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Cathy McMorris Rodgers pushes House bill targeting EPA pollution standards in Washington

UPDATED: Sun., July 29, 2018, 9:21 a.m.

FILE - The Spokane River can be seen flowing through downtown Spokane in this June 2018 photo. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - The Spokane River can be seen flowing through downtown Spokane in this June 2018 photo. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers last week successfully convinced a majority of her colleagues in the House of Representatives that new federal standards for water pollution in Washington state were too strict.

The congresswoman sponsored, and defended in a speech on the House floor, an amendment to a spending bill that prohibited federal funds from being used to enforce new water quality standards approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental groups argue the rules are necessary to ensure public health and safety, particularly among tribal members, who eat large quantities of fish harvested from the state’s waterways. Among those standards is a limit on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at a level that was 25 times more strict than state regulators suggested.

“I want to be clear that this amendment is not about opposing clean water standards,” McMorris Rodgers said in the speech on the floor. “This is an amendment to support the work that Washington state, which has an impeccable environmental record, undertook.”

Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, panned the move as stifling future cleanup efforts while acknowledging the standard was aggressive.

“It’s going to be a lot of work to meet that. We have no argument that this is going to be tough work,” White said.

But that shouldn’t be cause for rejecting the rules completely, he said.

“It really is designed to protect wide swathes of the community,” White said. “We do not feel in this case that Rep. McMorris Rodgers is actually representing her entire district.”

Lisa Brown, a Democrat running for McMorris Rodgers’ Congressional seat, also opposed halting enforcement of the new EPA standard. She said local agencies, including the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, should be given time to work with federal regulators on a plan that made sense for the region to meet the goal.

“I think the solution is to work through that process, not to turn to the federal government and change the water quality standard,” Brown said.

In arguing for the proposal, McMorris Rodgers adopted many of the same arguments used by Mayor David Condon in his pitch to city lawmakers last year opposing the new regulations. Condon, a former aide to the congresswoman, traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the EPA last year to argue against the new rules, which he said moved the goalposts after the city purchased $200 million in green bonds to fund projects cleaning up the river. The level set by the EPA is also undetectable using modern testing methods, which would make any additional work to clean the river of the carcinogenic chemicals difficult to quantify, the city says.

“We need to have some sort of certainty for our ratepayers,” said Marlene Feist, strategic development director for the public works division, in an interview Friday. The city has locked in utility rate growth at 2.9 percent each year for the next two years, in part based on the assumption that the cleanup efforts underway would be enough to satisfy future environmental regulations.

McMorris Rodgers mentioned the city’s investment in her comments on the House floor.

“For example, Spokane, the largest city in my district, invested $340 million in the first-of-its-kind water treatment facility,” McMorris Rodgers said. “This facility was celebrated, and the Republican mayor was invited to the White House by President Obama to celebrate this investment as a model for cities to work with residents to meet new environmental standards.”

McMorris Rodgers’ request was not uncommon in Congress as an attempt to influence policy. Under what’s known as “the power of the purse,” lawmakers are able to deny funding to use for specific purposes, with popular examples being an amendment that denies federal funds from being used for abortion services. Most Democratic lawmakers cried foul, saying the decision would eradicate federal protections against pollution and stifle future clean-up efforts. Seven Republicans voted against the request, in addition to all but four Democratic lawmakers in the House.

Feist said the city had not pushed for the measure restricting funds to the EPA, as officials are already working with state regulators on a long-term plan to meet the more stringent goal. In the meantime, a discharge permit issued by the state’s Department of Ecology will continue to govern allowable pollution levels in the Spokane River.

“We’ve expressed our concern about making sure our solution is affordable for our citizens,” Feist said. “That’s what we’ve been pursuing.”

Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the Ecology Department, said the agency is developing a set of short-term orders for the city to continue its cleanup efforts, as well as other entities that discharge chemicals into the river. They’re also exploring long-term solutions, which include the intensive variance process that was suggested by Condon last year. That process, which allows the city to demonstrate progress toward reduction but not necessarily at the levels mandated by the EPA, would require federal sign-off as well.

“It’s a little bit more flexible than the traditional method,” Beeler said.

Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said the congresswoman was concerned that the acceptable levels were set at a measure that wasn’t attainable.

“The congresswoman believes regulations should be based on results, not just checking boxes,” Powell said.

Powell said the office had heard from more than just the City of Spokane on the issue. A letter also was sent by Greater Spokane Inc. and the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, among others, requesting the EPA reconsider its rules. The Northwest Pulp & Paper Association represents 10 pulp and paper mills in the region, including the Inland Empire Paper Co. That firm is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

The appropriations bill passed the House of Representatives with McMorris Rodgers’ proposal intact. It is currently under debate in the Senate.