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Published: Sunday, June 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Water quality standards must strike a delicate balance

They need to protect environment without hurting economy

  • Ted S. Warren / Associated Press
Efrain Rivera harvests Pacific oysters at low tide at Taylor Shellfish Co. in Oyster Bay, near Olympia in 2011. Wate...

    Ted S. Warren / Associated Press

    Ted S. Warren / Associated Press Efrain Rivera harvests Pacific oysters at low tide at Taylor Shellfish Co. in Oyster Bay, near Olympia in 2011. Water quality is critical to the oyster industry.

How much fish do you eat?
Of all the important issues being debated in Olympia, that simple question could have the farthest-reaching implications.
It has to do with setting a new state water-quality standard. Because water-borne contaminants accumulate in fish, one step in setting a clean water standard is to determine how much fish people eat. This "fish consumption rate" is an important variable in a large and complex formula used to establish a water quality standard.
These water quality standards affect everyone. Local governments must meet them for the wastewater exiting their municipal treatment plants. Industrial facilities must meet them for discharges from their manufacturing processes and for stormwater run-off from their properties.
The stakes are high and Washington needs standards that work. That means that Gov. Jay Inslee and the Department of Ecology must find a balance that will improve our waterways, continue to protect human health, and provide for a vibrant economy.
We all share a commitment to water quality and want to pass on a healthier environment for our children. Driving environmental progress requires water quality standards that are attainable, because companies are more likely to invest in better environmental technologies when those investments allow them to comply with government standards. Failure to comply opens the door to lawsuits that drain resources away from environmental programs and into the courtroom.
An effective standard also will enhance rather than curtail economic activity. That means a standard that can be met with existing, affordable technologies. Otherwise, current facilities would not be allowed to expand if they're not in compliance and no permits can be issued for new facilities. When today's local employers can't expand and new employers can't come to an area, we lose family-wage jobs and the local economy stagnates.
In addition to closing the door on jobs, an unattainable standard could cost Washington cities and counties and the citizens they serve billions without resulting in meaningful environmental progress. Funds currently being spent in effective clean-up programs could be diverted simply to demonstrate a good-faith effort to meet a standard that can't be met.
In contrast, an achievable standard will encourage required investments by making them affordable enough to achieve real progress on water quality while keeping jobs here in Washington.
Establishing a standard that supports both a healthy environment and a healthy economy will take some time. It's critically important for our future and we need to do it right. We need complete information and an approach based on science to provide the best outcomes for our environment, our people and our economy. The standards must be flexible enough to recognize the difference between a placid lake and a fast-moving river. They also need to recognize how different species interact with their environment. For example, salmon -- a popular choice among Washington consumers -- spend half their lives in the open ocean, which Washington's water standards don't control.
All interested parties need a seat at the table and meaningful input into the process. Trying to rush to a decision leaves the door open for standards influenced by assumptions or incomplete information. State officials should take the necessary time to engage all stakeholders in meaningful dialogue on this issue.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other steps we can -- and should -- take to improve water quality while the state studies this important decision. Chemical action plans can be developed and implemented to reduce known pollutants such as arsenic, mercury and PCBs.
Working together, we can establish balanced water quality standards that are good for Washington's future from an environmental, health, and economic standpoint.
Bob Donegan is president of Ivar's, Inc, a restaurant company with local operations in Mukilteo. Larry Brown is Legislative & Political Director of Aerospace Machinists Local 751.
Story tags » Environmental IssuesEnvironmental Politics

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