State, Not EPA, Should Fine-Tune Fish Consumption Rule, Say Cities, Industry

State, Not EPA, Should Fine-Tune Fish Consumption Rule, Say Cities, Industry
Boeing Co. is one of the signatories of a new letter to Washington state protesting costly overkill on water pollution standards. Seen here is Boeing's Everett production facility. photo: Jetstar Airways.

Coming Soon: Lens looks into the “What’s Upstream” EPA lobbying controversy involving EPA funding of a Washington state lobbying campaign on water quality, targeting agriculture.

In recently-submitted public comments to the state Washington cities and industry say they want the Department of Ecology and not the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set the state’s water quality standards related to human health. That’s even though they may differ with Ecology on what those exact standards should be. Astride the state process, EPA has drafted its own water quality standards that critics say add no public health benefit, but could pose excessive cost burdens. Some cities claim EPA’s involvement has made the process “politically charged.”

The concerns voiced by cities and industry are intended shape Ecology’s rule-making to set new standards for limiting chemicals from municipal wastewater and industrial discharge water so that fish caught and consumed locally by tribes and others will be safe to eat.

The draft rule would impose new regulatory mandates to get and renew a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit under the Federal Clean Water Act. Permittees include industries like pulp and paper, aluminum smelting plants, and municipalities and ports.

Letters from the cities of Spokane, Auburn, Bellevue and Everett all expressed their desire for Ecology to set the new rules instead of the federal government.

“DOE is in a better position to understand the unique attributes of our watershed, dischargers to the river system, and efforts undertaken to reduce pollution in our area,” wrote Spokane City Administrator Theresa Sanders.

City of Everett Decries ‘Politically-Charged’ EPA Role

Some of the comments to Ecology expressed frustration with what they see as politics taking precedence over science. Engineering Superintendent James Miller with city of Everett claimed certain groups and EPA have “essentially forced Ecology to switch to” a one in a million risk rate.

As previously reported by Lens, one critic says the 1 in one million risk rate is the equivalent of a one mil-per-hour speed limit to protect drivers from injury in accidents. EPA recommends a one in 10 million cancer risk rate for fish consumption by the general population, and anywhere from one in one hundred thousand to one in one million for most exposed populations such as the Native Americans and Pacific Islanders who are thought – but not actually shown – to consume the specific average daily quantity of locally-caught fish projected by Ecology in the draft rule.

The city has previously warned that the EPA’s new rule could cost them a billion dollars in order to retrofit their wastewater treatment facility.

“The issue was politically charged and public opinion easily influenced by sound-bites rather than comprehensive understanding,” Miller wrote further.

In a letter signed by nearly 20 companies, Chris McCabe, Executive Director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association (NWPPA), wrote that “our greatest concern” is the current insistence of Ecology – and the EPA – of keeping the cancer risk rate at one in a million while increasing the fish consumption rate to 175 grams a day from the current 6.5 gram rate. These criteria are part of an equation used to determine acceptable levels of chemicals in wastewater and industrial discharge water before it can go back into rivers, streams and lakes.

The one in a million cancer risk rate along with other criteria would “result in unnecessarily stringent water quality criteria,” McCabe wrote. Keeping the one in a million cancer risk rate while increasing the new fish consumption rate would also create an actual risk rate for average Washington resident of one in ten million, he wrote further, because they consume far less fish than the 175 gram a day standard.

Environmental policy experts have argued that the one in a million cancer risk rate is arbitrarily selected, and adds no greater public health protection than the one in one hundred thousand risk rate Ecology had earlier proposed, although the higher rate does add substantial costs for compliers.

Aside from NWPPA the letter’s signers included Western States Petroleum Association, Western Wood Preservers Institute, Treated Wood Council, Association of Washington Business, The Boeing Company, Alcoa Wenatchee Works, Intalco Aluminum Corporation, Inland Empire Paper Company, Kaiser Aluminum Washington, LLC.

Additional signatories were KapStone Kraft Paper Corporation, Nippon Paper Industries USA, Nucor Steel Seattle, Inc., Packaging Corporation of America, Ponderay Newsprint Company, Schnitzer Steel Industries, The Weyerhaeuser Company, and the Port Townsend Paper Corporation.

EPA’s Heavy Hand

EPA normally delegates rule making authority to the states. However, the agency’s final authorization is still required. Because EPA has already written its own rule and recommended Ecology adopt similar standards, the state could be in a bind while attempting to craft its own rule.

Ecology is expected to make a final decision in August.

AWC Wary Of Potentially ‘Impossible’ Compliance Burden

Because of the increased fish consumption rate combined with a one in a million cancer risk rate, the standards “may be impossible in some instances” to meet. That’s according to a letter written to Ecology by Government Relations Advocate Carl Schroeder with the Association of Washington Cities (AWC).

Ecology’s draft rule seeks to provide relief for cities or companies seeking permits. One approach creates exemptions in which permitees only need to keep the discharged water as clean as it was when they received it, but Ecology has admitted this pathway would not be widely available. The draft rule would also remove the ten-year limit on compliance scheduling to meet the new standards. The rule also allows for variances but to date, they have never been granted in the state, and also require EPA approval.

However, Schroeder also expressed AWC’s preference for a 1 in 100,000 cancer risk level, which was originally proposed in Ecology’s draft rule last year. It’s a risk level that industries like pulp and paper as well as cities such as Everett believe is appropriate.

Even though the new draft rule has exceptions for certain chemicals such as PCBs, mercury and arsenic that the EPA rule does not, the a one in a million risk rate “causes great long-term uncertainty with other chemicals,” Schroeder’s letter states.

Groups favoring EPA’s water quality standards rule include the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The commission believes the state’s rule fails to protect both public health and treaty-reserved rights, according NIFC’s letter to Ecology. The commission represents 20 member tribes.

Environmental groups like the Washington Environmental Council didn’t openly favor either agency’s rule in their comments to Ecology. Like the NIFC, the council supports Ecology’s fish consumption rate and the one in a million cancer risk rate. However, while recognizing that removing PCB, mercury and arsenic from the water can be “uniquely challenging” they opposed the less stringent safety level standards proposed for the three chemicals.


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