Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

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.

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Understanding how rogue chemicals affect people and marine life

Scientists are just beginning to understand the profound impact that synthetic chemicals are having on humans and other animals in the Puget Sound region.

As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing levels in their tissues. Photo: hj_west, www.flickr.com/photos/hjwest/
As a major predator, harbor seals accumulate more than their share of toxic chemicals, including flame retardants. A legal ban on certain chemicals seems to be reducing average levels in their tissues.
Photo: hj_west

My latest story for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound addresses so-called chemicals of emerging concern. Please check out “Concerns rise over rogue chemicals in the environment.”

While talking to researchers and investigating a variety of biologically active compounds, I began to realize the complexity of the body’s internal chemistry. I thought I knew something about the endocrine system, but I never fully considered how one hormone can trigger responses in multiple organs, including the release of additional hormones, even creating feedback loops.

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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.

Bill could increase risks of alien species invasions in Puget Sound waters

Congress is on the verge of passing a law that would open a door for invasive species to sneak into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay — known as the most infested waterway in the country.

The proposed legislation, supported by the shipping industry, is focused on reducing regulations surrounding the release of ballast water, which large ships use to maintain stability. Environmental groups and officials from at least nine states have voiced their opposition to the proposal, saying it could result in long-term damage to coastal and Great
Lakes ecosystems.

Ballast discharge from a ship Photo: Coast Guard
Ballast discharge from a ship
Photo: Coast Guard

Ballast water doesn’t get much attention in the media, but it has been associated with the transfer of invasive species throughout the world. Ships often take on ballast water at ports where they unload their cargo before moving to their next destination for a new load. As ships take on cargo, they discharge ballast water from the previous location — along with any organisms that hitched a ride.

Introduced species may multiply, displace native species and disrupt the food web. Lacking natural predators, some invasive species have been known to grow out of control, taking over beaches or underwater areas.

Rules and more rules

To reduce the risk of invasive species, the U.S. Coast Guard requires vessels from foreign countries to exchange their ballast water at sea before entering U.S. waters. Studies have shown that most organisms living out in the ocean don’t survive in coastal waters, and vice versa. So it is less risky for Puget Sound to receive ballast water picked up well off the coast than from another coastal inlet.

Ships that don’t discharge ballast water don’t need to comply with the Coast Guard’s ballast-exchange rule, nor do any ships transiting the U.S. coast, such as those coming into Puget Sound from California.

For years, fears have been growing that Puget Sound will become invaded by species that could alter sea life as we know it today. San Francisco Bay is dominated by more than 200 non-native species, including the European green crab and the Asian clam — both of which have caused enormous economic losses to the shellfish industry in various locations.

Green crab Photo: USGS
Green crab // Photo: USGS

In contrast, Puget Sound has become home to an identified 74 non-native marine species, although early introductions of exotic plankton — including some that produce toxins — could have gone unnoticed.

In reaction to growing concerns about invasive species, the Washington Legislature passed a law in 2000 that requires ballast exchange for ships arriving from anywhere outside a “common waters” zone. That’s an area from the Columbia River to just north of Vancouver, B.C. Consequently, ships from California that intend to release ballast water into Puget Sound must first exchange their ballast water at least 50 miles off the coast.

While the exchange of ballast water has been relatively effective in controlling the release of non-native species, the technique has always been considered an interim measure. Treating ballast water to kill organisms has been the long-term goal — and that’s where the confusion and frustration begins.

The International Maritime Organization has one treatment standard nearing final adoption for ships throughout the world. The Coast Guard says the IMO requirement to eliminate “viable” organisms — those able to reproduce — is too risky. The Coast Guard requires that organisms be killed. States may choose to issue their own standards, and California has proposed the most stringent treatment standards of all. Still, most of these standards are essentially on hold pending testing and certification of specific treatment systems.

Shipping companies say all these costly and conflicting rules are too difficult to navigate for businesses dealing in interstate and international commerce. But that’s not all the rules they may face.

The Environmental Protection Agency became involved in ballast water in 2008, after federal courts ruled that the shipping industry is not exempt from the Clean Water Act. The EPA then came up with a “vessel general permit” for ballast water and other discharges from ships, a permit that was challenged twice by environmental groups. Each time, the courts ruled against the EPA.

The latest EPA permit failed to require the “best available technology” for ballast water treatment, failed to set numerical standards, failed to require monitoring, and failed to meet other provisions of the Clean Water Act, according to a ruling handed down in October (PDF 6.4 mb) by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A revised permit is now in the works.

Legislation and politics

That brings us to the controversial legislation, called the Vessel Incidental Discharge Act, or VIDA. The essence of the bill is to eliminate state jurisdiction and any oversight by the EPA. Upon enactment, only Coast Guard rules would apply, and ships from San Francisco would no longer need to exchange their ballast water before coming into Washington or Oregon. For an in-depth understanding of the bill, read the Congressional Research Service report (PDF 3.5 mb).

The lack of coastwise ballast exchange is the biggest concern of officials along the West Coast, where similar state requirements are in effect. In California, the problem is that VIDA would allow the spread of invasive species from San Francisco Bay to more pristine bays, such as Humboldt Bay. While the bill allows states to petition for regulations to deal with local conditions, nobody knows how that would work. The petition would need scientific proof that the local regulations are needed and feasible, and the Coast Guard would have 90 days to make a decision.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, VIDA became attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, which was approved. NDAA is a “must-pass” bill to authorize military funding and many other things associated with national defense.

The Senate version of the defense bill does not contain the VIDA provision. While the two bills are technically in a conference committee, insiders tell me that top leaders in the House and Senate must engage in political battles over the critical defense bill and try to work out a compromise to gain approval in both houses.

The shipping industry is lobbying hard for VIDA to stay in the compromise bill, while environmentalists want to take it out. We may not know which of the related and unrelated riders on the bill will survive until the bill is ready for congressional action.

In the Senate, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio was the original sponsor of the legislation when it was a stand-alone bill. Republicans would like him to get a win for the folks back home, where Rubio is engaged in a tight election race. (See Dan Friedman’s story in Fortune.)

President Obama, threatening a veto, lists VIDA as one of many provisions that he opposes in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act. See Statement of Administration Policy (PDF 1.2 mb). Nobody thinks he would veto the bill over ballast water alone.

Many shipping industry officials say they don’t object to stringent treatment standards. They only wish to avoid multiple, confusing standards. They also would like some assurance that the standards are technically feasible and won’t require ongoing costly changes to equipment.

Environmentalists say they don’t want to lose the authority of the Clean Water Act, which allows average citizens to bring lawsuits to protect the environment.

“The Clean Water Act is a tried and true approach for controlling water pollution problems,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates in Portland. Her group was among those that brought the lawsuit against the EPA (PDF 6.8 mb).

“I think we are poised to make some real progress,” Nina told me. “VIDA opts instead to take away authority from the Environmental Protection Agency and give it to the Coast Guard, which has no environmental expertise. The Coast Guard has a lot of priorities, such as keeping people safe on ships and protecting our waters, but this is not one of them.”

The EPA has clear authority to regulate ballast water and limit the spread of invasive species, she said. If the EPA were to issue strong requirements, the states would not need their own regulations.