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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

State announces new clean water rules

OLYMPIA – One way of measuring the cleanliness of Washington rivers and bays would be more than 25 times stricter under a new rule announced Monday by a state agency.

After a long process of public hearings and testimony, the Department Ecology said it is sending new clean water standards to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although Ecology Director Maia Bellon described the new standards as “protective and achievable” they are likely to meet resistance from environmental groups, businesses and the federal government.

One of the most heavily debated aspects of the new rules is the “fish consumption rate,” an amount that measures the increase in the rate of cancer based on the amount of fish and other aquatic food sources the state believes the average resident eats.

The current standard is 6.5 grams of fish per day, or about the size of a small cracker, and chemicals can’t be in a concentration that would raise a person’s risk of cancer by no more than one-in-a-million for consuming that amount of fish. That rate that has been criticized for not taking into account the diet of many Native American tribes who get a high percentage of the food from rivers, streams and the ocean.

The new rate is 175 grams of fish per day, with the same increased cancer risk of 1-in-a-million. The department also set testing standards for 97 dangerous chemicals, up from the current 88 chemicals.

But it is not changing the standards for PCB or mercury, and using the federal drinking water standard for arsenic, which is lower than the federal clean water standard.

Rick Eichstaedt, of Spokane Riverkeeper, said those are likely to be problems for the EPA when the federal agency reviews the new state rules. The EPA has proposed more stringent limits on PCBs and mercury, and last month told Idaho it couldn’t use the less stringent drinking water standards for arsenic.

The fish consumption standard is “a step in the right direction compared to the last proposal,” which was one-tenth as stringent because it allowed an increase in cancer of one case in 100,000, Eichstaedt said. But the Spokane River already has a PCB problem, and if the standards stay the same, the community will still not meet the stricter downstream standards at the Spokane Indian Reservation set by the tribe, he said.

Brandon Housekeeper, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business, said industry groups supported an earlier version of the rules proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee, but those were scrapped when lawmakers couldn’t agree on toxic reduction legislation.

“We still have a lot of concerns about how we’re going to comply,” he said.

The latest version of the rules are more onerous and more expensive, Housekeeper said, but likely will not satisfy EPA.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he hadn’t seen the final rules but has questions based on discussions over the last several years. “I’m really concerned, is it technologically feasible and how are we going to pay for it?” he said.

But under the state’s current laws, the Legislature wouldn’t have the authority to change the rules.

Eichstaedt said a coalition of groups and government agencies are working together to find ways to meet standards. Even the current standards are difficult to meet, but that doesn’t mean they should stop trying, he said.

If the EPA doesn’t agree with the new state rules, Eichstaedt and Housekeeper said the federal agency could impose its own set of water quality standards or order the state to make changes in certain categories.

“This is an incremental step in a long process. We probably have several more steps to take,” Housekeeper said.

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