Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

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.

Inslee to decide whether to revise water-pollution standards for the state

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.

Capitol

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.

Inslee

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.

Rule note

“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:

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.”

Water cleanup program will forego grants, reorganize for efficiency

After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County, pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize their approach to local waterways.

I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating the sources. A 2012 “Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014 “guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s pollution investigators — are now being used by local health departments throughout the state.

Category 1 = meets water-quality standard; Cat. 2 =
Category 1 = meets water-quality standard;
Cat. 2 = reasons for concern; Cat. 3 = lacking data;
Cat. 4A = TMDL plan; Cat. 4B = local plan;
Cat. 5 = “impaired.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall — especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC projects.

Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects — including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and restoring natural drainage.

The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams, along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully reported improvements in various streams while providing early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was started in 1996.

None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford, supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he said.

“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he noted.

The problem with grants is that they require specific performance measures, which must be carefully documented and reported quarterly and in final reports.

“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean ourselves off the grants.”

Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if the need returns.

To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made now and will be fully implemented in the fall.

Kitsap's watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.
Kitsap’s watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.

“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their home watershed.”

Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area. Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.

Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.

“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap. They are improving as they go.”

Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s “Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as “impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets, between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total maximum daily loads.

Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful, Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s TMDL approach).

“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means they are under a plan.”

Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal, and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this summer.

Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The health district’s program does not extend to cities, although Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring and cleanup.

Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at least two years.

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Call it ‘nonpoint’ or ‘stormwater;’ this problem is serious

As far as I know, nobody has come up with a good name for the type of pollution that gets picked up by rainwater that flows across the ground, carrying contaminants into ditches, streams and eventually large waterways, such as Puget Sound.

Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. Kitsap Sun photo
Cleaning out storm drains is the last line of defense before pollution from the roads gets into public waterways. // Kitsap Sun photo

“Stormwater pollution” is a term I have frequently used. But Sheida Sahandy, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, made a good point when I interviewed her last summer about the perils of stormwater.

“I don’t really like calling it ‘stormwater,’” Sheida told me. “It doesn’t have much to do with storms. It has to do with people. We’re talking about our dirt, our detritus, our filth. Everyone has it, and we all dump it into the sound to one degree or another.”

Stormwater is relatively pure when it falls from the sky as rain. It only gets dirty because the runoff picks up dirt, toxic chemicals, bacteria and other wastes, mostly left behind by people.

“Stormwater has gotten a bad wrap,” Sheida said. “It’s really what we’ve done to the poor thing that makes it evil.”

To read more about this discussion, check out my series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” and the story “Stormwater solutions key in fight for Puget Sound.”

Officially, the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology tend to call it “nonpoint source pollution.” It’s a term that tells us what this kind of pollution is not. Specifically, it is not pollution coming from a point source, such as a pipe. But “nonpoint” does not describe what it really is.

Technically, nonpoint pollution is more than stormwater. It includes waterborne sources such as marinas and atmospheric deposition from air pollution. Taken together, this form of pollution remains the most serious threat facing those who would clean up and protect Puget Sound.

We need a new term like “mess-left-behind pollution,” because it generally results from someone leaving some kind of contamination on the ground — such as animal waste or leaking motor oil — or failing to anticipate future problems — such as those caused by toxic flame retardants in furniture or mercury from a multitude of coal-fired power plants.

A new plan by Ecology to deal with this type of pollution is now under review. It is called “Washington’s Water Quality Management Plan to Control Nonpoint Sources of Pollution” (PDF 10.6 mb).

The general categories described in the plan are:

  • Agriculture, including livestock wastes; fertilizers and pesticides; and erosion from grazing practices and over-cultivation of fields.
  • Atmospheric deposition, including emissions from automobile, industrial and agricultural sources and backyard burning of trash.
  • Forest practices, including turbidity from erosion caused by loss of vegetation and road-building, as well as pesticides and fertilizers from forest applications.
  • Habitat alteration/hydromodification, including increased temperature from loss of vegetation or water impoundment; turbidity from erosion caused by shoreline alteration; and increased bacteria and chemical concentrations from loss of streamside vegetation.
  • Recreation, including sewage, paint and solvents from boats.
  • Urban/suburban areas, including bacteria from failing septic systems, pet wastes and urban wildlife; erosion from construction and landscaping; lawn chemicals; road runoff; chemical spills; and increased stream temperature from loss of vegetation.

The plan lists a variety of objectives and strategies for reducing the impacts of nonpoint pollution. Among them are these ideas:

  • Complete 265 watershed cleanup plans by 2020, focusing on at least eight priority watersheds each year.
  • Respond to all complaints about water quality by confirming or resolving problems.
  • Provide grants and loans for projects designed to bring a waterway into compliance with state and federal water-quality standards.
  • Support local pollution identification and correction programs to track down pollution sources and eliminate the problems. (Kitsap County was identified as a model program.)
  • Support water-quality trading programs that allow water cleanup efforts in lieu of meeting increased requirements for industrial and sewage discharges.
  • Increase education efforts to help people understand how to reduce nonpoint pollution.
  • Coordinate with organized groups and government agencies, including tribes.
  • Continue existing monitoring programs and increase monitoring to measure the effectiveness of water-quality-improvement projects.
  • Develop a statewide tracking program for cleanup efforts with an annual goal of reducing nitrogen by 40,000 pounds, phosphorus by 14,000 pounds and sediment by 8,000 pounds.

Public comments will be taken on the plan until June 5. Three remaining public meetings are scheduled before then. For information, check out Ecology’s webpage, “Washington State’s Plan to Control Nonpoint Pollution.”

Reducing toxics in fish involves politics, maybe more than science

When it comes to eliminating toxic pollution from our waterways and the foods we eat, almost everyone agrees that the best idea is to track down the chemicals, find out how they are getting into the environment and then make decisions about how to handle the situation.

Fish

It’s all common sense until politics comes into play.

If the chemicals are really hazardous and if substitutes for the chemicals are available, then a ban on their use may be the right decision. That has happened with pesticides, such as DDT, and solvents, such as PCBs.

In the case of PCBs, banning these chemicals is not enough, because they were used so widely and continue to hang around, both in old products still in use and in the open environment. Waiting for them to break down and disappear is not a practical approach.

The solution involves conducting chemical detective work to find out how the chemicals are traveling through the environment and ultimately getting into people and animals. Some toxic sinks for PCBs, such as old electrical equipment, can be identified and destroyed before the chemicals begin leaking out. Others, such as contaminated sediments at the bottom of Puget Sound, pose a more difficult problem.

Even when chemicals are banned, the ban is enforced with limits on concentration, below which the chemical can still be used. That’s the case with very low levels of PCBs found in some types of inks and dyes. So when paper is recycled, the PCBs may escape into the environment. We know that PCBs, which mimic hormones and can wreak havoc on the body, can build up in fish, killer whales and humans over time. The question for regulators becomes which sources are the most important to eliminate.

In Washington state, chemical detectives tackle the toxic compounds one at a time, compiling their findings into a chemical action plan. The chemical action plan for PCBs was completed earlier this year. Others have been done for mercury, lead, toxic flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

I bring all this up because Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology would like to increase the pace of studying potentially toxic chemicals, including finding out what harm they are doing, how they get into the food web and whether alternative chemicals are available.

New chemicals are finding their way into household products, cosmetics and other materials all the time, and studies continue to raise concerns about old chemicals that we have lived with for a long time. Some chemicals are the subject of vigorous and ongoing scientific debate.

The Washington Legislature has been asked by the governor to fund Ecology for up to two chemical action plans per year. The other question before lawmakers is how much authority to give Ecology for banning chemicals and considering whether alternatives are available. These are issues I covered in a story last week for InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism group. The story was carried by the Kitsap Sun on Sunday.

This issue of chemical action plans has gotten tangled up with the need for Washington state to update its water-quality standards, required under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards, now under review by Ecology, determine which water bodies in the state are considered clean of toxic substances and which should be labeled “impaired.”

The standards also are used to develop discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and occasionally stormwater outfalls. The general implication is that if a discharge from a pipe meets the state’s water quality standards, then it won’t pollute the receiving waters.

Years ago, when most water pollution came from industrial and sewage discharges, the program was successful in making the waters substantially cleaner. More than 100 chemicals remain on the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority pollutants list. All these chemicals are still tested by dischargers, although the vast majority are not detectible in fish caught in Puget Sound. Meanwhile, other chemicals of growing concern are not on the list — so they are not subject to testing, let alone regulatory control.

We now know from various studies that most of the toxic pollution entering Puget Sound comes from stormwater, not discharges from pipes, while other toxics are still sitting on the bottom of Puget Sound. It will take a lot of money and a lot of time to address these sources. The effort is moving in that direction, but funding continues to be debated, including the current session of the Legislature.

Efforts to update the antiquated rules in the Clean Water Act to provide for a more rationale approach have been started and stopped many times. I suspect that environmental advocates fear that with the anti-government mood in Congress the result could be even less-effective controls on pollution — so we live with regulations structured more than 30 years ago.

Gov. Inslee tried to shift the focus of toxic cleanup from the federal approach to the state’s new approach with chemical action plans. While newly proposed water-quality standards are more stringent for 70 percent of the chemicals (PDF 392 kb) on EPA’s list, they would have been 10 times more stringent if his proposal had not changed a key factor in the equation that determines the standards. Going up against environmental advocates, Inslee proposed increasing the cancer-risk rate in the equation from one in a million to one in 100,000.

In other words, if a body of water barely meets the pollution standard for a given chemical, 10 in a million people — rather than 1 in a million — could develop cancer from eating a maximum assumed level of fish from the water. This is the increased lifetime risk from that one chemical.

Everyone agrees that we should do what we can to reduce our risk of getting cancer, and cutting down toxics in fish is an important step. In a two-part series I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in March, I began by describing the risks and benefits of eating fish from Puget Sound and other areas, then I proceeded to talk about the alternative approaches to cleaning up the water.

Increasing the excess cancer risk from one in a million to 10 in a million is worth discussing. That change is not insignificant. But getting to some kind of bottom line is not easy. Keep in mind that the overall risk of getting cancer from all causes is about 433,000 in a million (43.3 percent) for men and 228,000 in a million (22.8 percent) for women, according to the American Cancer Society.

Environmental and tribal officials would like the risk of eating fish to be as low as possible. Many are angered by 15 years of delay by state officials in updating the standards, which were based on poor estimates of how much fish people eat. The newly proposed change assumes a daily consumption of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) of fish, compared to the previous 6.5 grams (about a quarter of an ounce.) Tribal officials say many people in their communities eat more than 175 grams.

On the other hand, businesses operating industrial plants and local governments running sewage-treatment plants are worried about what it will take to comply with new standards if the cancer risk remains at 1 in a million. Increased costs for their treatment systems, ultimately passed along to their customers, are a primary concern.

So far, the regional office of the EPA has made it clear that it does not like the idea of increasing the cancer-risk rate from the level currently used by Washington state and most other states. See the agency’s comments dated March 23 (PDF 6.4 mb). The EPA seems to be taking the approach that if the technology does not exist or is too expensive to reduce chemical concentrations to levels demanded by the new standards, then dischargers should be given a variance or allowed additional time to come into compliance.

It isn’t clear how these issues will be resolved, and there are many technical and legal aspects to be considered. Washington state is on a course to complete its update to the standards by August, when the EPA could release its own plan for bringing the state into compliance.

Amusing Monday: Views of nature and man from EPA

If you enjoy environmental photography, the Environmental Protection Agency is an unusual source of photographs from sea to shining sea. They include contributions from amateurs, professionals and EPA staffers, along with one series of photographs connecting history to the modern world.

An EPA diver maps eelgrass beds in Eagle Harbor to assess the success of the Wyckoff cleanup project. EPA photo, 2007
An EPA diver maps eelgrass beds in Eagle Harbor to assess the success of the Wyckoff cleanup project. / EPA photo, 2007

One can easily get lost, as I sometimes do, following the photo links from the EPA’s photo blog to its Flickr galleries to its Facebook page, with side trips to photo exhibits in the National Archives.

Let me provide a guided tour, if you will. A good place to start is EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project — especially if you like to share your pictures of nature with others. This is a blog that features interesting and often amusing pictures from throughout the United States and even from other countries.

You may choose to subscribe to EPA’s photo blog in the right column to receive notice of new posts. (Don’t forget that you can subscribe to this “Water Ways” blog as well.)

For the past two years, EPA has been encouraging people to submit photos that document the environment and way of life in the U.S. The Documerica Photo Project updates a similar project launched in the early years of the EPA in the 1970s. It is scheduled to continue through the end of this year.

David Falconer photo of Spokane River and Spokane Falls, May 1973. EPA photo
David Falconer photo of Spokane River and Spokane Falls, May 1973. (Click to enlarge.)
EPA photo

A specific feature of the overall project is “Documerica Then and Now” (Flickr page), in which photographers try to match the exact locations from the original series and place them alongside recent photographs. I’d like to see more contributions from Northwest photographers. Check out one set of “Then” photographs for Seattle and another set for Olympia and Tacoma, or go to the full list of location challenges.

Here’s a match: John Day Dam on the Columbia River, 1973 and 2012, by David Falconer and Scott Butner, respectively. Notice the wind turbines in the modern photo.

David Falconer (Flickr page) documented the fuel shortage and water pollution in the Northwest during the early 1970s. It would be fun to match his photographs, including one of Spokane Falls and another of the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River.

Photographer David Falconer captures visitors swimming in the pool at the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge on the Columbia River, May 1973. EPA photo
Photographer David Falconer captures visitors swimming in the pool at the Thunderbird Motel alongside the I-5 Bridge on the Columbia River, May 1973. (Click to enlarge.)
EPA photo

It’s a quick jump to the National Archives photostream, where the original Documerica photographs are displayed.

To view recent submittals to the Documerica Project and other EPA galleries, you have the choice of using either EPA’s Facebook photo page or its Flickr page. Both options provide a wide range of EPA photo albums.

Although not connected with the Documerica project, you may wish to wander into the Puget Sound gallery, which features staff photos from our familiar waterway, which EPA calls “a place of rare biological diversity and high economic value.” That’s where I found the picture of the EPA diver assessing conditions at the bottom of Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor.

Time to reflect on drinking water quality, history

This week is National Drinking Water Week, a chance to recognize the high quality of water we drink in the United States and how we built and maintain the amazing storage and piping networks.

The video at right shows some interesting pictures of water systems in Kitsap County. It takes a bit of reading to get through it, but the video reminds us that the area — and most areas — started out with many surface-water systems and now relies mostly on groundwater.

The history of Bremerton’s water system, which still includes a highly protected surface-water supply on the Union River, is described briefly on the city’s website.

Drinking Water Week is a chance to review the water quality of our own drinking water, at least for those of us on public water systems. The EPA requires most systems to provide information to their customers once a year. Accessing this information at other times is not always easy, although most of the larger systems post the required water-quality data on their websites.

Continue reading

Research divers to watch arrival of Elwha sediments

In a report last night on KING-5 News, Gary Chittim offered a visually rich account of the studies taking place at the mouth of the Elwha River, where nearshore and delta areas are expected to receive huge loads of sediment after the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams come out.

He noted that divers from The U.S. Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency have been fighting strong currents as they conduct a spacial survey of the plants and animals in the nearshore area.

Gary quoted Sean Sheldrake, dive unit officer for the EPA:

“Just yesterday, we were diving on a beautiful kelp forest with a variety of fish and plant life, and the hope is through this reconnection of the Elwha to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it will not only continue but thrive.”

And in a news release last week from the U.S. Geological Survey, Sheldrake was quoted as saying:

“Until now, we’ve focused most of our attention on the effect this project will have on the river, salmon habitat and salmon recovery. But with this survey, we will have a more complete and much clearer picture of the effects on the nearshore ocean environment.”

More than 19 million cubic meters of sediment — enough to fill 11 football fields the height of the Empire State Building — has accumulated behind the Elwha River dams, according to the news release. That sediment is expected to create turbidity for a time, but in the long run could be beneficial for a variety of plant and animal species in area.

Documents for further reading:

Proceedings of the 2011 Elwha Nearshore Consortium Meeting (PDF 1.3 mb)

Nearshore function of the central Strait of Juan de Fuca for juvenile fish… Executive Summary (PDF 906 kb)

Elwha Nearshore Update, Summer 2011 (PDF 333 kb)

Nearshore substrate and morphology offshore of the Elwha River (PDF 4.5 mb)

Nearshore restoration of the Elwha River through removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams (PDF 308 kb)

Following the money into raw sewage overflows

Water-quality leaders in the Washington Department of Ecology and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were quick to respond yesterday to a Seattle Times’ story, which begins:

“Seattle and King County are poised to spend more than $1.3 billion of ratepayer money on pollution-cleanup programs that won’t even move the water-quality needle in Puget Sound.”

Yesterday’s story, by reporter Linda Mapes, is about combined sewage overflows — something that Bremerton knows a little about, having completed a cleanup program after 20 years and $50 million in expenditures. See my story from May 30 in the Kitsap Sun.

The premise of Linda’s story is that it might be better for local governments to focus on reducing stormwater overall rather trying to meet a 1988 state pollution standard focused on raw sewage discharges. After all, the reasoning goes, stormwater containing toxic chemicals may be worse for Puget Sound than stormwater mixed with sewage.

The state requirement, by the way, limits discharges of raw sewage in stormwater to one overflow per year, on average, for each outfall pipe.

There is plenty of room for disagreement, as the Times’ story points out. Christie True, director of King County Natural Resources and Parks, stresses that upcoming CSO projects will reduce the public’s exposure to untreated sewage. But Larry Phillips, a member of the King County Council, says dollars spent on CSO projects can’t be spent on buying habitat or attacking the surface-runoff problem, which the Puget Sound Partnership has deemed the region’s top priority.

Bill Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA and former chairman of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, was quoted as saying:

“This is just crazy; we don’t have unlimited funds in this country, and whatever we do, we ought to spend where we get the most bang for the buck … Cost-benefit has not been part of the discussion.”

David Dicks, former executive director of the partnership and now a member of the Leadership Council, said this:

“It’s just momentum. And what you learn in these things is you can go in and scream and yell and be a revolutionary for a while, but the institutional momentum of these laws has a lot of power, and it is just dumb power. … What we need to do is turn off the autopilot and see what makes sense here.”

Ecology and EPA officials took a stand in favor of the existing rules for reducing sewage discharges. Both issued quick responses to the Seattle Times article, writing on a blog called ECOconnect

From Kelly Susewind, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program:

“Infrastructure investments are needed to address water pollution caused by both CSO and stormwater discharges. In areas served by combined systems, CSO projects provide solutions to both CSO and stormwater pollution.

“The investments ratepayers make in their communities’ CSO programs protect public health and Washington’s waters, two principal missions of sewer and stormwater utilities. The success of these projects advances the goals of our state and federal laws to protect, clean up and preserve our waters for present and future generations.”

Adds Dennis McLerran, EPA’s regional administrator:

“Discharging large amounts of raw sewage to Puget Sound and Lake Washington is simply not acceptable. That’s why EPA has worked closely with the state, King County and Seattle over many years to address sewage treatment and the ongoing problem of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) pollution. With that work nearly completed, now is not the time to lose our resolve to finish the job visionary leaders in the Puget Sound region started some 40 years ago.”

Cost versus benefits for Bremerton CSO project (click to enlarge)
Kitsap Sun graphic

Shellfish were not mentioned in this discussion — maybe because it was focused on Seattle and King County, where industrial pollution is a major problem. In Kitsap County, shellfish are worth millions of dollars a year to the local and regional economy. For Dyes Inlet, the reopening of shellfish beds probably would not have happened except for a lawsuit that forced the city of Bremerton to comply with the federal Clean Water Act on a strict time schedule.

Lisa Stiffler, former PI reporter who now works for Sightline Institute, discussed Bremerton’s accomplishment with a focus on the cost. See “How Bremerton cleaned its waters, and came to wonder about the costs” in the online publication Crosscut.

A case can be made that shellfish beds in Dyes Inlet could have been cleaned up enough to be reopened by spending just the first $33 million, thereby saving the extra $17 million that it took to bring the city into full compliance with federal law.

But state and county health officials have told me on many occasions that Bremerton and Kitsap County, along with local residents, must continue to work hard to keep the Dyes Inlet shellfish beds open. Beaches in the inlet remain on the verge of closure again, and population growth tends to exacerbate the bacterial pollution.

Kitsap County Health District is respected for its monitoring and pollution-fighting program, but it does help to know that release of raw sewage into the inlet has become a very rare event.

Lisa makes a good point when she says Bremerton would have saved money if engineers would have known more about low-impact development during the planning for CSO reductions. Infiltrating rain water near the source (preferably before it runs off the property) reduces the need to deal with stormwater flowing through pipes. Keeping stormwater out of sewer lines by using LID techniques effectively allows the pipes to carry all the sewage to the treatment plants, even during heavy rains.

Bremerton has become a leader in LID. If city officials had known 20 years ago what they know today, they probably would have spent more on pervious pavement and rain gardens and less on expensive piping networks. But it appears they did their best with the knowledge they had — and LID has become a major part of ongoing efforts to address stormwater.

Cities still working on CSO problems may find Bremerton’s experience helpful. Keeping stormwater out of pipes is proving effective, whether or not those pipes also contain sewage.