The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) two years ago overrode a new water quality rule adopted by the Washington Department of Ecology with its own version. Now, the federal agency may reconsider, and although Ecology previously advocated for its own rule, the department’s director has recently advocated in favor of the federal version.
For local governments and certain industries the reversal might enable them to comply with water quality standards that as of now current technology cannot meet with the EPA rule.
In 2016, an Ecology spokesperson told Lens that the “state’s rule is best for Washington’s people and economy and the EPA should move swiftly to adopt our rule.” However, in a May 7, 2019 letter to EPA Director Andrew Wheeler, Ecology Director Maia Bellon wrote that “changing course now would only create regulatory uncertainty and confusion. Attempting to change the standard would be arbitrary and capricious.”
“There is no legal basis for reconsideration of standards,” she added. “I am confident in my agency’s ability to work with the regulated community to implement the current standards.”
However, industries subject to the new rule say the standards are beyond current technology. The city of Everett previously told Lens that it might cost $1 billion to update its wastewater treatment plant to comply. One estimate puts the price tag at $11 billion for 73 major permittees – and that’s merely to comply with a single chemical found in the rule.
The “fish consumption rule” determines water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act, for which states can adopt their own rules with the EPA’s approval. That provision of the rule determines the odds of a person getting cancer if they consume untreated water and wild fish. Under Ecology’s version, the standard would have been a one in million cancer risk rate for people who weigh 154 pounds, drink 2.4 liters of untreated surface water a day, and consume 175 grams of locally caught fish a day, every single day for 70 years. Industries affected by the rule must then ensure that the water they emit after use is up to that standard.
The initial Ecology rule would have only used a one in 100,000 risk, but that draft rule was thrown out. Although more stringent, the revised Ecology rule contained some compliance schedules to help permittees. The one in a million risk rate was arbitrarily selected in the 1970s as a “zero risk” rate for “residue of animal drug.”
EPA’s rule kept the one in a million risk rate, but replaced around 75 percent of Ecology’s version.
Following the 2017 decision, Governor Jay Inslee’s Chief of Staff David Postman said “this was disappointing to the administration and the Department of Ecology.”