Editorials

Editorial: It’s hard to believe, but state officials rejected their own water standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed that a state water quality plan crafted three years ago is acceptable — reversing its previous ruling.

You would think that would be good news.

After all, state officials were discouraged when the Obama-era EPA dismissed most of the state’s proposal in 2016, forcing Washington to adopt several federal clean-water standards that many stakeholders considered impossible to meet with current technology.

But instead, Washington state democratic leaders are now blasting EPA for changing course.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a lawsuit challenging the change, claiming it is in violation of the Clean Water Act. Ferguson now has filed 39 lawsuits against the Trump Administration.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the move, “The latest step in an unprecedented assault from the Trump Administration on the right of states to protect their waters and communities … it is clear the Clean Water Act is now under direct and sustained attack by the federal government.”

Keep in mind what they are objecting to — our own state plan that took years to hammer out and that managed to strike a balance between the tribes, environmental groups and industry officials.

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 concern is that there is a possible risk to getting cancer from trace chemicals that might be found in Washington waters, which potentially could end up in a fish on a dinner plate.

No one questions that water quality standards must be updated, and that they must protect human health. But the question is: How clean is clean?

Officials in industry and municipal governments that operate wastewater treatment plants said the Obama-era EPA criteria is unattainable and threatens business.

They sought realistic criteria — not aspirational. So, after President Trump was elected, they petitioned the EPA and asked it to rescind its directive and approve the state proposal.

Chris McCabe, executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association, recently met with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board on the issue.

He said the state criteria would allow for something like one drop of polluted water from an eye dropper in 118 Olympic-sized swimming pools — or 170 parts per quadrillion by volume.

The federal level, however, is like one drop per 2,857 Olympic-sized swimming pools — or 7 parts per quadrillion per volume.

His organization, and other trade and agriculture groups, contend the state plan provides safe standards that can be met by business and industry, while the federal level is unreasonable and unreachable.

Back in 2016 when the Obama-era EPA rejected much of the state plan, it was a crushing blow to state leaders.

Maia Bellon, state Ecology director, said at the time she was disappointed with the EPA decision because “we worked hard to craft new water quality standards that were balanced and made real progress — improving environmental protection and human health while helping business and local governments comply.”

Now, however, she too is criticizing the EPA reversal, saying, “We won’t sit back while EPA unilaterally acts on short-sighted industry desires, completely cutting out the state regulator, Washington’s tribes and our communities.”

Her point adds fuel to the fire. The EPA made a mistake by not following proper procedure when it reversed itself.

There are steps that should have been taken and in-person public hearings held before the new directive came down.

And yet, it is hard to believe state officials truly believe the 2016 state water quality standards — that took years to negotiate — are no longer good enough.

The main issue seems to be that the directive comes from the Trump Administration, and politically that’s not going to be accepted by Washington state’s democratic leaders, even if it means going against their own state proposal.

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