Federal regulators will lessen their standards for potential cancer-causing chemicals in Washington’s waterways, including the Spokane River, following concerns by industries that the limits were at a level too microscopic to detect.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced the decision to revert back to originally proposed standards for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in a letter to the state Department of Ecology on Friday. In 2016, federal authorities established a standard of 7 parts per quadrillion as acceptable for the chemical that was commonly found in industrial and commercial products until the 1960s, and continues to leech into the state’s waterways.
“Upon reexamination, the EPA concludes that (the previous standards) are protective of its designated uses and based on sound science,” wrote Chris Hlidack, the EPA’s regional administrator, in the letter.
The EPA’s decision Friday returns the standard to one endorsed by state regulators three years ago, but one that conservation groups and native tribes say is too lenient to protect the health of those who eat large quantities of fish exposed to the chemical.
“The science on this issue has not changed; there is absolutely no logical reason to change the law,” said Jerry White Jr., the Spokane Riverkeeper, in a statement. “This decision dramatically increases the amount of toxics allowed in Washington waters, including the Spokane River. It places serious, disproportionate, and preventable health risks on those who eat fish from our river, especially tribal communities in our Basin.”
The change was immediately requested by industry groups in and around Spokane that would have had to accelerate their cleanup processes to meet the new standard. That included Greater Spokane Inc. and the Northwest Pulp & Paper Association. One of the members of that trade group is Inland Empire Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Cowles Co., which also publishes The Spokesman-Review.
Local lawmakers had also raised concerns about the standard promulgated by the EPA. Last year, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers added a provision to a federal government spending bill that would have prevented the EPA from enforcing the standard. Mayor David Condon said the city would be working toward what’s known as a “variance” to the new rule, arguing that residents were footing the bill for a massive overhaul of the Spokane’s water treatment plant through utility payments based on the state standard.
“The City of Spokane remains committed to protecting water quality in the Spokane River, and our citizens are making a generational investment in river health,” Condon said in a statement Friday. “The City was not informed or consulted about the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision today to approve the Water Quality Standards proposed by the Washington state Department of Ecology back in 2016.”
The Department of Ecology said through a spokeswoman that it received the letter Friday and was working with the offices of Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson on next steps. Both have been critical and lodged legal challenges against environmental moves made in the Donald Trump administration.
Rick Eichstaedt, the former director of the Center for Justice and the director of Gonzaga Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, said EPA’s decision will almost certainly be challenged legally.
“This is going to be a really contentious rulemaking process,” Eichstaedt said. “It’s going to result in litigation.”
The letter indicates the federal standards will remain in place until “a notice and comment process through a separate notice of proposed rulemaking to withdraw” the federal rules takes place. The EPA quickly removed a document posted online last month indicating such talks would be moving forward, saying they were published in error.
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