Identifying and eliminating sources of water pollution — a process involving “chemical action plans” — is a common-sense idea that never faced much opposition among legislators.
But the Legislature’s failure to act on the idea this year cut the legs out from under Gov. Jay Inslee’s anti-pollution plan, which included updated water-quality standards along with authority to study and ban harmful chemicals when alternatives are available.
Although chemical action plans make a lot of sense, the idea of coupling such planning to water-quality standards never quite gelled. Inslee argued that water-quality standards alone would not solve the pollution problem, because the standards address only a limited number of chemicals.
Furthermore, while the water-quality standards define an acceptable level of pollution for a body of water, they are limited in their regulatory control. The standards generally limit discharges only from industrial processes and sewage-treatment plants. In today’s world, stormwater delivers most of the pollution. Legal limits for stormwater discharges are nonexistent, except in rare cases where a toxic-cleanup plan has been established.
Environmentalists and tribal leaders were disappointed with the governor’s proposed water-quality standards. They believed he should be calling for much more stringent standards. While most people liked the idea of an ongoing program of chemical action planning, the governor received limited support for his legislation, House Bill 1472, among environmental and tribal communities.
We can’t forget that Inslee had publicly stated that if the Legislature failed to act on his full pollution-cleanup program, he would revisit the water-quality standards — presumably to make them stronger. So the governor kind of boxed himself in, and that’s where we stand today.
Republican legislators acknowledged the value of chemical action plans. Their concerns seemed to center around a distrust of the Department of Ecology, reflecting the views of the chemical industry and others who could find themselves under greater regulatory control.
The House stripped out a provision in the bill that would allow Ecology to ban chemicals without legislative approval. And the key committee in the Senate — the Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee — went further by limiting Ecology’s ability to study safer chemicals when a ban is under consideration.
The governor ultimately shifted his support away from the bill that emerged from the committee, as I described in a story I wrote in April for InvestigateWest. The bill never made it to the floor of the Senate, and it ultimately died, along with funding for a wider range of chemical action plans.
“Not only did we not get additional policy help, but we also didn’t get funding to implement the chemical action plans that were already done,” noted Rob Duff, the governor’s environmental policy adviser.
In all, about $3.8 million for toxic cleanup efforts was cancelled along with the legislation.
Plans have been developed to reduce toxic releases of five classes of persistent, bioaccumulative toxics, or PBTs, including polychlorinated biphenyls and mercury. But carrying through on cleanup ideas spelled out in those plans has been slow without targeted funding, and many toxic chemicals of concern, such as pharmaceuticals, are not considered PBTs.
“We aren’t going to throw up our hands,” Rob told me. “Under the PBT rule, we can do PBTs. We will continue to push toward source reduction, although we did not get additional authority from the Legislature.”
Educational programs and voluntary efforts by industry remain in play, pending a further try at legislation next session. Meanwhile, the governor will review the proposed water quality standards, according to Duff.
“We will put everything on the table and see what is the best path forward,” he said. “We will have the governor briefed and the necessary discussions over the next two weeks.”
The governor’s proposed water-quality standards have gone through public hearings and must be approved by Aug. 3, or else the process must start over.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is developing its own water-quality rule, which could impose stronger standards upon the state. Water-quality standards, which are a concentration of chemicals in the water, are based on a formula that accounts for how each chemical is assimilated through the food web and into the human body.
One factor involves how much contaminated fish a person is likely to eat. For years, states across the country have used the same fish-consumption rate of 6.5 grams a day, which is less than a quarter of an ounce. This number was long recognized as grossly underestimating the amount of fish that people eat, especially for Northwest residents and even more so for Native Americans who generally consume large quantities of fish.
If adopted, the new water-quality standards would raise the daily fish-consumption rate to 175 grams, or about 6 ounces. If all other factors stayed the same, the new fish consumption rate would raise the safety factor by 27 times. But, as the update moved along, several other factors were amended as well.
Inslee’s proposal was to raise the allowable risk of getting cancer after a lifetime of eating 175 grams of fish each day. The proposal was to increase the risk factor from one case of cancer in a million people to one case among 100,000 people. Inslee included a “no-backsliding” provision, so that the allowable concentration of chemicals would not be increased, no matter what the formula came up with.
Environmental advocates and tribal leaders cried foul over the cancer risk, and Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA, said he did not want the cancer risk to be increased for any state under his authority.
I covered these issues in a two-part series for the Kitsap Sun:
- Balancing the health risks, rewards of fish consumption
- Feds watch closely as state updates water-quality standards
The EPA expects to have its proposed standards for Washington state ready this fall, possibly November. EPA officials will review the state’s proposal when it is final, but that won’t stop the agency from completing its work, according to a written statement from the EPA regional office.
“We continue to work closely with Governor Inslee’s office and the Washington Department of Ecology to see water quality standards adopted and implemented that protect all residents of the state, as well as tribal members, who regularly and often consume fish as part of a healthy diet,” according to the statement.
Industry officials and sewage-treatment-plant operators have argued that the technology does not exist to meet some of the water-quality standards that would result from a cancer-risk rate of one in a million if the other factors stayed the same. PCBs is one example of a pollutant difficult to control. Besides, they argue, stormwater — not their facilities — is the primary source of PCBs in most cases. That’s why eliminating the original sources of PCBs is so important.
McLerran, who seems to support the more stringent standards, has mentioned that facilities can apply for variances, relaxed compliance schedules or other “implementation tools,” to get around strict numerical standards impossible to meet with today’s technology.
Environmental groups are calling on the governor to tighten up the proposed water-quality standards, rather than let them go into effect, given the Legislature’s failure to approve his overall plan.
“Gov. Inslee must do everything in his power to protect the most vulnerable — babies and children — from the devastating health effects of potent neurotoxins like mercury and carcinogens like PCBs,” stated Chris Wilke, executive director for Puget Soundkeeper.
“Ecology’s draft rule provides only the appearance of new protection while manipulating the math, leaving the actual water quality standards largely unchanged,” he said. “This is simply unacceptable. Without the veil of a new source control package from the Legislature, the Governor’s plan clearly has no clothes.”
Others maintain that the governor has been on the right track all along, and they warn that the state could face lawsuits if it imposes standards that are too strict.
Bruce Hope, a retired toxicologist, wrote a guest editorial for the Seattle Times that included these statements:
“Taking an achievable approach like the one in the Department of Ecology’s draft rule would reduce the risk that municipal wastewater treatment plants or industrial facilities are subject to standards that couldn’t be met…
“Developing the right approach to water-quality protection for Washington will thus require various interests continuing to work together to find common ground.
“Washington’s rules for protecting our waters need to be established by the people elected by Washington voters. The EPA’s Region 10 office should simply not be threatening to circumvent or supersede the standard-setting authority granted to the state under the Clean Water Act.”