SEATTLE – Gov. Jay Inslee directed officials Thursday to take another stab at updating clean-water rules, as the state races to finalize a plan before the federal government intervenes.
Inslee told the state Department of Ecology to come up with new standards on how clean Washington waters should be as he tries to balance the interests of tribes and environmental groups with those of businesses, cities and others.
The current rules set limits on pollutants that factories, wastewater treatment plants and other industrial facilities can discharge into state waters.
Inslee’s latest directive to officials includes some elements in line with what federal regulators propose. But he said his plan would be less costly, provide businesses more flexibility and recognize that some chemicals such as arsenic might be impossible to control at certain levels.
“This is the right option for economic growth and it’s the right option for the health of our kids,” Inslee said, adding that the state shouldn’t turn over its future to the federal government.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which must approve any plan, is currently writing rules for Washington state.
The state has between eight and 11 months to submit a plan to the EPA if it wants to write its own rules.
In July, Inslee scrapped clean-water rules just days before the measures would have been adopted. The governor had earlier tied those rules to legislation he sought that would reduce toxic pollution, saying the state needed to address the source of chemicals, not just what comes out of pipes.
Inslee tabled those proposed rules when the bills didn’t pass.
The announcement Thursday means the Department of Ecology is starting over with a new rule, using Inslee’s guidelines.
Ecology officials say they’ll file a draft rule by early next year and finalize a proposal within the EPA’s time frame.
The EPA has said it prefers the state do its own rule and that it would stop its process if Washington state submits a plan for review.
Tribes and environmental groups want tougher rules to reduce water pollution and protect the people who eat the most fish. Cities and businesses say the technology isn’t available to meet stricter rules and it could cost billions of dollars with little or no benefit to the environment.
Under federal law, rivers and other water bodies must be clean enough so people can safely eat fish from those waters. Since 1992, the state has assumed that people consume about 6.5 grams of fish a day, roughly one small fillet a month. A higher rate theoretically would mean tougher water-pollution rules.
On Thursday, Inslee outlined his guidelines for the new rules, including a fish consumption rate of 175 grams a day, the same figure he proposed last year and the EPA proposed last month. Some businesses including Boeing Co. have called that level unreasonable.
In a shift, he now wants to leave alone the cancer-risk rate, one of many factors in a complicated formula to determine how clean state waters should be, similar to what the EPA has proposed. Businesses want a less stringent rate.
But Inslee’s plan calls for leaving the standard for mercury and PCBs as is, while making standards for arsenic less stringent. This recognizes that dischargers can’t be held accountable for chemical levels beyond their control, Inslee said.
The governor also said he wants to give businesses and others more time and flexibility to meet the standards. Under his proposal, some facilities would have years if not decades to comply with the new rules.
Chris Wilke with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance said such long compliance schedules might render the rules moot.
Tribal groups praised some of the changes but worried the ultimate plan won’t be as protective as whatever is proposed by the EPA.
Brandon Houskeeper with the Association of Washington Business said the proposal will create a more uncertain regulatory future for businesses.
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