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.

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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.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Struggle for clean water criteria coming to a close

  1. Chris,
    You may want to check this sentence in the 5th paragraph.
    ” 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.”
    The million and the 100,000 may need to trade places?

    1. Tom,
      The old standard was one in a million. State officials said the EPA should allow a higher cancer risk of one in 100,000, which would have offset somewhat the higher fish consumption rate in the equation.

      I always need to pause to remember that a risk of one in 100,000 is 10 times higher than a risk of one in a million, just as 1/10 is 10 times higher than 1/100, unless I am missing something.

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