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Sun., July 13, 2014

Editorial: Inslee’s water quality plan has promise, and a tough audience

Gov. Jay Inslee’s outline for state compliance with federal clean water standards is carefully calculated but also a work in progress that may not satisfy every interest group, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency least of all.

He and the Legislature deserve a chance to fill in the details before anyone passes final judgment. The first hurdle will be whether his preliminary plan offers enough to the EPA and various interest groups that they will let the process play out.

Washington has for years tested the patience of federal regulators, and tribal and environmental groups. Using fish consumption as a surrogate for more technical measures of water quality, the state has assumed residents eat the equivalent of one can of tuna per month, or 6.5 grams of fish per day. Clearly, not credible.

The governor’s proposal increases that measure to 175 grams, equal to about one 6-ounce serving a day. To help offset the cost and uncertainty compliance would impose on industry and municipalities, he lowers the allowable incidence of cancer from eating fish from one per million residents to one per 100,000.

But Inslee also would expand the scope of the health protections in proposals he will submit to the next Legislature so toxins are intercepted further up the supply chain, and from nonpoint sources.

He used the Inland Empire Paper Co., a Spokesman-Review affiliate, as an example, noting that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that cannot be filtered out of the Millwood plant’s wastewater enter the facility in yellow dye on recycled paper and containers like Cheerios boxes. The mill does not create PCBs.

How and where the state would identify and minimize upstream sources was not explained. Not asked was whether the dollars spent will best protect public health.

Inslee says his proposal will not hamper the economy, but Spokane alone is spending almost $300 million to capture contaminated stormwater and install new filtration systems at the sewage treatment plant. Dozens of communities and hundreds of businesses may recoil at such costs.

They will be able to seek relief from standards where technology does not now exist to eliminate, or even measure, the pollutants. How flexible the state might be will depend on conditions in each watershed.

Despite the change in allowable rate of cancer, there would be no “backsliding” on any toxin level, and substantial improvement overall, said Inslee, who added that Washington’s approach will be as effective as that taken by Oregon, which set stricter but less comprehensive standards.

But that call rests with the EPA, which has been sued by environmental groups that want the agency to impose Oregon’s standards on Washington.

Plus, there’s no guarantee the Legislature will work with the governor. The more comprehensive the plan, the greater the number of potential opponents. The debate will get hotter before the water gets cleaner.

Inslee wants a final plan by October. He owns this issue as he has owned no other in his administration, and he cannot let the debate get out of control.

Any breakdown, and the EPA steps in.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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