Industry recycles arguments against better water quality

Re: “Water standards must balance human needs” (editorial, 4-14).

The standards are too strict. It will hurt the economy. The scientific evidence is wrong. The technology doesn’t exist to make it happen.

Those are some of the arguments that opponents of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act told Congress when just a few years before rivers back east were catching fire from high levels of pollution.

But you know what? It turns out the standards weren’t too strict after all. The economy did not collapse. The science was right all along. Regulation led to innovations in water treatment that made the new standards possible. We have all benefitted from this kind of forward thinking.

Today we look back and shake our heads in disbelief that anyone would oppose improved water quality. None of us would be willing to give up the improvements to our water and our health that came from the Clean Water Act.

But that’s just what’s happening here in Washington, and polluters are still using those same false arguments to justify their opposition.

In this case it’s the state’s fish consumption rate. It’s part of a formula that the state uses to set the allowable amount of pollution coming out of industrial and municipal pipes. The formula considers how poisonous the pollution is, whether it accumulates in our bodies over time and our risk of getting cancer from those pollutants.

Gov. Jay Inslee is considering an increase in the 40-year-old rate that the state admits does not protect most of who live here. Those of us who support a more accurate rate stand to gain nothing except improved public health. But some Washington businesses like Boeing earn millions by keeping the standards lower and are fighting increased health protection for everyone who lives here.

Opponents point to Oregon as a worst-case scenario. In 2011, Oregon adopted the most protective fish consumption rate in the country. As you would expect, business and industry trotted out all of the same old excuses. Yet Oregon is still in business, and everyone who lives there has received increased health benefits.

That’s because clean water regulations are phased in over a long time. They include provisions to ensure that the law is implemented in a way that is practical and achievable.

The state has been putting off a decision on revised water-quality standards for decades, largely in response to threats from industry that they will take their business elsewhere if water-quality standards are raised.

That sort of blackmail is a crime against everyone who lives here. These waterways that they are polluting belong to all of us. They are not business and industry’s private sewers.

Billy Frank Jr. is a Nisqually tribal member and chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.