A group of Washington employers and associations are appealing a newly-adopted Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule for water quality standards in favor of a less onerous one adopted by the Washington Department of Ecology. They warn the new standards, which current technology cannot fully meet, will cost billions of dollars in compliance costs for industry, increase utility rates for state residents, and harm the state economy.
With some employers scheduled soon to renew federal permits affected by these new standards, industry leaders are also calling on Ecology to delay implementation. Although the state agency intends to comply with EPA’s decision, it has still not ruled out a legal challenge. However, at least one state lawmaker says the EPA’s rule won’t survive under the new Donald Trump Administration.
EPA Water Rules In Trump Era
That outcome has become more feasible with the appointment of State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42), a vocal critic of the EPA rule, to the EPA transitional communications team for President Trump. He has not ruled out a permanent position with the agency.
Ericksen is the Chair of the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee.
Located in his district is the city of Bellingham. The city estimates that residents’ monthly wastewater treatment bills could increase from $35 to $200 because of EPA’s rule.
However, Vice Chair Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) told Lens the new water standards will be undone regardless of who Trump appoints over EPA’s Region 10. An executive order signed by the president this week seems to foreshadow this. That order directs EPA to review the economic impacts of the Waters of the U.S. rule created under President Obama.
“When the local (EPA) directors are in place, I think the stricter rules are going to go away, and the feds will have a more lenient administration for the state rules,” Sheldon said.
It’s also time for Governor Jay Inslee to defend the integrity of his agency’s rulemaking process, said Chris McCabe. He is the Executive Director of Northwest Pulp and Paper Association. The Association of Washington Business (AWB) sent a letter in December to Inslee requesting he take EPA to court. McCabe said they never received a reply.
“If the state is so behind the rule developed by the Department of Ecology why aren’t they trying to help undo what EPA did?” he said. They “absolutely steamrolled the state of Washington under this rule.”
Petition: Rule Will Devastate Businesses
Northwest Pulp and Paper was among the employers named in the February 15 petition. The other signatories include American Forest and Paper Association, Association of Washington Business, Greater Spokane Incorporated, Treated Wood Council, Western Wood Preservers Institute, Utility Water Act Group, and the Washington Farm Bureau.
“EPA has imposed on the people of the state of Washington arbitrary and capricious human health water quality criteria that will likely be devastating to our local communities and businesses,” the petition states. “EPA has sought to advanced its own agenda with no basis in and in disregard of the Clean Water Act, EPA’s own regulations and guidance, and long established understanding of science and public health.”
However, Sheldon said they shouldn’t expect Inslee to fight for Ecology’s rule when it might place him on the same side as Trump on the issue. “Given the fact that the governor’s pushing back against many of the changes that the new administration is bringing, I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushed against this one as well.”
Ecology Continues To Weighs Legal Options
In an email to Lens, Ecology Communications Director Sandi Peck wrote that the agency still hasn’t decided its next course of action, adding that “we’ll see how EPA responds to the recent petition.” In the meantime, the state agency plans to issue new permits based on the EPA’s guidelines.
“We’ll be thoughtful about permit requests that come before us, understanding what’s in play with this petition,” Peck wrote.
McCabe says they should grant permittees an administrative extension on their existing permits. Several years ago, such extensions were made for four dams located on the Spokane River.
The new EPA rule increased water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act for wastewater treatment facilities used by industry, cities, and counties. These standards must be met to obtain and renew a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Although EPA allows for some variances and compliance scheduling, it lowered allowable levels of certain chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) , that are not created by the entities required to remove it from the water.
Billions In Compliance Cost For Local Governments, Industry
A recent projection by the Association of Washington Cities found that it would cost roughly $7.4 billion for cities in the Puget Sound region alone to upgrade their facilities to the best available technology. Even then, those facilities would only remove a mere six percent of all PCBs entering Puget Sound region water streams over 25 years.
Experts have noted the one in a million cancer risk rate used in both Ecology and EPA’s rule to determine allowable chemical levels was arbitrarily selected in the 1970s. In their original draft rule, Ecology selected a one in a hundred thousand risk rate that fell within existing EPA guidelines.
Critics have also argued that other criteria found in both rules protect someone engaging in a nonexistent lifestyle.
In a February 21 statement, Washington Farm Bureau CEO John Stuhlmiller warned that the rule could harm the state’s agricultural industry by imposing unachievable standards. He added that Ecology’s “challenging but achievable standards will deliver something that can work for the state.”
“Agriculture is the backbone of our state economy and water is the backbone of agriculture, so no one cares more about water quality than our members,” he wrote.