Guest opinion: Move forward on water quality standards

In an unfortunate reversal, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to reconsider our state’s new water quality standards – the most protective in the nation – based on an industry trade group petition that argues the rules will increase their cost of doing business.

Treaty Indian tribes in western Washington believe a pollution-based economy is not sustainable and that no price can be placed on the value of human health or the resources that sustain us.

It’s been less than two years since EPA stepped into the rulemaking process to ensure that our water quality standards are based on the best available science. The federal Clean Water Act requires states to develop rules that ensure our waters are clean enough to provide healthy fish and shellfish that are safe to eat.

Water quality standards include human health criteria based on how much fish and shellfish we eat. The more we eat, the cleaner the water must be. Two numbers drive the standards: our fish consumption rate and our cancer risk rate from eating local seafood.

For more than 25 years the state used a fish consumption rate of only 6.5 grams per day – or about one big bite – to determine water quality standards. The cancer risk rate from consuming toxics in seafood was set at one in 1 million.

After EPA got involved, Washington’s water quality standards were revised about 18 months ago to include a more realistic fish consumption rate of 175 grams (about 6 ounces) per day. The cancer risk rate remained unchanged.

The updated water quality standards were the result of years of extensive public processes at the state and federal levels, involving tribal governments as well as industry representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders. The standards are based on science that accurately reflects what happens when we are exposed to pollution in our waters. They also include a wide range of implementation tools and generous timelines for implementation.

Now our hard-fought gains to protect human health are threatened.

There is no new science or law that justifies EPA’s reconsideration or that would lead to a different result. EPA’s response to industry’s petition is simply an agreement to participate in rehashing issues and concerns that were discussed, debated and resolved through lengthy rule-making and public process that spanned decades.

What has changed is the current anti-regulation approach to a strong economy. We believe that human health and environmental quality are the keys to economic health.

We agree with Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology, who told EPA that she opposes any reconsideration of the current water quality rules: “What Washington State’s communities and businesses need the most right now is predictability, certainty and flexibility to meet clean water requirements. We are well on the path of providing just that.”

We also agree with Gov. Jay Inslee, who said in 2015: “We will not fall victim to the fear mongers who have attempted to block every clean-air and clean-water law since Earth Day 1970 by arguing we cannot have a healthy environment and a healthy economy. They have been wrong every time.”

For 17 days we all watched with great sadness as a grieving mother orca carried her dead calf around the Salish Sea. Toxins in our water and fish are part of that story. Those orcas are us, the late tribal leader Billy Frank Jr. would say. What happens to them will one day happen to us.

Lorraine Loomis is Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. See www.nwifc.org.

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