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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Washington lawmakers need to craft water quality rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to no one’s surprise, has notified the state of Washington it is prepared to impose its own set of water quality rules absent any action by Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature.

Maybe the federal agency’s alert will finally convince state officials they can no longer put off revising standards adopted in 1992 that are clearly inadequate. Maybe.

With new rules come new costs.

Warnings from businesses that EPA action would make it difficult for some to continue Washington operations did not convince Inslee and legislators that state action was much preferable to federal. Among the businesses is Inland Empire Paper Co., an affiliate of The Spokesman-Review.

Cities and counties operating wastewater treatment plants are concerned as well.

Until late July, Inslee seemed ready to submit to the EPA a proposal developed by the Department of Ecology in conjunction with environmental, tribal and business groups. The standards developed over three years were a reasonable alternative to the stricter rules EPA had forced Oregon to adopt.

But Inslee backed off, saying the state proposal was intended to be two-pronged: one executive, one legislative. The DOE was ready, the lawmakers were not. They tabled new restrictions on non-point source polluters like farms.

The differences between the state and EPA boil down to fish.

In Washington, waters are considered clean if people eat no more that 6.5 grams fish per day – about one can of tuna per month. In a state where salmon are a mainstay of many diets, that assumes near starvation.

Inslee’s plan would have assumed a more logical 175 grams per day, about the size of a small fillet. The EPA will use the same amount.

The plans part ways over estimates of potential cancer risk. Inslee’s plan would have lowered the acceptable rate of cancer risk to one individual per 100,000. The EPA prefers the old level of one in 1 million. But the life cycle of a salmon that reaches maturity in the sea is not that of a walleye that spends its whole life in local waters, where it is continually bathed in the ambient pollution.

Water quality rules based on the amount of fish consumed should recognize the difference.

The state’s hypothetical cancer risk level is defensible under the Clean Water Act. Any cancer risk is hard to accept. The problem is no science yet exists to remove the infinitesimal amounts of PCBs and other pollutants now targeted.

The EPA will publish its clean water proposal within the next few weeks. With that, the clock on a period possibly as long as one year starts.

Politicians from both parties love to talk about the jobs they’ve created. Mostly, it’s nonsense. But letting the EPA do what they should be doing will uncreate many, and raise city and county utility rates as well.

Get the state rules written. Now.

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