Our Voice: State needs alternative to new EPA water standards

How clean is clean?

That is the key question when it comes to setting new water quality standards in Washington.

The answer either will be safe and reasonable, or unattainable, depending on whether the state can come up with its own set of criteria in time.

We suggest state officials dive in and get it done.

If they don’t, the Environmental Protection Agency is ready to take over and impose its own clean water standards, which are unrealistic and would put a burden on any private business that must treat water before returning it to the waterways.

EPA’s requirements also could wreck havoc on city water treatment systems and potentially drive up utility costs. But since there is no state alternative yet, the agency is pushing ahead.

It has officially published its proposed rules on its website and is seeking public comment through Nov. 13.

Time is running out.

The state Department of Ecology drafted a proposal that would comply with updated requirements in the federal Clean Water Act that, realistically, could be met by businesses and municipalities.

However, Gov. Jay Inslee would not finalize the rule unless lawmakers approved companion legislation he sought giving Ecology new authority to ban chemicals. It didn’t happen, so now there is still no plan in place.

It is a shame because the state agency’s proposal struck a balance between the tribes, environmental groups and industry officials. It was tied to a formula based on the rate of fish and water consumption. The idea is that there is a possible risk to getting cancer from trace chemicals that might be found in Washington rivers, which may eventually end up in a fish on a dinner plate.

So Ecology raised by nearly 30 times the fish consumption rate, going from the current 6.5 grams per day to 175 grams per day. That’s the difference between eating a mouthful or eating a 6.2-ounce fillet.

The formula also assumes that someone essentially would live on fish that came from Washington waters, eating one a day for decades. The high standard is an acknowledgment that tribal members likely eat more fish than the average person.

But the EPA disagrees with the state’s approach, saying it does not protect heavy fish consumers.

That can’t be right. Yet, that is the decision state residents will have to live with if EPA’s new standards take hold.

State leaders need to protect our authority over our waterways. We all want clean water and fish that are safe to eat, but the standards have to be realistic. If EPA rules are imposed, they won’t be.