Gov. Inslee yields on cancer risk, pushes new water-quality plan

Gov. Jay Inslee has given in to critics who argued that the state’s updated water-quality standards should not increase the cancer-risk rate for people who eat a lot of fish.

But it appears that a new state proposal, to be made public by early next year, is not likely to satisfy tribal and environmental groups striving for the most stringent water-quality standards, such as those in effect in Oregon.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed standards that could be imposed on Washington state, but the agency has committed to holding off if the state comes up with acceptable standards.

In a statement issued today, the governor said he has been pressed to develop a state rule and not let the EPA have the final say:

“My goal all along has been to update Washington’s clean water rule with one that assures the health of Washington’s people, fish and economy. The number one thing I hear over and over when talking with people is how critical it is that we maintain control over creation of this rule to ensure that we’re protecting human health while providing businesses and local governments sensible tools to comply with the stricter standards.”

Efforts to update the state’s water-quality standards have been the focus of a confusing debate for the past several years. The goal of protecting human health has sometimes been forgotten, as I tried to point out in a two-part series published in March in the Kitsap Sun.

Anticipating where this issue is headed, I’m watching three key issues:

1. The formula used to establish the water-quality criteria

Numerical concentrations are established in a mathematical formula applied to about 100 priority pollutants. The first debate was over the fish-consumption rate, or the daily amount of fish that a person might eat. It was generally agreed that the current rate of 6 grams (0.21 ounce) a day was ridiculously low and should be raised to 175 grams (6 ounces) a day.

To balance the effect of that 29-fold increase, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer risk rate from 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000 — a rate approved by the EPA in some states and allowed by EPA guidance. Inslee also included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that none of the current standards would be relaxed (except for arsenic). The EPA has made it clear that 1 in 100,000 was not acceptable, so Inslee consented to go back to the current rate of 1 in a million.

It is important to understand that the formula includes other factors that affect the allowable chemical concentrations. One is the “relative source contribution,” for non-cancer-causing chemicals. The RSC considers how much chemical exposure a person gets from water and fish consumption versus other exposure pathways, such as through the lungs and skin. EPA’s RSC is generally five times lower than the state’s proposal, which means the state would allow a chemical concentration five times higher than EPA. The state intends to stick to its previously proposed RSC, according to Ecology’s Kelly Susewind, a water policy adviser.

The state also uses a bioconcentration factor, which considers the uptake of a chemical from water, whereas EPA uses a bioaccumulation factor, which considers the uptake from all sources. The EPA method produces a more stringent standard.

The state and EPA now seem consistent on most other factors, including body weight, drinking water consumption and toxicity factors, but those two inconsistent factors will make EPA’s proposed standards more stringent than the state’s.

2. Implementation tools

The water quality standards are used as a starting point for issuing permits for discharges from point sources of pollution, such as industrial and sewage-treatment outfalls. Special consideration can be given when proven technology is not available to meet the approved standards.

When the standards cannot be met with reasonable approaches, the state may approve a variance to either reduce the requirements or allow a long time for compliance. A “compliance schedule” is another tool that allows a more limited time for a facility to meet the standards.

Another implementation tool that could be approved is the intake credit. This could be used when a facility draws water from a specific water body and returns its wastewater to the same location. The idea is that a discharger should not be required to make the wastewater cleaner than the waters it is going back into.

3. The problem chemicals: PCBs, mercury and arsenic

The state proposes keeping the current water-quality standards for polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury, which come from many sources other that discharges from pipes. Mercury, for example, can be released into the air by coal-fired power plants, travel across the ocean and become deposited into local waterways. PCBs, which are widespread through the food web, can come from unregulated stormwater and sediments deposited years ago.

Arsenic, on the other hand, can occur naturally in levels higher than what would be allowed under water-quality standards calculated in the normal way. The state proposes to set the water-quality standard for arsenic at the level allowed for drinking water.

For these problem chemicals, Inslee said dischargers cannot reasonably be held accountable for chemical levels beyond their control.

Cleaning up the rest

Going into this year’s legislative session, Inslee proposed a bill to go after the worst nonpoint pollution in concert with newly proposed cleanup standards. The legislation included a process and funding for conducting chemical investigations and developing chemical action plans, but it failed to pass the Legislature.

Since then, the EPA released its own rule with the proviso that it would consider another state proposal if one is submitted before EPA completes its review process.

Inslee said he is still concerned that the new clean water standards address only limited pollutants, and in many cases not even the right ones.

“The proposed rule only regulates 96 chemicals, yet there are hundreds of toxics that come from everyday products,” he said. “The toxics package we sent to the Legislature would have helped us take a hard run at those to make a much more meaningful difference in making our water safer and healthier.”

Tribal and environmental concerns

Tribal and environmental officials were skeptical of the governor’s latest approach.

“Tribes were pleased to hear today that Gov. Inslee now supports maintaining the current state cancer risk rate to protect us all from toxins in our state’s waters,” said Lorraine Loomis, chairwoman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

Tribes remain concerned, however, that Inslee’s proposed standards will not be as protective as the EPA’s.

“We believe that the EPA’s proposed standards are based on the best available science and offer strong protection in a timely manner,” Loomis said. “We expect state standards to be measured against the bar that EPA has set.”

Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, said his concern is that Ecology’s approach won’t result in any meaningful efforts to clean up the state’s waterways.

“Ecology must not return to its earlier failed approach of giving the appearance of protection while riddling the rule with loopholes,” Wilke said in a preopared statement. “Governor Inslee must do everything possible to protect the most vulnerable from the devastating effects of neurotoxins such as mercury and other harmful chemicals.”

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