OLYMPIA - Gov. Jay Inslee this week announced his proposed update to the state’s water quality standards, saying he worked until he found a solution that advanced the values of human, environmental and economic health.
The federal Clean Water Act requires states to establish water quality standards. State regulators use those standards to set limits for certain pollutants discharged by permitted dischargers, such as local governments and some businesses.
Inslee said Washington’s current standards were established in 1992 and focus on controlling pollution coming out of large pipes from large facilities. Inslee said the standards are out of date and the federal approach to clean water is inadequate to address today’s threats to clean water.
“It is clear to me that Washington state needs to reach beyond the confines of our historical regulatory approaches and recognize how water pollution has changed in the 40 years since the Clean Water Act became law,” Inslee said.
“Forty years ago we were fighting big pipes spewing toxic contaminants into our water.
“We’ve come a long way since then in getting that kind of pollution under control,” said Inslee.
“Today the majority of toxic pollution comes from chemicals that are used to make so much of what we use today, from the brakes on our cars to the flame retardants in our furniture,” he continued.
Inslee explained the primary purpose of the Clean Water Act is to ensure water is safe for its intended uses. He said the standards - which apply to just 96 out of tens of thousands of chemicals in daily commerce - include calculations for multiple factors, including theoretical cancer risk rates and how much fish Washingtonians consume. The federal government provides some leeway to states in determining these numbers, Inslee added, which have been the subject of public debate.
Current standards assume Washingtonians consume 6.5 grams of fish per day, or about one serving per month. There is widespread agreement that many people in the state consume much more fish than this, but disagreement about whether the new rule should account for the highest-consumers - such as Native Americans or those who fish for recreation. The higher the fish consumption rate, the more stringent water quality rules become for businesses and local governments, said Inslee.
Inslee said the current standards also assume a theoretical cancer risk rate of 10-6, meaning that if a person were to eat a 6.5 gram serving of fish from Washington waters every day for 70 years, he or she would have a 1 in 1 million chance of developing cancer.
“Many people have seen the mandate to update our water quality standards as a choice between protecting human health or protecting the economy.
“I reject that choice because both values are essential to our future,” Inslee said.
Inslee’s proposal updates Washington’s water quality standards to be more protective of those who consume 175 grams of fish per day - an increase from one serving per month to one serving per day.
A separate approach, said Inslee, will be used for arsenic, a naturally occurring element in waters throughout the state. Because the current standard for arsenic is set below levels that occur naturally in much of the surface and ground water, the governor proposes using the federal drinking water standard for arsenic.
Inslee said Washingtonians’ actual risk to cancer and other harmful effects will be reduced by this proposal.
The governor also proposed new implementation rules that he said will make it possible for businesses and municipalities to comply with the more stringent requirements.
But Inslee said the state must also act on the many toxic chemicals from other unregulated sources that the Clean Water Act doesn’t address. Inslee said he is calling on the legislators next year to pass a toxics reduction bill as part of the state’s submittal to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A toxics reduction bill, Inslee said, would give state officials the tools to tackle pollutants at their source and make meaningful improvements in the health “…of our water, our fish and our children.”
Inslee is directing the Department of Ecology to issue a preliminary draft rule no later than Sept. 30 of this year.
He said he will submit legislation to the state legislature in 2015 and will make a decision on whether to adopt the final rule only after seeing the outcome of the session.