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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Attorney General Bob Ferguson sues Trump administration over water quality standards in Spokane River

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks to students and faculty at Gonzaga Law School in this February 2019 photo. Last week, Ferguson’s office filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration alleging violations of federal laws regulating water pollution in the state’s waterways. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is once again suing the Trump administration, this time alleging violations of a federal law regulating water pollution in a decision last month to relax standards for the state’s waterways.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, challenges the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to revert to state-approved standards for several pollutants in public rivers and streams, including polycholorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the Spokane River. The lawsuit alleges that the EPA violated provisions in federal law that require regulators to make the case that revisions are needed to protect human health.

“Trump’s EPA cannot change important water quality protections at the whim of industry interests,” Ferguson said in a statement last week announcing the lawsuit. “It’s not only disruptive to Washington’s environmental efforts over the past two years, it’s a clear violation of the Clean Water Act.”

The Washington Department of Ecology criticized the EPA decision last month, saying it had already spent years working with those who discharge into public waterways to meet more stringent standards that were based on estimates of fish consumption by local native tribes. A coalition of local business interests, including Greater Spokane Inc. and the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association, had lobbied the EPA to reconsider the standards approved in late 2016, arguing that compliance with a limit on PCBs that is immeasurable with current technology would cost too much and went beyond what was required for public health and safety.

Inland Empire Paper Co. is a member of the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association. It is a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.

The Washington Farm Bureau also applauded the EPA decision, arguing the more stringent standards would harm the state’s growers and ranchers trying to meet guidelines for runoff from their lands.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the order from the EPA, which the agency argued returned regulatory authority over water pollution back to state and local officials. But the Ecology Department supports the lawsuit, with Director Maia Bellon saying the EPA order upended previous work on compliance plans with local governments and private interests.

Ferguson’s office says it has successfully sued the Trump administration 22 times on issues including immigration and environmental policy. Twelve of those lawsuits may not be appealed. In an interview earlier this year, Ferguson defended his office’s decisions to legally challenge the Trump White House.

“The way I look at my job, with the administration, is not to swing at every pitch,” Ferguson said in February. “The way I look at my job, is to swing at pitches when Washingtonians are harmed and we have good legal arguments.”

The lawsuit has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones, a George W. Bush appointee. No hearing date has been scheduled, according to court records.