The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has officially restored the state Department of Ecology’s water quality standards for Washington state after a strange turn of events resulted in the federal and state agencies opposing their respective rules.
“With this action, EPA is supporting Washington state’s leadership in protecting their natural resources and environment by clearing the way for the plan that the state submitted to the agency,” EPA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water Anna Wildeman said in a statement announcing the move on April 17.
Following several years of rulemaking process, Ecology submitted to EPA in 2016 its proposed water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. These standards that cap the allowable chemical levels in water must be met to obtain or renew National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits needed by industry and local governments for their wastewater treatment facilities. However, the EPA initially rejected the state’s rule in favor of its own standards that were much more stringent. In 2017, a group of industry members requested that EPA reconsider its decision, noting that the technology did not exist to meet those standards.
“This is a win-win for the people of Washington,” Northwest Pulp and Paper Association Executive Director Chris McCabe said in a statement. “We get the highly protective water quality standards that everyone in our state wants, but the regulated community of employers and local governments have a realistic opportunity to comply with the new standards.”
Ecology Director Laura Watson said in a statement that the decision “flies in the face of Washington state’s wishes,” noting that the agency has filed a lawsuit against EPA. Yet, Ecology’s director Maia Bellon initially protested EPA’s original decision to override the state agency’s 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.”
Bellon resigned as director in December after testifying against her agency’s water quality standards during an EPA public hearing. Her comments were later questioned by Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (WA-05), who in a statement said that cities in her district such as Spokane would have been unable to meet EPA’s standards despite $340 million in upgrades to the city’s water treatment facilities. “We need standards that keep our environment clean and provide clear, realistic incentives for our businesses and farmers to meet.”
McCabe described McMorris-Rodgers as “instrumental in working to help finalize this rule.”
Both EPA and Ecology’s standards use a one in a million cancer risk rate to determine the allowable level of chemicals in water. However, that rate was created arbitrarily in the 1970s and exceeds EPA’s requirements, which allows for a one in 100,000 cancer risk rate.
Association of Washington Business Government Affairs Vice President Gary Chandler said in a statement that Ecology’s standards “give local employers an opportunity to make water quality improvements without risk of losing family-wage jobs, and allow local governments to control costs for wastewater treatment while benefitting all ratepayers with meaningful water quality improvement.”