Aim for middle ground on water quality standards

The OlympianMay 29, 2014 

The Pacific Northwest regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency is leaning hard on the state Department of Ecology to dramatically raise water quality standards to protect Washington residents from pollutants ingested by fish.

Since people in Washington eat more fish than those in most other states, this makes sense.

But it has placed Gov. Jay Inslee and state agencies between the competing interests of environmental groups and a coalition of business and local governments.

The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 (CWA) established a national goal to eliminate the presence of toxic substances in rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands and the ocean.

After a 1980 nationwide survey, the Environmental Protect Agency set the U.S. fish consumption rate at 6.5 grams per day, about a half-pound per month. Washington and many other states incorporated that rate into their water quality standards, which are supposed to be revised every three years.

And it inexplicably remains at that same level today, despite pressure from the EPA and a 20 percent increase in fish consumption since 1980.

It’s a shameful abrogation of responsibility for the health of Washington residents that the Department of Ecology has attempted to remedy for the past several years.

Environmental groups want the DOE to adopt a fish consumption rate about 25 times higher. They point to Oregon, which adopted the nation’s highest rate of 175 grams per day, or about a 6-ounce serving of fish every day of the year.

The state Department of Health recommends eating two servings of fish per week. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, the U.S. average fish consumption rate has been slightly declining since 2006.

Industry argues that such a high estimate would require significant and costly upgrades for businesses and municipal sewage discharge systems, such as the LOTT Clean Water Alliance in Thurston County. In some cases, the technology doesn’t even exist to meet such a high standard.

The city of Bellingham has estimated it would have to increase monthly sewage bills to homeowners from $35 to $200.

Over the past 60 years, the growing body of Earth science has led us to an acute awareness about the impact humankind is making on our planet. Realizing the finite nature of resources that sustain life on Earth, people have gradually warmed to the idea of applying ecologically sound practices to personal and commercial behavior.

Not everyone has fully embraced the concept of sustainable living, however, so tensions rise between those who advocate for stricter regulations to pull us back from the precipice of environmental doom, and those happy to go on polluting in short-sighted oblivion.

In nearly every case, the best path lies somewhere between the extremes. We need regulations strict enough to protect the health of all Washington citizens, but with enough flexibility to allow time to adapt to more stringent limits and perhaps time for new water treatment technologies to be developed.

Inslee has formed a task force to advise him on this issue. It should result in directing the state Department of Ecology to aim for this middle ground in finally revising its water pollution standards.

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