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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Let science, pragmatism decide water standards

Business and labor agree on at least one issue: An unrealistic water quality standard won’t work for Washington.

Representatives of the Machinists union that represents Boeing Co. workers, and the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, held a news conference Monday to echo the worries business leaders and municipalities have expressed about a pending state decision on fish consumption levels and cancer risks.

The state has until the end of the year to devise a new water quality standard, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will take charge. The previous governor, Chris Gregoire, scuttled the process over concerns from businesses that new standards would cause industries and water departments to spend a lot of money pursuing an unattainable goal.

With the threat of a federal takeover of the process, Gov. Jay Inslee has taken on the issue, and a decision is expected sometime this summer.

The current water quality standard is tied to an assumption that Washingtonians eat on average 6.5 grams of fish per day, which works out to a small filet per month. That’s obviously too low, but the concern is that Washington will adopt the Oregon standard, which is nearly 30 times higher and largely unattainable with current technology. What it might produce instead is an exodus of businesses.

A smarter approach would be to allow the current science to guide the process, so that clean-water goals are achievable. Boeing and other businesses, including Spokesman-Review affiliate the Inland Empire Paper Co., are urging the governor to adopt a realistic standard that won’t drive jobs out of the state.

Inslee has another lever he can pull, and that is setting a different standard on the acceptable cancer rate for fish eaters: one additional death per 1 million people, or one per 100,000. The higher risk level, which the EPA has accepted in other instances, would lead to a more achievable standard.

The governor missed a spring deadline on a decision, which indicates he’s being buffeted by competing forces. Tribes and environmentalists want Oregon-like standards, which is what the EPA would probably impose, but the cost would be substantial. The city of Bellingham is estimating an increase in monthly sewer rates from $35 to $200.

Spokane is already spending millions to control PCBs in stormwater, and the county has installed a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant. But those efforts would fall short if the new standard is too high.

In response to Monday’s news conference, Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said, “The governor has been clear that this decision will be guided by a commitment to healthy people, clean water and a strong economy.”

A have-it-all solution sounds great, but a perfect number doesn’t exist. We’re not sure who the governor is listening to, but for the sake of a strong economy, we hope plenty of pragmatists are in the room.

Businesses and workers agree.