Water quality rules might be up to feds after Inslee drops rewrite

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday scrapped a major rewrite of the state’s clean water rules, opening the door for the federal government to impose its standard on the state.

Inslee, in a much- anticipated decision, directed the state Department of Ecology to not proceed with a stricter water quality standard based in part on how much fish people consume.

He explained in a press release that updating this standard was part of his two-prong approach to cleaning up the state’s water ways. The other prong — a bill aimed at keeping toxins from being released into rivers by regulating the source of the pollutants — failed to pass in the Legislature this year.

“The lack of legislative action is disappointing and forces us to reassess our approach,” Inslee said in a statement.

The draft rule was formally released in January after nearly three years of debate. The state faced a Monday deadline to formally adopt it and forward it to the Environmental Protection Agency. Inslee will now decide whether to retool the draft or step aside and let the EPA act. That decision is expected in a matter of weeks not months, according to a spokeswoman for the governor.

Meanwhile, the EPA is working on a proposed rule and could release it this fall, according to agency spokesman Mark MacIntyre. But work would stop if the state turns in something.

“In terms of who writes the standards, EPA continues to prefer and support Washington’s development of revised water quality standards that we can approve,” he said in an email.

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.

The draft rule increased the fish consumption rate to 175 grams a day. The higher the number means fewer toxic pollutants allowed in waters.

Another factor in the regulatory equation is the cancer risk rate. Inslee sought to apply different rates to different chemicals. No state does that and it was broadly opposed by environmentalists and tribal leaders who contended it would lead to less protection against some toxins. It also was unclear if it would pass muster with the EPA.

On Friday, critics of the rule said Inslee’s decision didn’t surprise them given it had been hitched to the failed policy bill.

“I am happy he did not finalize a bad rule,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “It didn’t look to us then that it was bound to succeed. And that is indeed what happened. It’s time for the EPA to act.”

Lorraine Loomis, chair of the NW Indian Fisheries Commission, lamented it will be months, maybe years, before additional protections are enacted.

“Delay and more delay is all we have seen in updating the standards that are supposed to protect all of us from toxins in the fish and shellfish we eat,” she said in a statement.

Inslee’s decision did disappoint the leader of the Northwest Pulp &Paper Association, which backed the draft rule. The group’s 13 members operate 17 mills in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“We think the governor and Ecology did a good job of threading the needle of protecting human health and setting standards that are attainable with the best available technology,” said Chris McCabe, executive director for the association. “That’s why we’re disappointed in seeing him not advance the proposal.”

McCabe worried the EPA could set a standard that businesses cannot meet. That could cause them to lose permits needed to discharge into waterways.

“That would be a really bad outcome,” he said, noting it could put some mills out of business.

The head of the Washington Environmental Council said the existing water quality rules “are weak and allow polluters to expose people to unacceptable risk.”

But Joan Crooks, the council’s chief executive officer, didn’t criticize Inslee for not acting.

“To our minds whether it’s the state or the EPA actually adopting the rule is secondary to getting a good and protective rule adopted as soon as possible,” she said. “What’s important is getting it done.”

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

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