Tag Archives: Water quality standards

What comes next under water-quality standards imposed by the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency approved new water-quality standards for Washington state this week, overriding a plan approved by Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Ecology.

It was a rare posture for the EPA. Now the state will be pressured to appeal the EPA standards to federal court. Cities and counties as well as some industrial organizations are clearly unhappy with the EPA’s action, while environmental and tribal representatives got most of what they wanted.

The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.
The basic structure of polychlorinated biphenyls, where the number and location of chlorine atoms can vary.

The EPA action is especially unusual, given that this state is known for some of the strongest environmental regulations in the country. After much dispute, Ecology finally agreed to much higher fish-consumption rates without increasing the cancer-risk rate, leading to more stringent standards for many of the chemicals. But Ecology had its own ideas for the most troublesome compounds with implications for human health. They include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic and mercury. For background, see Water Ways, Oct. 18, 2015.

Some news reports I saw this week said EPA’s action will lead to salmon that are safer to eat. But that’s not at all certain, and opponents say it is unlikely that the revised limits on chemical pollution will have any practical effect on compounds that affect human health.

Continue reading

Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

The long-running controversy over Washington state’s water quality standards for toxic chemicals is nearly over. We will soon know just how pure the water must be to get a clean bill of health.

chinook

We still don’t know whether the Environmental Protection Agency will approve the new state standards adopted this week or impose more stringent standards that EPA developed for several key pollutants. The EPA has already taken public comments on its proposed standards.

“We believe our new rule is strong, yet reasonable,” said Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, in a news release. “It sets standards that are protective and achievable. With this rule now complete, we will continue to press forward to reduce and eliminate toxics from every-day sources.”

For more than two years, much of the controversy focused on the fish-consumption rate — an assumption about how much fish that people eat. The FCR is a major factor in the equation used to set the concentration of chemicals allowed in water before the waterway is declared impaired. (See early discussions in Water Ways, Nov. 11, 2010.)

Initially, after plenty of debate, the state proposed increasing the FCR from 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day — a 27-fold increase. The initial proposal counter-balanced the effect somewhat by increasing the cancer-risk rate from one in a million to one in 100,000 — a 10-fold shift. Eventually, the state agreed to retain the one-in-a-million rate.

As I described in Water Ways last October, some key differences remain between the state and EPA proposals. Factors used by the EPA result in more stringent standards. The state also proposes a different approach for PCBs, mercury and arsenic, which are not easily controlled by regulating industrial facilities and sewage-treatment plants — the primary point sources of pollution.

PCB standards proposed by the EPA make representatives of industry and sewage-treatment systems very nervous. Water-quality standards are the starting points for placing legal limits on discharges, and EPA’s standard of 7.6 picograms per liter cannot be attained in many cases without much higher levels of treatment, experts say.

“Available data indicate that most state waters would not meet the EPA proposed criteria and that most (federally permitted) wastewater treatment plants will have to apply membrane filtration treatment and additional treatment technologies to address PCBs,” according to a letter from five industrial organizations and a dozen major businesses (PDF 3 mb).

Entities in Eastern Washington are in the midst of planning efforts to control pollution in the Spokane River, and major sewer upgrades are under consideration, the letter says.

“If Ecology were to follow the same approach on Puget Sound that it has on the Spokane River, this would amount to a range of compliance costs from nearly $6 billion to over $11 billion for just the major permits identified by EPA,” the letter continues. “A more stringent PCB criterion is also likely to impact how stormwater is managed, as PCB concentrations have been detected in stormwater throughout the state.”

For pulp and paper mills using recycled paper, the primary source of PCBs is the ink containing the toxic compounds at EPA-allowed concentrations, the letter says. Other major sources are neighborhoods, where PCBs are used in construction materials, and fish hatcheries, where PCBs come from fishmeal.

sailing

The letter points out similar problems for EPA’s proposed mercury standard, calling the level “overly conservative and unattainable in Washington (and the rest of the United States), as the levels of mercury in fish are consistently higher than the proposed criterion.”

When water-quality criteria cannot be attained for certain chemicals using existing water-treatment technology, facilities may be granted a variance or placed under a compliance schedule. Both environmentalists and facility owners have expressed concern over uncertainties about how the agencies might use these approaches.

Despite the uncertainties, environmentalists and Indian tribes in Washington state generally support the more stringent standards proposed by the EPA.

“Tribes concur that water quality discharge standards are only a part of the toxic chemical problem in the state of Washington and that more efforts toward source control and toxic cleanup are needed,” writes Lorraine Loomis of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “However, the standards are an essential anchor for determining where and how to deploy toxic reduction efforts and monitor enforcement.”

When I said this controversy is nearly over, I was referring to a time schedule imposed this week by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who ruled that the EPA missed its own deadlines for updating water quality criteria.

Rothstein, responding to claims from five environmental groups, imposed a new deadline based on EPA’s own suggested dates. Because the state has finalized its rule, the EPA now has until Nov. 15 to either approve the state’s criteria or sign a notice imposing its own standards. Checkout the judge’s ruling (PDF 494 kb).

The new criteria won’t have any practical effect until applied to federal discharge permits for specific facilities or in developing cleanup plans for specific bodies of water — although state inspectors could use the new state criteria for enforcing state laws if they discover illegal discharges.

If you want to dig a little deeper, view the full list of comments about Ecology’s proposal, many of which refer to the alternate EPA proposal as well. Ecology posts its information on its “Water Quality Rulemaking” page. EPA posts its information on the “Washington Water Quality Standards” page.

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.”

Water quality is defined by the ‘standards’ we use

Washington Department of Ecology is in the early stages of revising water quality standards for our state, beginning with a series of meetings to find out what people think. See my story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun for an overview, and check Ecology’s news release for the meeting schedule and process for proposing changes.

It’s hard to tell how aggressive Ecology will be about changing these standards. Given state budget limitations, the agency may opt to do little, yet Ecology officials say they are willing to address problems that people see in the existing standards or in their implementation.

What we’re talking about here is changing the definition what makes good, clean, safe water. Changing the standards could bring increased attention to individual streams, lakes and bays and possibly even trigger a new approach for all streams.

Water quality standards are the driver for creating the state’s list of impaired water bodies (the 303d list). They are used to write discharge permits for industrial facilities, sewage-treatment plants and stormwater outfalls. And in cleanup plans for polluted waterways, they provide guidance for allocating pollution limits among point and nonpoint sources.

Priorities for changes that could be made are expected to be announced next spring after all the comments are compiled and reviewed, including suggestions from state and local officials, according to Susan Braley of Ecology’s Water Quality Program. Nationwide standards, which are under continual review by the Environmental Protection Agency, sometimes require the state to make changes.

Some of the ideas that have been kicking about, in no particular order:

  • New standards for total petroleum hydrocarbons
  • New standards for certain kinds of pesticides harmful to salmon
  • New standards for copper, which are known to affect salmon
  • New standards for toxic chemicals known to affect human health
  • A change in the bacterial standard from fecal coliform to e. coli
  • Allowance for alternative indicators for the presence of human waste
  • Further refinements of temperature standards, which were updated in 2006 to protect bull trout
  • New standards for pH as related to ocean acidification
  • New rates for fish-consumption by people, which could change numerical standards for a range of toxics

If anyone tells me about other ideas, I will add them to the list.

For more information, check out EPA’s informational website about Water Quality Standards and Surface Waters. There’s also an instructive online course focusing on theer Clean Water Act by the River Network.

To read the standards themselves, go to the Washington Administrative Code, Chapter 173-201A.