OLYMPIA — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday approved new water quality standards for Washington that combine portions of a state proposal with stricter standards crafted by the federal agency.
The much-anticipated decision marks the first significant update in the standards since 1992. It concludes years of sometimes rancorous debate on how best to reduce the level of chemical pollutants discharged into waterways from businesses and municipal sewage treatment plants.
Gov. Jay Inslee opened the door for federal involvement July 31, 2015, when he scrapped a major rewrite of the state’s clean water rules in the face of opposition from tribal leaders and environmentalists who criticized it as too weak.
The Department of Ecology did a rewrite. It was adopted Aug. 1 and submitted to the EPA for final review and approval.
In the meantime, environmentalists impatient with Inslee sued the federal agency to force it to draw up rules rather than wait on the state. The EPA did draft its own version and a federal judge set a Tuesday deadline for the agency to either approve Washington’s plan, or its own.
On Tuesday, the federal agency essentially did both. It adopted components of its rule. In a separate action it approved parts of the state plan and disapproved other parts.
“Washington maintains one of the strongest water programs in the entire nation,” EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said in a statement. “Now, the state will have updated standards on the books and the needed flexibility to make progress meeting these more protective standards over time.”
But in a prepared statement, Ecology Secretary Maia Bellon didn’t see it quite the same way.
“We’re disappointed that Washington state’s approach wasn’t accepted in its entirety,” she said. “We were always clear in our goal — to meet EPA’s requirements and tailor our proposal to work for Washington state. We believe we did that with the clean water standards we adopted in August.”
Environmentalists and tribal leaders applauded the decision. They preferred the EPA approach, which, among other things, imposes more stringent limits on mercury and PCBs than the state proposed. They consider those chemicals to be among the most-serious threats for getting into the food chain and affecting human health.
“It is a validation of our central premise that the Department of Ecology should not have have attempted to revise our state water quality standards without addressing the two most dangerous chemicals,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. The alliance brought the lawsuit that forced EPA to act.
“The purpose of this rule is about protecting human health. The rule today will increase protection for fish consumers,” he said.
Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said in a statement that strong standards “are important because they help protect us from toxins in our water that end up in the fish and shellfish we eat. Protective water quality standards are especially important to tribes because we eat more seafood than most who live here.”
The federal Clean Water Act requires states to adopt standards that ensure rivers and major bodies of water are clean enough to support fish that are safe for humans to eat.
Since 1992, Washington has operated under a rule that assumed the average amount of fish eaten by a person each day is 6.5 grams. That’s about a quarter of an ounce per day. The new standards increase the fish consumption rate to 175 grams a day. The higher consumption number means fewer toxic pollutants would be allowed in waters.
Fish consumption is only one part of the regulatory equation. Another is the cancer risk rate associated with long term exposure to each of roughly 100 identified chemicals. Existing state law assumes that among people who eat Washington-caught fish every day for 30 years, no more than one person in 1 million will get cancer. That won’t change.
McLerran lauded the state for proposing to boost the fish consumption rate and retain the cancer risk rate saying it recognizes “greater protection of people who eat larger amounts of fish is appropriate in the Pacific Northwest where fishing is a part of our heritage.”
In the end, a main difference between the state and federal approaches concerned regulating of PCBs, arsenic and mercury.
The state wanted to maintain current limits for PCBs but EPA officials didn’t agree. Instead, they went with a stricter limit on allowable levels of PCBs.
The EPA also approved a stricter standard for methyl mercury than the state put forth. State officials expressed concern the standard would be too difficult for dischargers in Washington to meet.
Regarding arsenic, the state wanted to apply the same standard used for water fountains at public schools. But the federal agency disapproved its standard and decided to leave existing rules in place as work continues on a new national standard.
The EPA also approved the state proposal for new human health criteria for 45 chemicals but disapproved revised standards on 143 other chemicals.
State officials said the federal approach focused on numbers on paper while theirs focused on workable standards for keeping pollutants out of the water.
“What we had on the table would have been among the most protective in the country and we’re now being disapproved” on some of those chemicals, said Kelly Susewind, water quality policy expert for the ecology department.
The EPA did embrace the state’s approach that would allow dischargers a pathway to comply.
“It appears that EPA largely approved the implementation tools that we developed,” Bellon said. “These are pivotal to ensure that dischargers can stay in compliance while making real progress toward updated standards.”
The new standards will take effect 30 days after publication of the EPA rule in the Federal Register.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos.