OLYMPIA — The state Department of Ecology has proposed a draft water-quality rule tied to how much fish people eat, but its adoption may depend on whether lawmakers are willing to give the agency new authority to ban certain toxic chemicals to prevent water pollution.
The draft, known as the “fish-consumption rule,” was released Monday, after two years of debate that pitted tribes and environmental groups against businesses and municipalities over the issue of how clean state waters should be.
Federal law requires rivers and other water bodies to be clean enough so people can safely swim and eat fish from those waters.
Monday’s proposed rule dramatically raises the current fish-consumption rate to 175 grams a day, which would protect people who eat about a serving of fish a day. It’s in line with a plan that Gov. Jay Inslee outlined last summer.
Tribes and conservation groups have criticized the governor’s proposal as not protective enough. Meanwhile, businesses have worried that too-strict rules will hurt economic development.
The state is under pressure to finalize a rule by this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve any state plan, also is coming up a plan for Washington in case the state fails to do so.
As part of his plan to improve water quality, Inslee is seeking support for new legislation aimed at reducing toxic pollution at its source, before it enters state waters. Under the proposal, Ecology would identify chemicals that are most problematic and ban their use if safer alternatives are found.
The governor says revising that clean-water rule alone won’t reduce major sources of toxic chemicals in everyday products, or from sources not covered by the federal Clean Water Act.
“Reducing the use of toxic chemicals on the front end, when products are created, is more effective, cheaper and reduces the burden on water dischargers,” Carol Kraege, Ecology’s toxics coordinator, said in a statement Monday.
But Inslee’s proposal is likely to meet opposition from Republican lawmakers, who have been reluctant to give that state agency more authority.
The agency would come up with a list of up to 150 “priority chemicals,” and then narrow that list down to 20 of the most problematic. With public input, Ecology would create plans to reduce the chemicals’ use, ranging from education to a ban.
Todd Myers, environmental director with the Washington Policy Center, said the problem with the approach is the unintended consequences.
“Often what you get is people moving to more toxic chemicals,” he said, noting it’s difficult to know if a safer alternative exists since those tend to be newer and less tested. He thinks that authority should remain with the Legislature.
Chris Wilke, with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, questioned why the fish-consumption rule was tied to the governor’s toxics legislation in the first place.
“They’re basically banking on this legislative approach to get them to their end point,” he said, and that suggests that the “water quality standard is not very robust.”