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.
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
1. The formula used to establish the water-quality
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
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
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
3. The problem chemicals: PCBs, mercury and
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
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
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