Legislature should support water quality plan

The OlympianJuly 17, 2014 Updated 21 hours ago

In his proposal for updating the state’s water quality standards, Gov. Jay Inslee aimed for a high but achievable goal. We think he found the reasonable middle ground.

The governor’s proposal sets regulations strict enough to protect the health of all Washington citizens, but with enough flexibility to allow time for businesses and sewage treatment facilities to adapt to more stringent limits. From a homeowner’s perspective, Inslee’s proposal may also provide municipalities with the incentive and time to develop more affordable sewage treatment technologies.

Because people in Washington eat more fish than those in most other states, environmental and fishing groups have pressured the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force the state to adopt Oregon’s water quality standards, the highest in the nation.

Business has argued that such high standards would require significant and costly upgrades for businesses and municipal sewage discharge systems, such as the LOTT Clean Water Alliance in Thurston County. And that would spike rates for homeowners.

The issue is difficult to understand because allowable pollution levels have been historically tied to fish consumption rates. Fish absorb some harmful toxins, such as the carcinogenic PCBs, so eating more fish exposes a person to a greater cancer risk.

But there is little science to say at what level of pollution poses a risk to public health, nor is there any definitive study on how much fish Washingtonians actually eat. Tribal members typically eat a lot; some people don’t eat any.

Inslee’s solution was an elegant, if inexact solution. He proposes to raise the fish consumption rate to 175 grams per day, the equivalent of a six-ounce serving. That’s about 27 times higher the state’s current 6.5 grams per day.

But Inslee would soften the financial impact of compliance to the higher consumption rate by reducing the other part of the water quality equation. His plan lowers the current cancer risk assumption from eating the daily average amount of fish from one in 1 million to one in 100,000. But where this cancer risk rate results in less protective standards, the current standards would be maintained.

Of the 96 chemicals regulated under federal law, 70 percent would have more protective standards under Inslee’s proposal. And it would allow the state Department of Ecology to regulate the discharge of some of those toxins that enter the environment further upstream.

The governor’s plan also provides more time for businesses and sewage treatment plants to comply.

Obviously, setting water quality standards is no simple task. This is a complex proposal. Legislators, who can’t agree on much, will find any number of points on which to disagree, and partisanship could add unnecessary complications.

To avoid that, we encourage lawmakers to support the governor’s proposal as the right balance between the need for time to adapt to higher water quality standards, and the need to protect the health of fish, people and the planet.

We learn more every day about the harmful impacts humankind is having on our planet’s finite life-sustaining resources, and we all ought to share a sense of urgency about reducing the pollutants that we pour into our rivers, lakes and Puget Sound.

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