Don’t hand over job to the EPA

The Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee now have some motivation. And a deadline.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has notified the state that it intends to move forward with a stringent clean-water rule for Washington if the state is unable to come up with an adequate rule of its own.

The state actually was on track to do that up until August, when the Legislature failed to move forward with legislation that would have kept toxic chemicals out of the water in the first place. Without the legislation to work in tandem with new water-quality standards, Inslee told the state Department of Ecology to halt work on the state’s own rule-making process and reassess its next steps.

But handing over this duty to the EPA allows the federal agency to set the standard and make the rules — rules that many in local government and industry say can’t be met affordably with existing technology for treatment of sewage, stormwater runoff and effluent from plants. Several industry representatives, particularly pulp and paper companies in the state, were supportive of Inslee’s efforts to have the state lead the process.

Even the EPA would rather the state do its own work here. “Our preference is to work with states and have them develop standards that are protective,” said Daniel Opalski, head of the EPA’s regional office of water in Seattle, in an Associated Press report on Thursday.

Federal law mandates that rivers and other bodies of water be clean enough that people can safely eat the fish from those waters. But the current state standard, called the fish-consumption rule, has assumed since 1992 that people ate only 6.5 grams of fish a day, which would allow a small serving of fish once a month. That’s a standard that’s low for most of us and far too low for members of the state’s Indian tribes and those who fish recreationally who eat far more fish and seafood.

Both the EPA and Gov. Inslee have proposed raising that standard to 175 grams a day, about six ounces of fish, which would require more stringent rules for removing toxic chemicals from water or keeping them out in the first place. Where the state and EPA differ is on an acceptable rate of cancer risk; Inslee had proposed lowering the acceptable cancer risk rate to 1 in 100,000, instead of 1 in 1 million. Even with the less-stringent rate, Inslee maintained that under the state’s rules, the lower risk rate would not create less protective standards than exist currently and that for 96 chemicals listed under the rule, 70 percent of them would have more protective standards.

Those supporting the state’s rule-making believe that leaving the job to the EPA won’t help anyone. Standards that are too stringent and too costly or technically impossible to be met won’t protect the environment or the public health any more than a lack of standards.

But the Legislature needs to accept the compromises offered in the bills the governor has sought to keep chemicals out of the water.

It will take the EPA about eight to 11 months to complete its rule-making work and allow time for comment from the public and from the state. And it has said it will hold off if it sees progress from the state.

The Legislature’s next scheduled session begins in about four months, leaving lawmakers adequate time to begin work and pass the legislation Inslee seeks. In the meantime, the state Department of Ecology also should pick up where it left off and continue its rule-making work.

The EPA’s clock is ticking. And the water isn’t getting any cleaner.

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