After years of trying to balance business interests with environmental aims, officials with the Washington State Department of Ecology thought they finally had a water-quality plan that would be accepted by the federal government.
Turns out, they were wrong.
They recently received the disappointing news that the bulk of their work has been dismissed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That means, as it looks right now, a combination of state and federal rules will apply — which is unfortunate at best, and potentially devastating at worst.
Being forced to comply with EPA standards will be a major challenge for many industries and for municipal governments that operate wastewater treatment plants.
The federal plan has long been considered unrealistic. It limits the amount of pollutants accepted into the state’s waterways at an unrealistic level that opponents say will be impossible to meet with current technology.
It is a shame it has come to this.
Federal law requires rivers, lakes and streams to be clean enough so people can swim and eat fish in those waters without risking their health.
The EPA was finalizing its new water-quality regulations at the same time the state Department of Ecology was hammering out its own proposal. In case the EPA didn’t like the state’s plan, its own version would be ready.
The state submitted its proposal to the federal agency in August after years of debate and back-and-forth between the governor’s office and the Legislature.
It appears the EPA approved certain portions of the state’s plan to limit pollutants in our waterways — including raising the fish-consumption rate to 175 grams a day. This was important, especially to tribal members who would like to eat fish safely every day.
But the EPA did not accept the state’s criteria for three major chemicals: PCBs, arsenic and mercury. In the case of PCBs, the EPA rule is 25 times more stringent than the state proposal.
Everyone wants clean water, but we need to be realistic.
A story by the Everett Herald said the state’s plan maintained the current standard for PCBs, and set the limit for arsenic at the same level the federal government considers safe for drinking fountains at elementary schools. But that apparently was not good enough for the EPA.
Expecting river water to be cleaner than water from a drinking fountain is a tall order. No wonder state officials are disheartened.
We cautioned early on in the process that if the EPA took over, it would not bode well for our state. There were chances in the Legislature and on the governor’s part to finalize a water-quality plan long before now.
But that did not happen, and here we are.
Maia Bellon, state Ecology director, said she is disappointed with the EPA response.
“Washington state’s approach wasn’t accepted in its entirety. We worked hard to craft new water quality standards that were balanced and made real progress — improving environmental protection and human health while helping businesses and local governments comply,” she said.
We are disappointed as well. A balanced approach to water quality is what we wanted. The EPA has said it will make a compliance schedule to give businesses and local governments time to improve their facilities.
But even with time to comply, the cost could be too much. How the state will proceed after this remains to be seen. In the meantime, it appears we will have to see if there is a way to make these new rules work.