ingesting this food in large volumes can increase cancer risks.

In Washington, the PCBs water standard has been subject of years of intense scrutiny.

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Tribal leaders pressed for tighter pollution limits to protect their members, who may eat far more fish and shellfish than other Washington residents. They were dismayed by the Trump administration’s EPA decision, which they said was done without the consultation required by the federal government’s treaties and trust responsibilities to tribes.

“This action is outrageous,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Like all federal agencies, the EPA has a legally binding trust responsibility to the tribes that requires government-to-government consultation and the protection of tribal treaty rights and resources. They are not living up to this responsibility that is rooted in the U.S. Constitution.”

Paper and pulp manufacturers and other industry groups applauded the Trump administration decision.

They had opposed the Obama administration standard, saying that there was no technology available to bring wastewater discharge of PCBs to the low levels that were required. In a written statement, Donna Harmon, president of the American Forest & Paper Association, said, “The earlier EPA rule represented costly and ineffective regulatory overreach — plain and simple.”

The clash over PCB standards has unfolded under the umbrella of the federal Clean Water Act, which creates a partnership between the state and federal government to protect and when necessary restore the nation’s waterways.

Under the act, states have authority to develop water-quality standards, and the EPA the power of review.

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During the Obama administration, the EPA partially disapproved of a state standard — developed by the Washington Department of Ecology while Inslee was governor. The EPA ruled the state standard for PCBs — 170 parts per quadrillion in wastewater discharges — did not go far enough in protecting the health of heavy consumers of Washington fish. Instead, the EPA sent a standard of 7 parts per quadrillion.

In February 2017, after the Trump administration took office, industry and water utility groups filed a petition to the EPA arguing that the action under the Obama administration unjustly overturned the state standard and that it should be pulled back.

Meanwhile, state officials accepted the EPA decision and went to work with stakeholders, including tribes and industry representatives, to find ways to implement new standards.

Colleen Keltz, an Ecology Department spokeswoman, acknowledged that the 7 parts per quadrillion standard may not be obtainable with current technology. But she said that the state is working under a new system that allows permitted discharges to have a variance that allows higher levels of discharges until technology is available to meet the standard.

But the EPA, under the Trump administration, dismissed the need to try to reach the lower standard. In a 32-page document released Friday, the EPA said the earlier state PCBs standard of 170 parts per quadrillion should be restored, saying that that standard was based on sound science. 

Hladick’s criticisms of the 2016 EPA PCBs decision were rejected by Dennis McLerran, who served as regional administrator for the EPA under President Barack Obama. McLerran acknowledged that some standards are “aspirational” but said the earlier EPA action was based on the best science available and that the rule allowed for flexibility when dischargers could not meet the standard.

McLerran said it was “very unusual and inappropriate” to pull it back without first consulting with tribes and state officials.

“I think it is a very unfortunate thing. The state had made it clear that it was implementing the standards, and found them to be correct,” McLerran said.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, disagrees with McLerran.

In a note sent this week to Ecology Department Director Bellon, Ericksen wrote that the initial state water-quality rule was the product of years of work by legislators, state officials and stakeholders. Ericksen said he was confused why Bellon would now oppose efforts to restore that rule, and urged that she reconsider that position.