August 3, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Clean water rules should reflect local data, input

 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy this week pooh-poohed the notion that a cleaner environment means killing jobs.

The outcome of a fish fight involving the agency, the states of Washington and Idaho, regional tribes and environmental groups may test that assertion. Why fish? Well, the amount consumed helps determine how clean water must be. The more fish people eat, the cleaner the water required.

The two states are drafting clean water rules that business and cities fear will be unattainable with current technology. The tribes want standards that assure members, who eat more fish than other populations, are not ingesting too much toxin like carcinogenic PCBs. And groups including Spokane Riverkeeper and Earthjustice have already notified EPA they will sue if the agency does not insist Washington adopt the standards adopted by Oregon, which has the nation’s strictest.

As fish stories go, this is the big one that will not go away.

Washington businesses, led by Boeing Co. and a pulp and paper industry that includes Inland Empire Paper Co., a Spokesman-Review affiliate, are very concerned EPA may overturn whatever rules the Department of Ecology drafts.

Washington’s standard, which dates to 1992, is clearly too low: the equivalent of one canape per day, or a little over one can of tuna fish per month. Oregon, which got the EPA seal of approval in 2011, allows one can per day.

But tuna is not salmon, is not walleye, is not shellfish. The amount of PCB in a fish that never enters Washington waters will likely be far less than that in a clam nestled in Hood Canal. And there are special cases like the Spokane River, which for a century was a sink for mining waste that continues to flow downstream.

Federal law requires EPA to defer to state rule-making, but the agency can step in if the standards fall short of those necessary to protect human health, as the agency’s regional administrator reminded DOE in a June 26 letter.

Last week, the House Republicans from Washington and Idaho wrote a letter to McCarthy seeking assurances the agency would not impose its own standards before the two states had been allowed the time to draft water quality rules based on science specific to the Northwest. EPA has already rejected one Idaho proposal.

For his part, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has put together a panel clearly intended to massage the politics of the issue.

How states go about implementation is as important as the standards. Oregon allows variances that may extend the timeline for compliance. Washington officials are discussing “tools” that would allow businesses more time to figure out how to discharge water sometimes cleaner than the water coming into their plant.

Environmentalists refer to these adjustments as “loopholes.”

DOE officials say they will have draft rules ready in early 2014 and a final set in place by the end of the year. It has taken too long to get to this point, but rushing to conclusions now will not be helpful. The goal must be something that works on land, as well as in the water.

Business cannot swim in a sea of uncertainty.

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