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Tuesday, August 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Editorial: Inslee missteps in ditching clean-water standard

Last summer, Gov. Jay Inslee released a pragmatic plan to update the state’s clean-water standards. Friday, he walked away from the solution that was three years in the making and involved extensive collaboration among municipal, industrial and environmental stakeholders.

He not only scrapped the state’s best shot at cleaning up waterways, he gave many people reason to utter “never again” to invitations from government to help solve a problem.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states need to update their standards to deal with pollutants. Since 1992, the state has operated under the assumption that average daily consumption of fish was 6.5 grams, or about one can of tuna per month. Admittedly, that is low, especially for Native Americans, so the state revised the level to 175 grams per day, about the size of a small fillet.

In addition, the state proposed a cancer risk level of 1 in 100,000, a rate that the Environmental Protection Agency has accepted in other instances. The fear was the state would match Oregon’s standard of 1 in a million, which sounds safer but is unachievable with current technology. It might as well be 1 in a billion.

This is a rare case in which industry leaders and unions are on the same side because they fear businesses will be forced to shut their doors or move their jobs to another state.

Region 10 of the EPA has hinted strongly it is more enamored with Oregon’s standard. In March, it sent a letter to the state Department of Ecology saying the state’s proposal, which was undergoing public comment, would probably not pass muster. It made no mention of the pending toxins bill the governor called for.

Inslee figured he could mollify the EPA if he could persuade the Legislature to pass a bill that would mitigate or eliminate some toxic chemicals before they washed into waterways. Such “non-point” pollution isn’t covered under the Clean Water Act, which means the onus is on direct dischargers, such as municipal wastewater plants, power companies, Boeing and pulp and paper manufacturers, including the Inland Empire Paper Co., an affiliate of The Spokesman-Review.

But the Legislature did not pass the toxins bill, and Inslee is using that as an excuse for the state to start over. The deadline is December, or the EPA, which is working on its own plan, will take charge.

At some point, preferably on the federal level, non-point source pollutants must be addressed because waterways are being polluted from chemicals that are ferried by stormwater runoff. In the meantime, it makes no sense to place unrealistic regulations on direct dischargers that have already spent significant sums on mitigation.

The plan Inslee initially touted explains why it was still worth pursuing. The Clean Water Act addresses 96 chemicals, and the state would’ve imposed stricter controls on 70 of them without backsliding on the remainder.

Realistic goals yield cleaner waterways. Moving the goalposts outside the arena solves nothing.

To respond to this editorial on-line, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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