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Editorial: State should have say in setting water quality standards

Region 10 of the Environmental Protection Agency has a reputation for being the most persnickety, but this time the Seattle office might be a fish out of water.

On March 23, the agency sent a letter to the state Department of Ecology that essentially patted it on the head for its effort to upgrade its water quality standards and said, “Nice try. Now do it our way.” Of course, that’s paraphrasing more bureaucratic language, but the message is unmistakable. DOE can find the “best available science” by merely looking at an EPA draft report from 2014. This makes it sound as if the state’s role is perfunctory, but it isn’t.

As the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents wastewater treatment facilities, points out in a rejoinder to the EPA’s letter, the state has a clear role under the Clean Water Act in providing standards to deal with pollutants. It’s not a simple matter of copying past EPA practices. The state can and should meet with stakeholders and evaluate all data before reaching a “sound and balanced approach.”

The state did just that, and on Jan. 12, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the fish-consumption standards that reflected extensive input and pragmatic analysis. However, those standards didn’t match those previously released by Oregon, which are obviously favored by the EPA’s Seattle office.

This entire exercise comes down to two numbers: the average daily consumption of fish and the acceptable cancer risk. The previous consumption figure was 6.5 grams per day, or about a can of tuna per month. The new figure is a more realistic 175 grams a day, or a small piece of fish daily. However, Washington’s standard places the cancer risk at 1 in 100,000 chances. Oregon’s is 10 times higher.

Neither measure is particularly scientific. A lot of fish, such as canned tuna, comes from outside the region. Salmon and steelhead spend much of their lives in the ocean. Tracing a particular case of cancer to sources within Washington’s borders can’t be done.

The technology to reach the Oregon standard isn’t available. This will become clear during the next round of permitting as facilities try to reach the unattainable. Even if all “point source” facilities around the state, such as Boeing, wastewater plants and paper mills (including the Inland Empire Paper Co., a Spokesman-Review affiliate) were to pull out of rivers, toxins from other sources would continue to accumulate. Only 8 percent of PCBs can be traced to municipal wastewater plants in the state.

The concern now is that the state will back down and turn rule-making over to EPA. That would be a huge mistake tactically and economically.

The state would have stronger standing in court (and this looks to be headed for litigation regardless) if it stuck to its guns, and Washington’s industries wouldn’t be placed at a competitive disadvantage by unrealistic regulators.

 

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