Inslee backs off water-quality standards; his next move is unclear

With a key deadline approaching next week, Gov. Jay Inslee decided today that he will not move forward on new water-quality standards at this time.

The governor had hoped that the Legislature would approve his plan to track down and eliminate sources of nonpoint pollution, the kind that often gets into our waterways via stormwater. The Democratic-controlled House approved a revised proposal for chemical action plans (HB 1472), which Inslee said he could support. But, in the end, the Republican-controlled Senate failed to act on the bill.

Inslee

“Without this legislation, we lack the necessary broad approach to protecting our water in a way that advances human, environmental and economic health,” Inslee said in a news release issued today. “The lack of legislative action is disappointing and forces us to reassess our approach.”

Environmental advocates and tribal officials have called for stronger water-quality standards. Such standards, if approved, could require industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants to extensively upgrade their systems to remove more pollutants from their effluent.

Inslee and his supporters have argued that many of the pollutants of greatest concern don’t come from industrial and municipal discharges. Rather they come from “the small-but-steady release of chemicals in everyday products – brakes on vehicles, flame retardants in furniture, softeners in plastics, and metals in roofing materials,” according to the news release.

That’s why Inslee has pushed for the more comprehensive approach of dealing with the most troublesome chemicals, many of which are not even regulated under the federal Clean Water Act. (Inslee news release, July 9, 2014.)

Water-quality standards actually apply to streams and bodies of water. Comparing results from water samples with numerical standards tells us whether the waters are polluted or clean enough to protect public health. The numerical standards become a starting point for permitting any discharge through pipes, although stormwater pipes are generally not regulated.

I have followed this story now for quite some time. The latest related post two weeks ago in Water Ways covers the overall issue and includes links to previous stories.

It isn’t clear what the next move will be. The news release says the governor has “directed the state Department of Ecology to reconsider its draft clean water rules while he and the agency assess options on how best to assure protection for the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy.”

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing new standards for Washington state. If the state fails to act or fails to protect public health, as determined by the EPA, then the federal agency could impose its standards on the state. Proposed EPA standards, like state standards, must undergo a rigorous review, including public comments and probably public hearings.

Mark MacIntyre, EPA spokesman, issued a statement today in response to Inslee’s decision:

“We believe it’s important to have human health criteria in place that are protective for everybody in Washington, including high consumers of fish such as members of tribal communities. In terms of who writes the standards, EPA continues to prefer and support Washington’s development of revised water quality standards that we can approve. In the meantime, we are proceeding consistent with our commitment to work on a federal proposal for Washington, but will pause that work to review and act upon a state submittal, should we receive one.”

Washington Department of Ecology, which enforces the Clean Water Act for Washington state, was planning to approve the new standards by next Thursday. But under Inslee’s latest order that will not happen. If the rule is revised, it must undergo a new public review process.

More than 1,600 comments were received on the proposed standards, which are not likely to be approved in their current form. Most of the comments related to the higher cancer risk level chosen by Ecology and the governor. Cancer risk is one factor in calculating the water-quality standards, along with a fish-consumption rate, chemical-toxicity factor and others.

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