OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed new standards for cleaning up Washington’s waterways immediately drew criticism from some business and labor groups that they will be too expensive and from some environmentalists that they are too lax.
The plan, which is still in an early draft stage, was announced Wednesday. It would require stricter standards for 70 percent of the chemicals regulated by law and “no backsliding” on the others, Inslee said.
“If we do this, we will make our waters cleaner and safer and we will in fact reduce Washingtonians’ risk of having cancer,” he said.
The new standards will be packaged with legislation Inslee will seek next year to give more authority to the Department of Ecology and allow exceptions, known as variances, for some businesses that try to meet the new standards but can’t until technology improves or they find new materials that wouldn’t require using toxic chemicals.
Under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency, Washington has been trying for several years to upgrade its water quality standards that date to the 1970s.
The stricter limits proposed for toxic chemicals are set by a formula that includes a controversial “fish consumption standard,” an estimate of the amount of fish eaten in a day that factors in an acceptable rate of cancer in the overall population from exposure to a chemical.
Increasing the amount of fish eaten per day in the formula reduces the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in the water; accepting a higher cancer rate allows more chemicals to be put into the water.
Inslee’s proposal would adjust both sides of the equation.
The current formula sets fish daily consumption at 6.5 grams – about a fourth of an ounce – for an increased cancer rate of one case in 1 million people. The new rate Inslee proposed would be a daily consumption of 175 grams, or about 6 ounces, which is more than many people eat but far less than some groups, including Native Americans and some Asian immigrants, have in their diets. It allows for an increased risk of cancer, a rate of one new case in 100,000 people.
Critics worried about job losses seized on the higher consumption rate.
“I’m concerned that it may very well go too far,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said. “That’s 27 times the current rate.”
The Boeing Co. said it was worried the standards won’t improve water quality and “be a substantial detriment to Washington jobs and economic health.” The aerospace workers union was blunter, saying the new rates could jeopardize expansion plans in the Puget Sound.
“The governor is treading on dangerous ground and putting jobs at risk by pandering to outside groups whose interests are not shared by a majority of the state’s citizens,” Mark Johnson, the union’s aerospace coordinator, said in a news release.
Critics worried about environmental effects seized on the higher cancer rate.
“The EPA has already said you can’t increase the cancer rate,” said Rick Eichstaedt, of Spokane Riverkeeper. “I think it’s just a train wreck.”
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission also questioned the proposal to adjust the cancer rate.
“This is a political decision, not one based on sound science,” said Lorraine Loomis, commission vice chairwoman and fisheries manager for the Swinomish Tribe. “We cannot continue to be a pollution-based economy.”
The Washington Environmental Council, however, said the new fish consumption standards “could be a step in the right direction if realized” and if Inslee gets the other things he is proposing.
The governor said he listened to many different groups and came up with a package that is unlike any other state’s proposal, with more flexibility for the state and for businesses and communities that discharge water into the state’s streams. A complete draft of the plan won’t be available until Sept. 30, and the final proposal, which will be subject to public hearings and possible revisions, will be released at the end of December.
Some companies may have no control over a toxic chemical that is tied to part of their manufacturing process, Inslee said. He used the example of Inland Empire Paper Co. in Millwood, which has cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls in the water it discharges because that chemical is used in the yellow ink found in the paper it recycles. The solution is not to make the mill stop using recycled paper, but to get PCB-laced products out of the inks before they are put on the paper that is eventually recycled.
The paper mill is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. Its problem with PCBs in yellow inks, and how a few Cheerios boxes can raise the levels of that chemical to unacceptable levels, was part of discussions about pollution controls in the Legislature in recent years.
Doug Krapas, environmental manager for Inland Empire Paper, said he was excited to hear that the company’s example became part of Inslee’s discussion over water quality. While state efforts to reduce the use of PCBs and other chemicals in Washington-made products will help, what’s really needed are federal standards that ban their use nationwide, he said.
Right now, the federal government allows 50 parts per million of PCBs in manufactured products but has a much lower standard for the amount of PCBs in discharged water. The standard is equal to about one-third of a shot glass of PCBs in a billion gallons of water, Krapas said.
“It really doesn’t matter what (fish consumption) standard you pick, we can’t find a technology to get us down to that,” he said.
Rep. Shelly Short of Addy, the ranking Republican on the House Environmental Committee, said Inslee’s plan seems to have pieces and parts supported by a wide variety of groups. Although she wants more time to study the details, she said variances could be a sticking point for the federal government.
“I have not seen the EPA approve that before,” she said.
Eichstaedt wondered if the federal government could be ordered to step in before Inslee’s proposal can become a state regulation sometime in mid-2015. Earthjustice, which includes Spokane Riverkeeper and groups trying to reduce pollution in other waterways, sued the EPA last October to enforce new standards because the state has failed to do so. As a result of that case, a federal judge could order the EPA to set the standards by the end of this year, he said.