Our Voice: State needs attainable water quality standards

Last week, representatives of the state's biggest economic development agencies, city and county governments and major industries sent Gov. Jay Inslee a letter warning that pending changes in clean water regulations could result in "economic turmoil."

The letter is signed by leaders of 25 organization, ranging from the Association of Washington Cities to the Aerospace Futures Alliance of Washington to the Northwest Food Processors Association.

They are worried Washington will adopt standards so stringent they will bring growth to a standstill. It's not an entirely unrealistic fear.

The limits on toxic materials in water discharged to state waterways depend on some criteria the state is expected to set any day. One is the cancer risk from exposure to the toxins and the other is the average amount of fish consumed by Washington residents.

Oregon adopted new standards in 2011, setting the excess cancer risk at one in a million (about the same risk posed by smoking 11/2 cigarettes) and the average fish consumption at 11 pounds per month -- about a can of tuna a day.

Environmental groups have announced plans to file a lawsuit against Washington if it adopts less stringent standards. But waste treatment experts say those standards set limits for some toxins that are so low that municipalities will be out of compliance and have to put a moratorium on new sewer hook-ups as a result.

Close to home, new rules could force Boise Paper's Wallula mill to close. The plant has 650 employees and a $52 million payroll. Closure would be a major economic blow to the Mid-Columbia.

Oregon mostly has dodged the bullet so far because few discharge permits have come up for renewal, but it's only a matter of time.

An HDR Engineering study commissioned by the Association of Washington Business, Association of Washington Cities and Association of Washington Counties, found that if Washington adopts standards similar to Oregon's, "even the most advanced water treatment technologies would not be able to meet standards for PCBs."

Organizations with discharge permits aren't making any PCBs. Production of the carcinogenic chemicals has been banned in the U.S. since 1979.

But the technology doesn't exist for a municipal waste treatment plant, for example, to remove enough of the existing background level of PCBs to meet Oregon-style standards.

Even more problematic, "The study noted that the Oregon water quality standard for PCBs is lower than the current analytical ability to measure the pollutant."

In other words, the goal is not only unattainable, but also unmeasurable. We need clean water standards that make sense for the environment and the economy. The Oregon model does neither.