Inslee’s water-quality plan: ‘creative,’ and complicated

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday unveiled what he deemed a “creative approach” to imposing tougher water quality standards and removing toxic chemicals from everyday products without hurting businesses or costing consumers.

At the center of his plan is a significant increase in a so-called fish-consumption rate that is used to set those anti-pollution standards. Critics complain that the change will require that water discharged into streams, rivers and Puget Sound is cleaner than existing technology can achieve.

As an olive branch, the governor proposed expanding the authority of the Department of Ecology to give cities and corporations years of extra time to upgrade sewage treatment plants and manufacturing facilities to comply.

And Inslee said he will ask lawmakers to approve a bill in 2015 that will let that agency ban use of products containing toxic chemicals if toxic-free alternatives exist.

“These tougher standards … will demand more of local government and industry. But I’m confident that these can be done without damage to our very vibrant Washington state economy,” he said at a news conference.

And he insisted it won’t crimp the pocketbooks of Washington residents.

“I believe we are going to have improvements in human health without significant increases in water bills or water treatment,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced.

“Show me how a low-income family isn’t going to get hammered on its sewer rate,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “We do want better standards. The discussion is around how much better can we get to. We don’t want to hurt poor people. We don’t want to cost people their job.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the state must 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, the state has operated under a rule that assumed the average amount of fish eaten each day is 6.5 grams, which is about a quarter of an ounce per day.

Under Inslee’s proposal, the presumed fish-consumption rate would rise to 175 grams a day — equivalent to about a 6-ounce fillet — as tribes and environmentalists have long demanded. A higher fish-consumption number correlates with lower the levels of toxic pollutants allowed in water.

But fish consumption by humans is only one part of the regulatory equation. Another is the cancer risk rate, and Inslee wants to apply different rates to different chemicals, something no other state does. That might not pass muster with the federal government.

Currently, state law assumes no more than one person out of 1 million will get cancer by eating fish caught in Washington waters.

Inslee wants to apply that rate to some of 96 chemicals regulated under the federal law and use a rate of one in 100,000 people for other chemicals — effectively cracking down on the discharge of some chemicals, but not all.

That didn’t sit well with Chris Wilke of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance of Seattle. The group is part of a coalition of conservation groups which sued the Environmental Protection Agency last year to force it to make Washington update its standards.

“We’re very concerned,” he said. “The point of this exercise was to strengthen the water quality standards, and for 30 percent of the chemicals the standards are unchanged.”

The state intends to issue draft rules, with the changes sought by Inslee, in the fall. But the formal six-month comment process will begin when the rule is published in early January.

Then the EPA must approve the rules. It’s not certain it will.

Last week, Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10, expressed reluctance to adjust the cancer rate. McLerran’s concern was detailed in a letter to state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, chairman of the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.

“I firmly believe that there is a way for Ecology to adopt a water quality standards package that retains the state’s current … level of protection from cancer-causing pollutants while giving industry more time to comply with more stringent water quality criteria,” McLerran wrote.

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest step in a process which began in the administration of former Gov. Gary Locke and has consumed Inslee’s attention from his first day in office.

With federal pressure growing, he and his advisors have tried to develop a policy that satisfies his allies in the tribal and environmental communities without alienating cities, special districts, small businesses, labor unions and corporations.

His proposal received a lukewarm reception from a Boeing official.

“We have repeatedly expressed our support for a standard that protects human health and the environment, while at the same time allowing for the growth of our business and the state’s economy as a whole,” said Tim Keating, senior vice president of government operations.

“However, we are concerned that the standards put forth by the governor today could result in little to no improvement to water quality and be a substantial detriment to Washington jobs and economic health. We will review the governor’s proposal in detail, including the updated fish consumption rate, risk level and legislative proposals. We anticipate commenting on all proposals through the public comment process.”

Reaction from others ranged from concerned to cautious optimism. Almost everyone tacked on a caveat that their views could change once the rule and legislative package are defined and debated.

“While I support the governor’s goal of improving water quality and protecting public health, I remain concerned about the effectiveness and financial impacts of these standards,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said.

“We look forward to reviewing the governor’s proposals and will continue to work closely with the state throughout this process to ensure the needs and concerns of local government, businesses, and ratepayers are addressed,” Stephanson said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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