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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Washington should write own plan for clean water

If you think the cracked Wanapum Dam is under pressure, ask Gov. Jay Inslee about the forces pushing him for a decision on the future quality of Washington waters.

The state has already passed its own March deadline for upgrading 22-year-old standards based on unrealistic, low fish consumption levels. If Washington does not come up with something it can implement by Jan. 1, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will step in with its own. That would be bad.

The EPA would likely impose Oregon’s guidelines, which are by far the toughest in the nation. The federal agency blessed those standards almost three years ago. Implementation has moved ahead slowly, according to that state’s water quality officials.

Instead of copying Oregon, the governor and EPA should monitor our neighbor’s progress, and perhaps let a little more science figure into the rule-making. But Inslee has been squeezed by two opposing sides as he searches for a compromise.

On one side are Washington tribes, and conservation and commercial fishing interests that sued the EPA last fall for allegedly allowing Washington to dither on adoption of new water quality standards.

On the other are businesses and municipalities that claim proposed toxin levels are too small to measure, that remediation is beyond the capability of today’s technology and would be expensive to boot. Bellingham has estimated an increase in monthly sewer rates from $35 to $200. Spokane is spending millions to keep stormwater out of the river.

A Spokesman-Review affiliate, the Inland Empire Paper Co., is among the companies expressing concern, as is Boeing Co.

Two weeks ago, business, labor and local government groups sent a letter to Inslee asking him to set achievable standards that conform to EPA guidelines, provide certainty for dischargers and allow time for evaluation. The two biggest variables are the amount of fish that people eat each month and where to set an acceptable level of cancer risk: one additional death per 1 million people, or one per 100,000. The higher risk level has been acceptable to the EPA.

Washington’s existing regulations are based on the consumption of about one can of tuna fish per month. Oregon’s assume one can per day. Members of some Washington tribes eat more than that.

But a tuna is not a salmon, nor is salmon a walleye or any other fish that spends its life feeding in inland waters that differ in the existing degree of degradation. Effluent from some plants is cleaner than the water they take in. And point-source discharges account for a small percentage of total inflows of pollutants like PCBs.

The EPA Seattle office has taken a harder line on water standards than any other office in the United States. That mirrors the higher appreciation for their environment that has long been characteristic of Northwest residents. Put an aircraft plant or pulp mill at a competitive disadvantage compared with others in the Southeast or the East, however, and regional differences in environmental regulation become less tolerable.

Inslee inherited the unfinished business of setting water quality standards. He should get the job done, but not by taking someone else’s plan off the shelf.

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