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Inslee Pushes Water Quality Rules To Match EPA Recommendations

A file photo of a member of Puget Sound's Swinomish tribe participating in a ceremonial salmon blessing. Northwest tribes are holding vigils along the Columbia River to pray for the return of salmon
Katie Campbell
A file photo of a member of Puget Sound's Swinomish tribe participating in a ceremonial salmon blessing. Northwest tribes are holding vigils along the Columbia River to pray for the return of salmon

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday the state is pursuing clean water rules that match federal recommendations for protecting human health.

Inslee said he would direct the Washington Department of Ecology to draft a new clean water rules that reduce pollution enough for people to safely eat more fish from Washington waters. The proposed rule is based on a fish consumption rate of 175 grams per person per day and an allowable cancer risk of one in one million.

Those numbers come from a September proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency, which told the state it would issue federal rules on Washington’s water quality if the state did not act.

“People will conclude this is the right approach for the state of Washington, both for our children, and for our jobs, and our industries, and our manufacturing sites and our local governments,” Inslee told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

Inslee’s new proposal, a direct response to the EPA, would allow the state to avoid further federal regulation of industry and local governments responsible for reducing water pollution.

Inslee said the state rules would be less stringent and offer more flexibility around implementation of the new requirements and around pollution without a single source, such as toxic chemicals that end up in rivers, lakes and Puget Sound from rainwater runoff rather than specific pipes from industry.

“I have heard from many businesses and many local governments that they have wanted to have one principal fundamental focus: ‘Maintain our own decision making. Do not throw us to the tender mercies of the federal government, with an inflexible rule,’” Inslee said.

A spokesman for Boeing, one major employer in the region that resisted previous attempts to tighten clean water rules for fish consumption, said the company had not yet had a chance to review Inslee’s proposal.

“We continue to support a standard that protects human health and the environment, while at the same time allowing for the growth of our business and the state’s economy as a whole,” Boeing spokesman Tom Kim said in an email.

Washington’s current water quality standards for contaminants such as mercury and PCBs assume people in the state consume roughly 6.5 grams of fish per day. That amounts to two full fish servings per month. However, surveys and studies have shown some groups in the state can consume anywhere between 200 and 800 grams of fish per day -- especially among Native American and immigrant populations.

The rules put forth by Inslee and previously by the EPA match a standard fish consumption rate adopted in Oregon in 2011, which is the most protective in the country.

Earlier this year, environmental groups forced the hand of the EPA when they threatened to sue the agency over the issue of fish consumption and allowable pollution levels.

Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper, said he was pleased to see the fish consumption standard and allowable cancer risk in Inslee’s announcement matched the EPA’s numbers. Puget Soundkeeper was one of the groups that filed a lawsuit against the EPA.

But, Wilke said, Inslee’s promises of flexibility for industry raise concern among environmental groups that it could mean decades before the state forces polluters to comply with the new standards.

“It’s going to be a hollow victory unless we can actually get to implementation.

Wilke said. “It needs to be on as short a time frame as possible.”

Washington has been considering an increase to the state’s fish consumption level for years.

The state nearly revised the standard under Governor Gregoire. According to reporting by InvestigateWest, the Department of Ecology scrapped years of work on revising the rules after complaints about the more stringent water quality standards.

Inslee previously proposed a change to the fish consumption rate and clean water rules last year, but it failed to pass the state Legislature.

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Tony Schick